Pakistan Travel and the Nanga Parbat Attack - Background Information

© Steve Swenson

In this article, Piolet d'Or winning climber and experienced writer Steve Swenson explores the background and the politics behind the unrest in Pakistan that led to the murder of ten climbers at the Nanga Parbat base camp last month.

I've been on eleven climbing expeditions to Pakistan. Although the Country has been destabilised by the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, sectarian violence, and a growing insurgency, I have always told my family and friends that the areas where we go climbing are safe. The Karakoram and Himalayan mountains in northeastern Pakistan are stunningly beautiful, and contain a significant number of the world's greatest mountains including K2, the world's second highest. They attract mountaineers and trekkers from all over the world, and were a safe haven from the terrorist violence that has afflicted other parts of Pakistan. All that changed on June 22nd, when Pakistani militants killed ten mountain climbers at the Nanga Parbat base camp. I will try to summarise the events that led to these killings and how this might affect mountaineering and trekking groups in the future.

The victims of this attack were climbing Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world which is located in the Province of Gilgit Baltistan in northeast Pakistan. Gilgit Baltistan is well to the north and east of the Afghan border areas in Balochistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), or Kyber Pakhtunkwa (KPK) where most of the militant violence has occurred. Much of this violence is associated with the war in Afghanistan and a very porous border between the two countries.

Pakistan and Kashmir

Gilgit Baltistan is part of a larger historical region called Kashmir that is currently divided between the nations of China, India, and Pakistan.  Kashmir is comprised of the brown shaded areas in the above map.  The light brown areas, including Gilgit Baltistan, are the areas of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan.  Several wars have been fought between India and Pakistan, and one between India and China over ownership of Kashmir.  This 66 year old dispute is one of the leading causes of political instability in South Asia.

Besides Kashmir, the other more familiar and major source of political instability is the conflict over control of Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled in 1989.  The Afghan Taliban (Pashtun Sunni Muslims from the south) took control of most of the country in 1996 from warlords who had been fighting each other since the Soviets had left.  The Taliban implemented a very strict form of Sharia Law and also harboured jihadist groups like Al Qaeda (Sunni Arabs) run by Osama bin Laden who planned the 9/11 attack on the US.  After 9/11, the Afghan Taliban would not eliminate this safe haven for Al Qaeda so the US allied itself with several northern tribes that had not been conquered.  This Northern Alliance, with support from the US, defeated the Taliban, forcing them to flee Afghanistan.  Pakistan had been an early supporter of the Afghan Taliban as a way to gain influence and power in Afghanistan so they allowed them to escape across their border into FATA and KPK.  The Afghan Taliban were heavily armed and experienced fighters and created their own semi-autonomous areas within FATA and KPK by eliminating the traditional Pakistan Government run tribal rule and replacing it with Sharia Law similar to how they governed Afghanistan in 1996-2001.  With most of these areas no longer under government control, disaffected fundamentalist Pakistanis allied themselves with the Afghan Taliban and formed their own extremist groups known as the Pakistan Taliban.

The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban groups were influenced by the Arab Al Qaeda members who were also pushed into Pakistan after 9/11.  The Al Qaeda influence caused the Taliban to became more interested in the Global Islamic Jihad, and their goals began to diverge from those of their Pakistani benefactors who had been using them as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Taliban killed tribal leaders and government agents when they took control and radicalised these areas within FATA and PKP.  These groups had now became a threat and the Pakistan Government engaged in several military campaigns to regain control of areas within FATA and PKP.  This resulted in thousands of civilian, militant, and security personnel deaths. 

Kyber Pakhtunkwa and FATA

The Army invaded the Swat District in KPK twice in 2009 to regain control.  In what has been called the First and Second Battles of Swat, the Pakistan Army defeated the Taliban, but the fighting caused over 2.2 million refugees to flee the District.  Many Taliban fighters escaped from the Army disguised as refugees.
A number of Taliban that fled the Swat Valley went to the Diamir district in Gilgit Baltistan close to Nanga Parbat.  The Capital of this district in GB is Chilas which sits on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) connecting Pakistan to China.  Trekkers and climbers regularly travel the KKH to get to the towns of Gilgit and Skardu.  These towns are the jumping off point for expeditions into the heart of the Karakoram Mountains further to the north and east. 

