The Hazara Division of Pakistan–Growing Talibanization amidst Political Instability and Ethnic Tensions

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 17

Protesters in Haripur, one of five districts in the Hazara division of Pakistan

Recently the terrorism-battered northwest frontier of Pakistan was hit by another kind of mayhem when the previously peaceful Hazara Division of the former North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) witnessed bloody clashes between police and rioters over the issue of renaming the province “Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” (Dawn [Karachi], April 12; SANA, April 14). The new official name was chosen over Khyber-Pashtunkhwa, but has essentially the same meaning (Dawn, April 1). The rioters were Sunni Hindko speakers, the majority community in Hazara Division, where Pashtun-speakers are a minority. Hindko is also spoken in parts of the Punjab and Kashmir. [1]

The otherwise tranquil city of Abbottabad (named for a British official), the main town in the Hazara Division, reverberated with gunfire between police and local people protesting against the renaming of the province. The violence left seven dead and more than a hundred injured. Led mainly by the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q – a party also nicknamed the “King’s Party” after it was created by former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf), people came onto the streets to oppose the renaming clause in the 18th amendment to the constitution of Pakistan. The bloodshed caused protest rallies to spread to other parts of Hazara Division (Daily Times [Lahore] April 13). While opponents of the name change continued with their protest rallies and “shutter-down” strikes, two different movements emerged, one of which is for a separate province led by Hindko-speaking politicians, while people from non-Hindko speaking areas of the Battagram and Kohistan districts of Hazara Division and the Kala Dhaka region of Mansehra district teamed up to work for a separate administrative division. All of this is happening amidst reports of a major anti-Taliban military operation in the Kala Dhaka region of Hazara, where some top Taliban leaders were arrested recently by security agencies (The News, Islamabad, April 10)

Strategic Importance of the Hazara Division

The strategically located Hazara Division consists of five districts: Haripur, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Battagram and Kohistan. In the south, it borders the Islamabad Capital Territory, while in the north it borders the Federally Administrated Northern Area (FANA) of Gilgit-Baltistan, next to China’s Xinjiang province and the Wakhan pan-handle of Afghanistan. It is very close to Tajikistan as well. Hazara borders Pakistani-held Kashmir on its east side, with Kashmir’s capital of Muzaffar Abad less than 40 km from Mansehra. On the western side of the Indus are the districts of Shangla, Buner and Swabi. Hazara Division also borders the biggest hydro-electric dam in Pakistan at Tarbela, while Kakul Military Academy, the premier training institute of the Pakistan Army, is also in Hazara. About 500 km of the strategic Karakoram Highway (KKH) pass through Hazara Division.

Hindko is the main language spoken in parts of Hazara like Haripur, Abbottabad and Mansehra. Pashto is the major language in Battagram while Kohistani is the main language in Kohistan district. Pashto is also spoken in the Kala Dhaka and Baffa areas of Mansehra and pockets of Haripur districts. Most of the people who speak Hindko are actually Pashtun by ethnicity. The local Jadoon, Tareen, Mashwani, Swati, Tahirkheli and Dilazak tribes are all Afghan by origin but speak Hindko (The News, March 30)

The Hazarwal identity (Hazarwal meaning “one who belongs to Hazara”) is associated with simmering feelings of deprivation and alienation. One reason is the feeling of being a minority in the dominantly Pashto-speaking province. People of Hazara also feel alienated from the provincial capital of Peshawar because of the long distance from Hazara to that city and the fact that the main route from Hazara to Peshawar passes through another province. Because of greater proximity and easier access, the people of Hazara have more interaction with Islamabad and Punjab than Peshawar. However, Punjab considers the Hazarwal as residents of a Pashtun province, while in Peshawar they are not accepted as Pashtuns (The News, April, 17).
These feelings of deprivation and alienation came to the surface when Pakistan’s National Assembly accepted the longstanding demand of local Pashtuns to give a name to their province that would represent the Pashtun majority and replace the colonial-era “North-West Frontier Province.”  To score political points, the PML-Q aroused people’s emotions against the new name, which resulted in bloodshed. The killings and injuries of protesters fueled local anger and the PML-Q skillfully turned the mood against the Pashtuns (Daily Times, April 14). This raised ethnic tensions in the region and in the province. After the new name for the province was accepted, the anti-name change groups diverted their attention to the demand for a new Hazara province.

