Geo - political Importance of Northern Areas of Pakistan

Muhammad Ijaz Butt

The districts of Gilgit, Baltistan and Diamir are jointly called the Northern Areas as they are situated to the extreme north of Pakistan. This area is bounded by Chitral to the north-west, Wakhan (Afghanistan) to the north, the Chinese province of Xinjiang to the north-east, the occupied Kashmir to the south and the Hazara and Swat Valleys to the south-west.1 This area covers an expanse of about 27, 188 square miles, and according to the census of 1981 the population is estimated at 5,73,724. The density of the population is calculated to be 21 persons per square mile.2

This entire region consists of mighty, snow clad mountains, with narrow, isolated valleys, crisscrossed by trickling streams and robust rivers. The worlds’ three mightiest mountain chains viz. Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayas meet here; with Pamir “the roof of the world” to its extreme north. It is in a sense, a conglomerate confluence of mountains; on the whole, inhospitable to habitation.3 However, where there are windows of passages or passes, man has trudged through these trackless mountains from time immemorial. There have been some precarious caravan routes from Ladakh to Central Asia and from Gilgit to Punjab and N.W.F.P.

There are more than 20 important passes through all these high hills. Some of the important passes are, Kilik, Mintaka, Darkot, Shimshal, Muztagh, Parpik and Khunjerab.4

There are more than a hundred high peaks of mountain in less than a hundred square miles radius. Some of the capital peaks are: Raka Poshi (25,550 ft. high), K-2 (28, 250 ft.) Nanga Parbat (26, 607 ft.) Broad Peak (26, 550 ft.) Skyang Kangri (24, 751 ft.) and Dubani (24, 270 ft.).5 The area is strewn over by more than 40 large glaciers, some of which being the largest outside the polar region. Some of the notable glaciers are: Biafo-62 km long, Hispar-61 km, Baltoro-58 km, Gasherburum – 38 km, Siachin-72 km, and Batura – 58 km long.6 The Biafo – Hispar glaciers together form a passage of almost 100 km which is the longest glacier traverse outside the Arctic region.7

The northern region is subject to extreme weathers and temperatures. The summer temperature sometime shoots up to 40o C while the winter temperature falls down to below 4-21oC. As the region is outside the monsoon range due to high mountain walls, the precipitation is on the whole, low, yet there is heavy snowfall in winter which makes up for the comparatively scanty rainfall.8 The mighty Indus and it main tributaries Shighar, Shyok, Braldu, Basha and Hushe are the main rivers. From the southern side also, a number of smaller streams empty into the Indus.9 The Hunza river with its headwaters in Karakoram after passing through the valleys of Nagar, empties into the river Gilgit, which itself emerges in the Hindu Kush. At Bonji, some 25 miles from Gilgit, it also falls into the Indus.10 In between the high mountains there are a dozen big and small valleys. Some of the more important valleys are: Daril, Tanjir, Nipyal, Ghazar, Ashkuman, Nagar, Hunza, Shagar, Kargil and Khaplu. These valleys are sparsely populated and like landlocked countries they have but little intercourse with one another.11

Mineral Resources

Although not properly surveyed, the northern areas are believed to be rich in vital minerals. Gold is of the highest importance, the centres lying in Basha, Braldo, Parkuta, Saltoro and in the rivers of Shigar, Indus and Shyoq. This is alluvial gold collected by washing in Baltistan.12 Mush serpentine (Zehr-Mohra) is found at the streams by the settlement of Shigor; utensils such as teapots, cups, tumblers, flower – vases etc. are made from this stone.13 The upper reaches of all the streams yield crystal, the bast quality found near Braldo and Shakarthang, as well as in Rondu. There is a mine producing marble of good quality in the region of Kwardo on the mountain facing Skardu. Black marble is found in the area of Gulabpur and Chotron.14 In the Shigar valley there is an emerald mine; asbestos is also found here. A mica mine has also been reported at the Nyaslo stream in the Basha valley. The same valley is rich in the resources of copper and flouride.15 Salajit is mined in the Rondu area, copper sulphate is mined in the area of Chorbat. Iron mines exists in Nend and Chotron located respectively in Shigar and Braldo. Pharda in Khapulu and Daso in Shigar have lead mines. An antimony mine is located in the area of Stak in Rondu. Alum is found in the Ghowari stream and in Ashkopo.16