Districts in Gilgit Baltistan - The Diamir District is the peach coloured area on the bottom
After the Taliban had infiltrated the Diamir District, the KKH became more dangerous so climbers and trekkers opted to fly from Islamabad to Gilgit and Skardu which were still relatively safe towns for foreigners.  The destination for these trekkers and climbers was the Karakoram Mountains which are located north and east of Gilgit and Skardu along the boundary with China.  These mountains are far away from any militant activity and adventure travellers who went there felt completely safe.
K2 from high on Broad Peak in 1987  © Steve Swenson
K2 from high on Broad Peak in 1987

But Nanga Parbat is different.  It is not technically part of the Karakoram Mountains since it is located to the south on the other side of the Indus River in the Astore District immediately east of Chilas.  The normal route on Nanga Parbat is up the Diamir Valley which, as I have mentioned, has been subject to Taliban infiltration since the 2001 American invasion in Afghanistan and the 2009 battles in Swat. 

Before the recent attacks, the Taliban in the Diamir District had left the foreigners pretty much alone.  In 2004 I was on an expedition in the Karakoram near the Chinese border where I ran into some German climbers who had recently been trekking in the Diamir Valley near Nanga Parbat.  They told me a story about sitting around a campfire with some of the locals and the conversation turned to whether there were Taliban in the area.  On of the locals turned to them and said nonchalantly, "we are the Taliban".  These valleys are so steep and rugged that the situation in an adjacent valley can be completely different.  On that same trip we went to climb Nanga Parbat, but from the Rupal Valley on the opposite side of the peak.  From what we could tell, there were no Taliban there.

Mazeno Ridge, Nanga Parbat - Doug Chabot and Steve Swenson did the 1st ascent to the Mazeno col with Nanga Parbat  © Doug Scott
Mazeno Ridge, Nanga Parbat - Doug Chabot and Steve Swenson did the 1st ascent to the Mazeno col with Nanga Parbat
© Doug Scott

Tensions in the region have been heightened recently as the US and NATO are about to pull most of their forces from Afghanistan.  This pending power vacuum incites the various militant groups to gain control of as much territory as they can, thinking it will give them an advantage in any subsequent power grab.
The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have inflamed sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia across the entire region.  The Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns who are Sunni Muslims.  Although the majority of the people in Pakistan are Sunni, the people in Gilgit Baltistan are Shia.  Some think that the Taliban group which claimed responsibility for the attack on the Nanga Parbat climbers is the same as the one responsible for murdering about 30 Shias who were pulled off a bus going over the Babusar pass to Gilgit last year.  As far as I know, no actions have been taken against this group as a result of the bus attack.  
The PML-N Party won the recent Parlimentary elections returning Nawaz Sharif to a third term as Prime Minister.  It remains to be seen if the new Sharif administration is both willing and able to depart from the policies of the past.  Any significant police or military action against the Taliban would require the cooperation and full support of the Army that continues to retain control of national security and foreign policy.  The last time Sharif' was Prime Minister in 1999, he was kicked out in an Army coup.
The economic impact on Gilgit Baltistan of these attacks on the climbers will be severe.  Already extremely poor, the local people in the mountains are subsistence farmers who have come to rely on income from work as porters, cooks, and guides for their only cash.  Security concerns have already badly hurt the tourism industry and this attack will likely cause it to collapse.  This happened right after 9/11 and these people who could least afford this loss of income suffered terribly.  Unfortunately this is likely to happen again.
Local people in Pakistan  © Steve Swenson
Local people in Pakistan
So what does this mean for climbers and trekkers who are interested in going to Gilgit Baltistan?  These are very personal decisions that need to balance the desire to; go to a spectacular mountain place, support our local friends there, minimise security risk, and not subject our family and friends to excessive worry.  I can provide the following information on minimising security risk based on my experience there and information obtained from people who are there now:
  • Hire a good agent who can arrange safe places to stay and do a lot of your local shopping so you can stay in your hotel.
  • Do not travel by road from Islamabad to Gilgit or Skardu.  These flights are dependent on weather and are often cancelled.  You need to allow an extra week both coming and going to wait for a flight.
  • Keep a low profile and don't advertise that you are an American
  • Avoid any places where there are militant groups as they have now decided to attack foreigners.  This would put Nanga Parbat off limits unless the Government provides adequate security personnel to guard the valley 24/7.
  • Gilgit has seen periodic bouts of sectarian violence so extra travel precautions are warranted.  Consider staying in Karimabad instead. 