Strong Militant Connections

Although Hazara is considered to be a peaceful region distinct from the volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border, underneath this tranquil facade is a long record of serving as a base and training camp for Kashmiri militant groups. Long before the events of 9/11 and Pakistan’s emergence as a front line state in the war on terror, several Kashmiri militant groups ran training camps in the Batrassi forests of Mansehra (Daily Times, August 29, 2005). According to local journalists, there were about eight training camps run by different Kashmiri militant organizations. After 9/11, when Pakistan became an ally with the United States in the war on terror, then-military ruler General Pervez Musharraf clamped down on local militant groups operating in Kashmir, leading to the closure of the training camps in Mansehra district.  The later peace process between Pakistan and India in 2004 is also credited as a major reason for closing down these camps. However, all these steps proved an eye-wash when many of the activists of the banned militant groups were seen back in their camps in July 2005 (Monthly Herald [Karachi], July 2005). One manifestation of the presence of a strong jihadi infrastructure in the area was seen in the devastating earthquake of October 2005, when hundreds of activists belonging to the banned militant groups were the first to respond to the disaster. Though their services were lauded by many, especially locals, serious apprehensions were also expressed by others because of the possibility these groups could use the goodwill they created to recruit new militants. [1]

Militants have also attacked NGOs working in the region from time to time, as well as sending threatening letters to their workers. On March 10, militants attacked the Mansehra office of World Vision, a U.S.-based NGO, leaving six people dead (Daily Times, March 10). Similarly, a daring attack on the office of Plan International—a  U.K.-based charity organization dedicated to helping children—left four of its workers dead and others injured in February 2008. That attack led many international NGOs working for the rehabilitation of victims of the October 2008 earthquake victims to shut down their operations in the region (Daily Times, March 20, 2008)

As the Taliban attempt to expand their war from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to the settled areas, they have tried to increase their presence in the Kohistan and Battagram districts and Kala Dhaka area of Hazara Division. Obviously the Taliban want to exploit the jihadi infrastructure already on the ground in the region, but more important for them is the immense geostrategic significance of the Karakorum Highway that connects Pakistan with China (Dawn [Karachi], April 29, 2009). The Kohistan district of Hazara has connections with the Tanzeem Nifaz-i-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) movement led by radical cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammad. It’s worth mentioning here that last year’s controversial peace deal between the government and the Taliban for implementing Shari’a in the Swat valley also covered Kohistan district.

It was widely feared that many Taliban militants had fled to Hazara Division after the successful military operation in Swat valley last year. Officials have recently hinted that Kala Dhaka could be a new base for those Taliban militants fleeing South Waziristan and other tribal areas. Last month, five Swat Taliban fighters, including a top commander, were killed in an encounter with police in the Palas area of Kohistan district (The News, March 18). Interior Minister Rahman Malik recently told parliament that 10 to 15 groups were operating in Kala Dhaka, comprised of already proclaimed offenders as well as terrorists who escaped the Swat, Malakand and Waziristan operations (The Nation, April 19). Security forces recovered a huge cache of arms, rocket launchers and suicide jackets from the hideout of a Taliban commander in a recent operation in the Kala Dhaka area.  As with military operations in the tribal regions, religious parties have opposed this fresh military offensive in the Kala Dhaka region (Dawn, March 28).

Local political dynamics make the Hazara region vulnerable to Talibanization. Traditionally, this area has been a stronghold of right-wing conservative political parties who have either a soft spot for the Taliban or openly support them.  Progressive parties like the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party (currently ruling the Khyber Pashtunkhwa province), have not yet made strong inroads in the Hazara Division. In the last general election of 2008, 17 out of 26 national and provincial seats went to the right wing parties in Hazara Division. More recently, the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI-F) grabbed a national assembly seat in a by-election.

Serious Security Ramifications

The prevailing unrest over the name change issue has posed new challenges to the Pakistani government in a region already badly hit by the war on terror. Some political forces have exploited the renaming issue for their own political interests by supporting demands for a Hazara province; giving in on this issue will inevitably fuel existing demands elsewhere in Pakistan for new provinces. These are difficult challenges for a government already shattered by unabated waves of Taliban attacks and issues like power shortages and inflation. After dismantling Taliban bases in some areas of the tribal region, the Hazara region could be an ideal place for displaced militants to exploit the prevailing political unrest, and entrench themselves deep in the region’s thick forests, creating another security nightmare for the struggling Pakistani government. If the Taliban are able to consolidate in the Hazara Division, they would be in a position to block the KKH or create security problems that could sever the only land-link between Pakistan and China (see Terrorism Monitor, May 18, 2009). The Taliban could also attack or bomb the country’s prestigious Military Academy at Kakul as well as target the Tarbela Dam—the  country’s biggest power facility. If unchecked, the Taliban’s growing presence in the region will have serious repercussions unless the political parties realize the gravity of the situation and stop exploiting the name change issue for their own political interests. It is equally important for the ruling parties to take the people of Hazara into their confidence by listening to their grievances while keeping the province intact (The News, April 6).


1. The geographical Hazara Division is not to be confused with the Hazara ethnic group of Afghanistan, which is largely Shi’a in faith.
2. Telephone interview with Imtiaz Ali, a Pakistani journalist and analyst, April 22, 2010.