With 1,25,000 acre area under cultivation,17 the region is rather poor in food production. It has to import food-grains and pulses from the contiguous provinces of the Punjab and the N.W.F.P. Some of the area is irrigated through streams and channels while vast areas are lying unirrigated and barren, at the mercy of the unpredictable rains.18 However, the region is rich in fruit growing and forestation on the higher reaches of the hills. Apricots are the main crop, although apples and pears are also plentiful.19 There is about 10,000 square miles-afforestation in Gilgit and Diamir alone.20


There is no authentic historical record of the northern areas. Its history is based on story-telling and hearsay or traced in legend, folklore, literature and traditions. They claim tat the entire areas was called Dardistan which is mentioned by Herodotus, Ptolemy and other historians. When the British arrived in the 19th century, they started calling it Dardistan or the land of the Dard.21 Dard is a Sanskrit word meaning fearful or terrible.22 in the same way the word Gilgit is traced to Herbrew meaning barren hills and a pile of skulls and graveyard.23 Some researchers and historians have tried to locate the ten lost tribes of Israel among these god-forsaken mountains. However, this area is inhabited by a mixture of tribal and racial elements. The main recognisable racial stocks are Aryan, Scythian, Mongolian, Tibetan, Turkot, Iranian and Caucasian. The famous local tribes are Shin, Yasin, Balti, Goshpur, Roonu, Kamin and Doom. Modern theory maintains that the area attracted outlaws, decoits, highway pirates who lived on loot and pillage of the rich caravans trading between the east and the west.

The main languages of the indigenous inhabitants of the northern areas are Shina, Balti and Broshiski. Turkish, Persian, Pashto and Kashmiri are also spoken in some places while Urdu and Gujari ares spoken and understood in some specific areas.24

Islam came to these parts during the 9th and 12th century through Muslim missionaries coming from Badakhshan, Kashmir and the Indus valley. But before Islam, the area was under the influence of Buddhism. The most prominent Muslim preacher Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamadani (known as Shah-i-Hamadan) who came from Iran during the second half of the 14th century, consolidated the dominance of Islam among the people of the northern areas.25

The Sikhs emerged in northern India on the decline of the Mughal empire. They annexed Kashmir in 1842 and invaded Gilgit at the invitation of its Raja. On the death of the local ruler, Gohar Aman of Yasin, the Sikhs and Dogras annexed Gilgit in 1860. But in the Punjab, the Sikhs were overpowered by the British and in 1846 they leased the state of Jammu and Kashmir to Maharaja Gulab Singh for the a paltry sum of Rs. 75,00,000 under the Treaty of Amritsar.28 Gilgit was however not included in this treaty. In view of its strategic importance, it was kept as an agency under a British resident.27 To this agency were also appended the valleys of Hunza, Nagar, Uzar, Yasin, Ashkuman, Panyal. These areas were under the direct control of the British Foreign office until 1947.

At the time of Partition the then political agent handed over the areas to the Kashmir Darbar, and Gansara Singh, a general of the Kashmir state army, was appointed as the governor general. But the majority of the Muslim population revolted against this arrangement. The Gilgit Scouts and the Kashmir regular force also took part in the meeting.28 On 31st December 1948 the governor, Gansara Singh, was arrested and a cease-fire line was drawn by the United Nations, giving the entire area to Pakistan.29 Muhammad Alam Khan was sent there as the first Pakistani Political Agent.

Muhammad Qasim Nasim, a research scholar, argues in his newly punished book on the aea with all historical evidence that the whole northern region could not be described as part of the Dogra ruled state of Jamu and Kashmir30. He Maintains that, in addition to other factors, it needs to be acknowledged that the Dogras invaded this region and established their rule by the use of brute force. That is why, their rule suffered from the crisis of legitimacy. An area cannot be made a part of a state by conquering it by force. These areas joined Pakistan of their free will after dislodging the Dogra administration and therefore there is no justification for linking its future constitutional status with Jammu and Kashmir.31 The administrative incorporation of the northern areas was brought about in 1974 when Gilgit, Baltistan and Diamir32 were converted to districts with headquarters at Gilgit, Skardu and Chilas (Astor in summer) respectively. In 1975, Hunza was amalgamated with the northern areas. Previously, these areas were governed on the anachronistic British pattern through a resident for northern areas under the Kashmir Affairs Division.33 In 1994, the government of Pakistan announced a package of political reforms which called for, inter alia, setting up of a 26 members elected Northern Areas Council. Its first party-based election were held in October 1994.

