Fear or Aspiration: The Future of Climbing in the Karakoram?


In the aftermath of the Nanga Parbat attack, Swedish alpinist and conflict dynamics analyst David Falt looks at some of the potential risks and possibilities for the future of Karakoram mountaineering and peace in northern Pakistan.

A spokesperson for the TTP told the AFP news agency that the killings at Nanga Parbat were revenge for the death of one of their leaders, Maulvi Wali ur-Rehman, in an American drone strike. He added that the TTP had set up a new branch to attack foreigners. According to survivors' accounts, some of the attackers stated, instead, that they were avenging Osama bin Laden. When trying to understand what kind of specific group is behind such attacks, it's important not to attribute too much credibility to publicly made claims, which sometimes contradict reality, while solid on-the-ground intelligence often goes unpublished. The US drone strikes in the FATA region have killed a number of notable anti-state militants, disrupted supply lines and reduced the militant groups' operational capabilities. They have also resulted in the deaths of Pakistani civilians, and they have increased anti-American sentiment in parts of the country. Because the Pakistani government has been perceived as complicit in the strikes, they have helped insurgents recruit new members. Looked at as a whole, however, the roots of broader conflicts go beyond the drone strikes, becoming entangled with issues of domestic power balances, as well as modern shifts in geopolitical tensions, international trade and relations.

The Ghosts of History

The modern history of Pakistan is marked by years of interweaving conflicts and changing alliances. In 1947, after the end of British colonial rule, the Partition of India left unresolved border disputes between the newly independent and separate countries of Pakistan and India. Battles flared up in the mountain areas of Kashmir, such as the Siachen Glacier region, where soldiers fought at elevations as high as 6700 meters, struggling not only against each other, but also against the cold, the altitude, high winds, avalanches and crevasses. And over the next decades, the Pakistani military often relied on insurgent groups to support its geopolitical aims. During the last stages of the Cold War in the 1980s, the CIA ran a huge operation out of Pakistan from the northern border with China all the way south along the edge of Afghanistan. Together, the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provided insurgents with vast amounts of arms, cash and training to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, paying little attention to the rising extremism of their temporary mujahedeen allies. After the Soviet withdrawal and the dissolution of various proxy fighting groups, little was done to control the arms that had been given to these militants—weapons that they still possess today (See Ghost Wars, Steve Coll, 2004).


During the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, other proxy fighters arrived from many parts of the Arabian Peninsula to support the Afghan Taliban against the Northern Alliance and the West. Some of the jihadist groups later migrated across the border to Pakistan, where they joined various militants regrouping for future attacks. As several organizations turned violently against the Pakistani state, the government shifted to a multifaceted policy that has included attempts to drive the anti-state insurgents, such as the TTP (formed in 2007), from certain parts of Pakistan, fighting against them in places like FATA and the Swat Valley, while continuing to spare some of the other militant groups (Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 2012; see also Stephen Tankel, "Domestic Barriers to Dismantling the Militant Infrastructure in Pakistan," Peaceworks 89, United States Institute of Peace, September 2013). Now, in the past few weeks, announcements by members of the current Pakistani government have indicated a desire to try to open cease-fire talks with the TTP—a move that has resulted in much uncertainty and debate after the suicide and car bombings that killed dozens of people in Peshawar this autumn.

A village in Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. Many of Pakistan's top climbers have come from this area, which includes Shimshal, known as "the Valley of Mountaineers." [Photo] Kate Brooks

Some commentators have argued that the militants are operating on the margins of their comfort zone when they strike in Gilgit-Baltistan. It's also possible that we may be seeing a more-significant migration of fighters from the Swat Valley and other conflicted parts of the country [See Steve Swenson's blog—Ed.]. Gilgit-Baltistan is a huge region, including 72,971 square kilometers of land. Its ca. 1.2 million people belong to diverse cultures and ethnic groups, and the majority still live in rural areas. Many of its residents have a long tradition of hospitality to visitors, and much of the region has appeared relatively peaceful. Yet security issues can vary greatly in different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. And as the mountaineering writer Amanda Padoan, author of Buried in the Sky, points out in an email to Alpinist, "A distinction has to be made between Nanga Parbat's region and the Baltoro, the region of K2, GI, GII and Broad Peak. The Baltoro is a region of military bases, patrolled by the Pakistan Army due to the nearby Siachen conflict. Nanga Parbat is comparatively isolated and poses higher risks and a different security analysis, particularly for the mountain's western flank."

