Gilgit-Baltistan: decidedly odd—and devastating 24 June 2013
The attack early on Sunday 23 June against foreigners in the Diamer area of Gilgit-Baltistan in disputed Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is decidedly odd—and devastating. The situation is not yet fully clear, but up to 20 ‘gunmen’ shot and killed eleven people, one Pakistani and ten foreigners, near the 8,126 metre Nanga Parbat peak. Some of the dead apparently were soon going to attempt to climb this Himalayan peak, which is the ninth highest in the world.
The gunmen were well organised and motivated. Because of the area of attack’s remoteness and rugged terrain, there are limited routes into, and out of, the Diamer (or western) face to Nanga Parbat. Indeed, to reach this location requires a helicopter flight or at least 18 hours trekking, both of which involve the requirement to be acclimatised. The attackers apparently wore the uniform of the local Gilgit Scouts. Taken together, these factors suggest that the gunmen were fit, resilient and well-equipped, that they had some sort of plan for entry and egress, and that they had some degree of local knowledge and support. One question is support from whom?
So far, the gunmen have not been found, a disturbing factor for some Pakistani and local tour operators who consider that this area, because of its isolation, could be cordoned and searched, with human movement from the air apparently relatively easy to spot, and the perpetrators possibly found.
It seems that the attackers may have been operatives from the Pakistan Taliban, as a spokesman from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban) claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was to obtain revenge against US drone strikes, including one that recently killed this organisation’s deputy chief, Waliur Rehman.
This revenge aspect is surprising. First, the Pakistani Taliban generally operates in north-western Pakistan. Second, possibly only one of foreigners killed was a United States citizen of Chinese descent and with dual citizenship, while two were from the People’s Republic of China, with which nation Pakistan has a strong relationship that Islamabad would not want to jeopardise. The other foreigners apparently were citizens from Nepal (one), Lithuania (one), Slovakia (two) and Ukraine (three). Of these nations, Nepal and China have never been directly involved supporting the United States, which is responsible for the anti-Taliban drone strikes that have afflicted the Af-Pak border area as part of its strategy to placate Afghanistan. Third, there were foreign targets, or places where foreigners frequent, that are much easier to attack than the remote Nanga Parbat area.
A further odd aspect of the attack is that locals and tourist operators have blamed unstated ‘enemies of Pakistan, who are “well-known” ’ to them. They believe that these ‘enemies’ are not from the Gilgit-Baltistan area given that some 250,000 people apparently rely on tourism and would not want to see its hampered locally (see http://pamirtimes.net/2013/06/23/massacre-near-nanga-parbat-pato-demands-arrest-of-terrorists-behind-tourist-killing/).
The term ‘enemies of Pakistan’ could refer to Indian forces who certainly would have the capabilities to mount such an attack. However, media reporting and public statements, plus the probable route used by the invaders, suggest otherwise. So too does the fact that foreigners were blatantly killed, which, to me, does not suggest direct Indian involvement. Such an operation would be too dangerous politically, diplomatically and militarily.
Reading between the lines and given that these ‘enemies’ are non-local, they possibly could be anti-Shia Sunni radicals ‘imported’ into the region and/or allowed to covertly live there who previously have engaged in some serious and unsavoury sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan, including by attacking Shia passengers on buses that ply major roads that traverse this region. Possibly, these elements may be under the tutelage and control of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and might be on standby for use against India in J&K. However, a conundrum is why they would be used in the way that they have been. One possible answer is that they went ‘rogue’ and undertook an unapproved mission of their own volition. It remains to be seen.
There are two devastating aspect of the attack. First, people involved in tourism in both Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan now will suffer a downturn in visitors. Visits to Nanga Parbat have now been suspended. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) already advises people considering travel to ‘Border areas with Afghanistan and India (excluding Lahore, Kasur and Narowal)’ to ‘Do Not Travel’. Indeed, at a time when moderate Pakistanis—who comprise the overwhelming bulk of the Pakistan nation—need to be embraced and empowered, politically, economically, culturally, socially and diplomatically, DFAT’s Travel Warning for Pakistan states: “We continue to strongly advise Australians to reconsider their need to travel to Pakistan overall due to the very high threat of terrorist attack, kidnapping, sectarian violence and the unpredictable security situation”. Many potential tourists now fear that Pakistan is far too dangerous a place to visit. This is very tragic. There are risks involved travelling to Pakistan, but this warning, which is typical of those of Western governments, suggest that the terrorists are winning in Pakistan.
Second, while Gilgit-Baltistan is not under Pakistan’s de jure control, it is certainly under Pakistan’s de facto control. This incident is a real signal to the new Nawaz Sharif-led Government that Pakistan has some major problems with anti-social elements, especially those located in remote areas, including in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Baluchistan. For Islamabad, these various terrorists will take a sustained effort, much policy creativity and considerable time to defeat.
24 June 2013