October Issue 2018
Valley of Darkness
Tangir Valley, in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Diamer district, is barely a 90-minute drive from the Karakoram Highway, one of the world’s highest paved roads that links Pakistan with China. The valley is surrounded by tall mountains and lush green trees. A fresh water stream gushes along the main street in the town. On a sunny August afternoon, you can see scores of out-of-school boys taking a dip in the river or lounging around on smooth rocks under a clear blue sky.
The picturesque valley could have been a popular tourist destination. But for decades, this remote region has remained impoverished and lawless. Conservative tribal customs dominate every aspect of life here. Bearded men, some of them carrying Kalashnikovs, stare blankly at you. They don’t necessarily appear hostile, just unsure of what to make of unfamiliar visitors.
The mood reflects the anxiety and fear after the recent attempt by militants to burn down several local schools. The attacks of August 3 took place at night, within a span of few hours. In all, about 14 schools were targeted in the vast mountainous district of Diamer. As the schools were shut at the time, no one was hurt. But the coordinated attacks sent shockwaves across the wider region.
Among the targeted buildings was Gali Bala – a girls’ school. It was set up under the Social Action Programme (SAP) with the help of Mohammed Siddique, a local community leader. A retired school headmaster, he is a thin fellow with a long grey beard. He covers his head with a traditional woollen hat. On this visit, he leads me through a narrow alley of his family homes, to show me the now defunct school building.
While the concrete structure still stands, its wooden fixtures have been reduced to ashes. “This school had the best furniture,” he tells me while picking up a piece of coal. “About a hundred girls attend.” How big of a loss is it for girls’ education? I ask him. He looks away from me as his eyes well up. “The loss is irreparable. You can’t imagine it,” he says. After a long pause, he adds: “They say without education, you cannot recognise God. How can a woman who has never been to school, raise her children and bring up a decent family?” he asks.
It’s not the first time that girls’ education has been targeted in the district. Similar attacks in the past forced girls to stay indoors and restrict themselves to domestic work. Islamic clerics played a major role in propagating a self-serving orthodox version of Islam, asking people to keep their daughters away from schools. As a result, enrolment and the quality of education in Diamer is ranked among the lowest in the country.
In recent years, however, there’s been a notable shift in attitudes. A rise in travel, connectivity and exposure, means that more people want to educate their young, be it boys or girls. In the immediate aftermath of the latest attacks, for the first time the community organised street protests to denounce the violence. They demanded protection for schools and tough action against the culprits.
The regional government has asserted that it prioritises girls’ education. Additional security has been deployed to protect schools. With cooperation from the community and tribal elders, police say they are hunting down the culprits.
But Malik Mohammed Miskeen, a veteran politician and tribal leader, says it won’t be so easy. “Those who did this are not ordinary criminals,” he says. Miskeen served as the speaker of the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly under General (R) Pervez Musharraf’s rule. He says he’s been around long enough to know how deep-rooted the problem is.
“These guys were once radicalised armed and trained in our Jihadi camps. Many of them were sent to fight in Afghanistan and in Indian-administered Kashmir,” he says. Miskeen lost a nephew, Arif Hussain, a policeman, to the militants last month in a security operation. It followed an attempt to kill his son, Malik Inayat, a senior district judge, while he was on his way to attend the deceased policeman’s funeral. Luckily, he came out of it unscathed.
Of late, Miskeen too has received death threats for organising a local jirga against the violence and for helping the police.
“Unfortunately, our security institutions have tolerated these miscreants for far too long and this has only emboldened them,” he says.
Who precisely are these militants and what do they want?
Security officials in Gilgit-Baltistan have identified four separate, but possibly inter-linked armed groups, who are driving the militancy in and around Diamer district. The first group, led by Shah Faisal, is said to be active in Darel Valley. The mountains of Thak are believed to serve as a base for a second sectarian outfit, led by a militant who calls himself Mandela. His group is accused of launching a genocide against Shia Muslims. A third group was led by Commander Khalilur Rehman. He was recently killed by the Gilgit-Baltistan police in a fierce gun battle.
The fourth group – believed to be behind the recent attacks in Tangir Valley – is headed by Commander Hameed. He is a protégé of Maulana Mehtar Jan, an influential cleric who was once patronised by the Pakistan Army to support jihad in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir. The cleric was highly influential, but kept a low profile. The man who led the recruitment and radicalisation from the front in Tangir Valley, was Maulana Shahzada Khan. For decades, he ran one of the biggest madrassas in the area, preaching jihad and providing weapons-training to volunteers who wanted to take part in cross-border fighting. The madrassa was in the village, and the training camp on a mountain-top near the village of Rim.
The clerics provided a steady stream of radicalised youth. But then, 9/11 happened. Musharraf came under a lot of pressure to crack down on the Taliban and other militant groups. Finally, in 2003, the Pakistan Army sent in troops and helicopters to demolish the training ground. It was done after sending out a warning in advance. The place was vacated. No loss of life was reported. But the change in policy at the top angered Maulana Shahzada and his supporters. To them, jihad was a sacred duty and the state was betraying them by equating their holy war with terrorism, arguably under American pressure.