I sincerely hope that we will soon see the kind of courageous leadership in the region that is needed to break the current political deadlocks so these people can live in peace and security.  With peace and security, tourism can help drive the economic development needed to provide resources for education, health care, housing, food, infrastructure, and jobs in Gilgit Baltistan.  I am hopeful that these issues will get resolved so we can continue to visit this spectacular part of the world and support our friends who have done such a wonderful job taking care of us over the years.

About Steve Swenson:

Steve lives in Seattle, Washington and Canmore, Alberta with his wife Ann where he is now climbing, writing and doing volunteer work. He enjoys a broad range of interests including Alpine Climbing in the Great Ranges, ice climbing, trad and sport climbing. He has two adult sons - Lars and Jed.

This article first appeared on Steve's excellent blog.

Check back to his blog as Steve is planning to publish a follow up piece after he has followed up the Pakistani claims that they are going to improve security for climbers and trekkers. Watch this space.

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19 Jul, 2013
Quite a good article, but only half the story. After 13 years climbing and working in the region id say theres a lot that the climbing scene isnt exposed to. Other sectors are aware of the incident and give a bit more dimension on it. I respect swensons views hugely. But this goes far far beyond being an attack on climbers. I think too theres more to how climbers can deal with this which is not mentioned.
19 Jul, 2013
It's a tragic situation - on the one hand if tourists stay away, the locals, who will become even more desperately poor are easily recruited to organizations that can at least supply them with meagre resources (primarily food, but also the opportunity to not be killed). On the other hand, if tourists don't stay away, the number of terrorist incidents are highly likely to rise. There are some good comments to Steve's blog - well worth reading. So, what are your thoughts about how climbers can deal with this? It's an uncharacteristically brief comment from you!
20 Jul, 2013
aha, you got me on my phone! but really, im keeping most of my thoughts out of the public arena on this right now. the shock is still being felt too deeply to disrupt things further. plus its been interesting to compare the attention given to this compared to the push-n-shove on everest. not saying theres much relation, but as an industry parrallel. to deal with this needs a reassessment of the pakistan climbing industry. part of the issue is the 'big game safari climbing' factor that sees such focus on the 8000m area. part of it is also about blinkeredness by climbers - many of these peaks have chinese sides that are ignored by both climbers and companies alike. yes, china has its issues, but none surmountable. ive sat in the office of the CMA in urumqi half a dozen times and tried to address the problems. its uninformed to say the problem is entirely with the chinese authorities. the problem is with climbers perspectives. i look too at the way the foreign agent companies address the risks, and have also been part of attempts to resolve them - but the word doesnt get across. the pakistan groups that do the ground logistics, plus the authorities have made serious attempts to deal with the security issues, but theres been no serious efforts i can see from the general foreign interfaces who would have to change their way of running thngs. im not saying this event was predictable, but its been on the table of possibility for a long time. ive personally been part of attempts to put safer alternatives on the table but its just not picked up on, even tho the risks from things like tribal militants has risen. sadly, ali hussein, the one pakistani killed, had been part of the resolution process. but thats another story. to my mind, people thinking of pakistan as 'nepal with edge' is where it all goes off track. to continue climbing in pakistan needs a big rethink. the alternative system is there - ive been thru it myself - but it needs shifts in the industry that safari-climbing has become, shifts that extend to what goes on in nepal. for the record, swenson is admirable as a climber, much more informed than most id say - but assessing this issue goes waaaay beyond the scope of expedition climbers. his article i thought is informed and gracious, but to view this thru the lens of recreational climbing and the recreational industry is like asking the passengers about aircraft safety and security. dont get me wrong, i think swenson and a few others are ideal spokespeople for the foreign climbing fraternity (id actually vote fabrizio zangrelli as another, possibly better qualified) but theres plenty of pakistani climbers and logistics operators who should be being heard.
20 Jul, 2013
As a layman who knows little about international mountaneering i found it an interesting read, like all subjects you can always have more infomation but i think Steve's done a good job there - its not often we get an article like that on the front page of ukc, a nice change from **"new hard line from super climber"** thanks steve
20 Jul, 2013
Thanks - from an uninformed perspective, I too am a bit surprised that China isn't used more as a jumping off point. Although the China/Tibet issue seems to bother a lot of westerners. My view of the latter issue tends to be a bit coloured by Arnold Henry Savage Landor's 1897 explorations! I should probably not be so much of an armchair tourist.... :-)
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