Because of the border conflicts between India and Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan itself is a disputed area under international law. Its residents are still unable to vote in Pakistan's national elections, and some feel marginalized from the rest of the country. In a USIP Special Report on "Conflict Dynamics in Gilgit-Baltistan," published in January 2013, Izhar Hunzai, former CEO of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, pointed out:

Gilgit-Baltistan is ideally situated for trade and commerce...[yet] its geography also makes it vulnerable to spillover of conflicts from active militant movements in the surrounding areas.... The disputed status of Gilgit-Baltistan and prolonged direct rule from [the national capital of] Islamabad has not only resulted in limited space for political participation and blunted institutional development, but also prevented development of local resources, such as hydropower and minerals.... Lack of employment opportunities also appear to be contributing to sectarian violence and crime. Among the external factors are...spillover effects of extremism [from other areas].... While unlocking Gilgit-Baltistan from its physical isolation and ushering in economic opportunity, the [Karakoram] highway has also increased Gilgit-Baltistan's vulnerability to new threats.

For a long time, Sunni and Shia residents had mostly lived in peace in this predominately Shia region. Then in 1975 gunmen fired shots at a Shia Muharrum procession in Gilgit, resulting in the first deaths from modern sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan. Since the mid-1980s, scattered outbreaks of sectarian attacks have escalated around the towns of Gilgit and Chilas. In February 2012, in the Kohistan District, to the southwest of Gilgit-Baltistan, Sunni extremist militants halted buses that were headed to Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway. After checking the identity cards of the travelers, they killed eighteen Shias. Two months later, a similar incident took place: gunmen pulled Shia passengers from buses on the Babusar road near Chilas and killed them. The TTP claimed responsibility, but no perpetrators were convicted, and many Gilgit-Baltistan residents criticized the Pakistani government for failing to deliver justice. (At the time that this article is posted, it remains to be proven definitively whether any of the suspects of the Nanga Parbat murderers were also directly involved in the bus attacks.) "According to one estimate," writes Stephen Tankel, a professor at American University who specializes in terrorism and insurgency studies, "the highest conviction rate between 2005 and 2011 for terrorism cases was 28 percent, with an annual average for those cases of barely more than 18 percent" (Tankel, USIP, citing "Anti-terrorism Law in Pakistan," Zulfiqar Hameed, Social Science and Policy Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2012).

The Million-Dollar Question

American researcher Brian Jenkins once famously declared that "terrorism is theater," the act a means to try to convey an agenda through violent images that are often spread by the media that records them. But as the anthropologists Ingo W. Schroder and Bettina E. Schmidt argue, "the symbolic dimension of violence, on the other hand, may also backfire against its perpetrators"; groups targeted by terrorists can respond with their own, more-powerful interpretations of the event, and their stories can subvert and overwhelm those of the terrorists (Anthropology of Violence and Conflict, 2001).

Carrying signs with slogans such as We want justice, We want peace, We're sorry we couldn't save them and We condemn the brutal killings, thousands of Pakistanis participated in candlelight vigils and protests across Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as in Islamabad, Karachi and other cities, expressing their solidarity with the families of the Nanga Parbat victims and demanding that the Pakistani government crack down on terrorist groups. Manzoor Hussain, President of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, wrote open letters to climbing organizations around the world: "We still suffer through shock and grief, and are traumatized on the brutal massacre of ten guest mountaineers and one local support staff by these enemies of humanity." Zahid Rajput, a mountain guide who runs Khurpa Care, a training and advocacy NGO for low-altitude porters, explains, "This is not just the killing of climbers, but the economic killing of the people of the region." Gilgit-Baltistan activist Zaeem Zia declared in an Express Tribune editorial:

How these innocent travelers [killed on Nanga Parbat] are related to drone strikes is beyond me.... These [crimes] are not reflective of the people we are. If this incident is ignored like the incidents in the past...[such as the killings of the Shia bus passengers] then the locals have every reason to doubt the sincerity of the security agencies within the region....

Since then, writers and journalists across the country have referred to foreign climbers as "the ambassadors of Pakistan" and denounced the attack as an assault on a particular vision of the nation. "Mountaineering expeditions," declared the political commentator Moeed Pirzada who works for the government-run PTV news channel, "provided the oxygen of positive publicity to this country," a means to be part of "an international narrative." While in the past, the national government had largely ignored mountaineering, after Nanga Parbat the pursuit now appeared increasingly tied to larger concerns of domestic security and geopolitical relations.

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