Karakoram Highway

This project was initiated by Pakistan. It was a Pakistan army engineers and Chinese joint venture. After about 20 years of unprecedented toil drawing all kinds of organizational and technical skill, a major land route of 805 Kms was established. KKH is inter-linked with Afghanistan, Russia, China and India-held Kashmir. The famour Khunjerab Pass (16, 072 ft.) is also situated on the KKH, making it the highest highway in the world.34 The highway continues from the Khunjerab Pass on to Pirali, the Chinese check post and onwards to the Pamir mountains range. The KKH then passes on to Tashkurghan, a small town, known since ancient times as the gateway to China and continues towards the beautiful oasis of Kashgar in Xinjiang province of China. In Pakistan, this highway starts from Havelian and then passes through Abbottabad, Mansehra, ,Batagram, Bisham, Nagar, Gilgit, and Hunza to reach Khunjerab pass on the Chinese border.35 Prior to the KKH the only route between Gilgit and Rawalpindi was via Babusar (13,580 ft.) which was opened for traffic for only 3 to 4 months. The next route via Dir-Bajaur was equally difficult due to the notorious Lowari Top, but now the northern areas of Pakistan are no more inaccessible to travelers or its own inhabitants locked up from the rest of the civilized world. The KKH has brought a revolution in the socio-economic life of the region. It has opened a window on these romantic areas for tourists, writers and others. It has not only made a telecommunication network possible but also has provided necessities of life to these segregated areas.

The strategic importance of the Karakoram Highway is obvious for both the friendly states of China and Pakistan. For China, this highway links her two frontier provinces Xinjiang with Tibet through an arid Aksai Chin region on which Indian government still claim sovereignty. This Aksai Chin road which Chinese operated before it was discovered by the Indians in the late 1950’s is the only viable direct link of China with the sensitive Tibetan territory. The construction of this road connecting military bases in western Tibet with the strategic Gilgit area may enhance the significance of Pakistani role in time of Sino-Indian conflict.36 It is also noted that despite all the Indian conspiracies to sow the seed of revolt in Tibet against Chinese authority, this road link enabled Chinese government to maintain her effective control over this region.

Similarly, in case of an attack on Pakistan by sea, military aid from China can reach Pakistan through this route. The bridges on the KKH are capable of carrying light weight tanks. To protect this highway from subversion small military bases along the highway have bee constructed. Despite the apparent vulnerability of the road, its usefulness in time of peace and war in conspicuously apparent.37

One of the purposes of construction of KKH was to promote and enlarge the scope of economic, cultural and technological cooperation. The step was to accelerate the pace of economic development in Pakistan in general and in its northern areas in particular with stepping up its exports to a potentially vast Chinese market. The border trade between China and Pakistan through this highway was started in 1969. The first trade agreement was signed in October 1967 to facilitate overland border trade. This was revival of the trade after centuries on ancient “Silk Route” extending from Gilgit to Hunza and Mintaka Pass to Xinjiang.38

With the independence of new Central Asian states, the prospects of economic cooperation in this region have increased manifold. Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have signed an agreement for extending trade and transport facilities through KKH via Khunjerab Pass enroute Gilgit (Pakistan) Tashkarghan (China) Bishkik (Kyrgyzstan) and Almaty (Kazakhstan). The high level highway and transport officials of the four countries signed this agreement in Gilgit on August 17, 1994.39

The proposed extension of the KKH will take place on the road network which already exists between Almaty and Kashghar. It is estimated that from Gilgit, it will be possible to reach Almaty, the Capital of Kazakhstan in three days on a motor vehicle; one day to reach Kashghar after crossing the Khunjerab Pass and Xinjiang’s town of Tashkurghan, another day to reach Kazakhstan city Bishkik after crossing Torugurt, and yet another day to reach Almaty. The total distance of Kazakhstan via KKH to Karachi port in approximately 3726 kms while from Kazakhstan it is 3496 kms, from Uzbekistan 3514 kms and from Tajkistan 2775 kms.40