Maulana Shahzada and Maulana Mehtar Jan are no more – they died a few years ago. But the bitterness they felt towards the government has endured. Their next generation of jihadis isn’t focused on Afghanistan or India. They want to fight at home. Attacking soft targets symbolising state institutions is their way of getting back at their former benefactors, the military.
It is evident that the militancy in Diamer is primarily home-grown and a consequence of Pakistan’s historical reliance on jihadi infrastructure for its foreign policy goals. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the violence against schools, security officials encouraged the local media to blame the attacks on foreign backing – ostensibly from elements in Afghanistan and India.
“It’s a typical cop-out,” says the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Hafiz Hafizur Rehman. “I don’t believe in externalising our internal security and intelligence failures.” He feels that the root-causes of the violence in Diamer are local. “For decades, we divided these people into tribes. We pushed them against the wall. We failed to invest in their development,” he says. “The people of Diamer are paying the price of our misguided past policies,” he continues. “But our government is determined that together with other institutions of state, we will do everything we can to bring peace and prosperity to the region.”
It is true that the overall security situation in Pakistan has improved significantly in the last few years. But if the country wants to defeat the monsters it once helped create, it would need to root out extremism and militancy of all shades. Like the folks of Tangir Valley, most Pakistanis want a better future for their children. It would be hard to achieve durable peace and prosperity at home unless we learn to live in harmony with our neighbours.
“The root causes of this violence are mostly indigenous” – Hafiz Hafizur RehmanChief Minister, Gilgit-Baltistan
Q: Some officials have described the recent wave of violence as an attack on CPEC, ostensibly orchestrated by elements across the border. Is there any hard evidence to support this assertion?
A: There’s little doubt that our neighbours have a strong interest in this region. But as the chief executive of this region, I have yet to come across anything to confirm such conspiracy theories. It has become an unfortunate practice these days to readily blame every major act of violence on [the Indian] RAW. It’s usually an excuse to brush things under the carpet, instead of conducting a proper investigation. I strongly disagree with that approach. The fact remains that the rootcauses of this violence are mostly indigenous and directly linked to how we have treated this region historically.
Q: Precisely what, in your view, went wrong?
A: The ground realities speak for themselves. Our past policies to support the Afghan jihad and the Kashmir jihad in the eighties and the nineties are still catching up with us. We exploited tribal differences, and then pushed them against the wall. We didn’t promote education. We kept them deprived of socio-economic development. Instead, clerics in Diamer who opposed education and supported jihad were well respected and entertained by state institutions. Most of those people are no longer alive, but their remnants are still with us. It gave birth to a certain mindset. And every now and then, they try to remind us of their presence through their cowardly acts of violence.
..mostly by attacking schools?
Yes. Schools were set ablaze in 2002, in 2009 and then again in 2011. But unfortunately, no proper investigation was carried out. There was hardly any national outrage against these incidents – partly because the country was more focused on fighting terrorism across the country.
What has your government done to promote education?
When the PML-N government came in, we looked closely at Diamer’s education record. What we found was that people would not send girls to schools only a few kilometers away because of safety concerns amidst tribal enmities. So we came up with the concept of “home schools,” which tend to be more discreet and at their doorstep. We set up 75 such new schools. The response was positive. The community, including religious clerks, welcomed it. We then started working on establishing middle schools for every three primary schools and a high school for every six middle schools.
Of the 14 schools that were targeted in August, only four were functional. The rest were either under construction or nearing completion. Since the attacks, I have ordered that these schools be rebuilt on a priority basis and made operational.
Q: What do we know about the culprits?
A: Our initial investigation shows that they are local, with possible links in Afghanistan. Many of them are wanted by the state for acts of terror. The good thing is they are few in numbers – probably not more than a 100 – and they are isolated. They have no support in the community. They hide in the mountains along the Karakoram Highway, into Swat and then further on into Afghanistan. But the tribes are fully cooperating with the government and security forces to defeat them. Tribal elders have already surrendered many of the suspects wanted by police.
Q: Would there be a need to expand the military’s presence in the region?
A: I don’t think so. There was a time GB governments relied heavily on the army to take care of law and order situations. But our police force is performing courageously. They have laid down their lives, but their morale is high. In Tangir, they killed Shafiqur Rehman, son of the late Maulana Shahzada Khan, in a gun battle. In a subsequent militant attack on a police checkpost 40 kilometers from Gilgit City, they fought back bravely and killed two of attackers, including a leading terrorist.
We all recognise that civilian law enforcement must take the lead. The army and the intelligence services are fully supportive of our efforts. But counter-terrorism requires investing in training and resources – modern weapons and policing vehicles. At the moment, our efforts are hampered by the fact that we don’t have a single surveillance helicopter for this vast mountainous region.