If KKH is upgraded according to international standard, Pakistan will become a trade centre of this region. Both Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan have immense reserves of mineral resources. Kyrgystan is rich in coal, oil, gas, rare metal deposits, agricultural resources, sheep breeding, grain crops, technical crops, etc; while Kazakhstan has the vast deposits of crude petroleum, natural gasses, zink, lint, crome, iron ore, gold, silver, copper, magnesium, uranium, thorium and radium (real metals).41 According to the IMF estimation Kazakhstan has the second largest unexpoited oil reserves of the former Soviet Union, which is equal to Kuwaits’ reserves, and 9% of the total gold reserves which is equal to Saudi Arabian total reserves of gold. Moreover, it has 90% of the total chrome reserves of former Soviet Union, 50% of total zinc reserves, 50% of total copper, iron ore and wolframe reserves, 19% of total coal reserves of the former Soviet Union. More than half of agricultural land of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is a part of this state in which 80% land comprises cotton growing area.42

Pakistan can achieve the following main objectives by establishing trade relation with China and two of the Central Asian States throughout the proposed extension of KKH;

  1. The contribution of KKH in Pakistan’s trade with China, Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan can be substantial for the achievement of balance of payments targets on the basis of regional economic cooperation;
  2. The development of northern areas of Pakistan with the aim to achieving the socio-economic change of the people through the import of capital goods and machinery from China for the development projects as well as the import of the consumer goods for people’s immediate needs.
  3. Encourage the investment activities in the northern areas with imported machinery and equipment from China which was not easy to transport from Karachi to these areas after importing from China through sea.
  4. To facilitate transport and communication network through expanded commercial contacts in the bordering regions of China and Pakistan because these areas had been cut off from the rest of the country in absence of land route in the past. These frequent trade contacts would certainly identify new opportunities for greater economic cooperation at the dawn of the 21st century among the regional states. In the new world order, China may be the only nation which has the potential to emerge as a balance power. Former President of America Richard Nixon while quoting Nepolean remarked about China in his book 1999: Victory Without War, “There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep, for when he wakes he will move the world.
    The giant is awake. His time has come and he is ready to move the world.43
  5. Both Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan are landlocked states having no outlet for foreign trade. During Russian subjugation, these states were turned into exporters of mineral and agricultural products to Moscow while the manufacturing units for processing mineral products and finished goods were predominantly located in Russia. The road and rail network was designed in order to facilitate this regional specification of production. A close look at the export-import figures of these republics in 1988 shows that only a small part of their regional foreign economic relations existed with regions outside the former U.S.S.R. For example, Kazakhistan’s 83.5% of total imports had been within former U.S.S.R. while foreign imports were confined to only 16.5% Similarly Kyrgystan’s 80% of total imports had been within former U.S.S.R. and only 20% were confined to foreign imports, On the other hand Kazakhstan’s 98% exports had been within U.S.S.R. while their foreign exports were only 9% and 2% respectively.44 Kazakhstan 75% of the total exports to the CIS consisted of intermediate goods and raw materials while more than half of the finished goods consumed in the state today are imported mainly from Russia. Through bringing these states on the KKH, Pakistan can not only provide them access to seaports of Karachi and Bin Qasim for facilitating their foreign trade but also transfer technical expertise for their industrial base.45 By establishing such cordial relations, Pakistan can capture a vast market for her foreign exports. Pakistan can also acquire raw-materials at relatively low prices from these states which would positively reduce the production cost of the finished goods and would accelerate economic growth of the country. Such goods would be in a better position to compete in the international market and earn valuable foreign exchange.
    Briefly speaking, the Northern Areas of the country have assumed greater geo-political and strategic significance at the dawn of the 21st century.


  1. A. H. Dani, History of Northern Areas of Pakistan. Islamabad, National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research, 1991, p.6.
  2. Ibid., p.5.
  3. Rashid Ahmad Khan, Geology of the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush in Pakistan. Peshawar, 1982, p.1.
  4. Muhammad Ijaz Butt, Pakistan China Boundary Settlement. (Ph.D. Thesis) Peshawar, Area Study Centre, 1995, p.109.
  5. Banat Gul Afridi, Baltistan in History, Peshawar, Emjay Book International, 1988, p.13.
  6. Dani, op.cit., p.3.
  7. Banat Afridi, op.cit., p.14.
  8. Muhammad Yousuf Hussain Abadi, Baltistan Per Aik Nazar, Rawalpindi, 1984, pp. 38-39.
  9. Ibid., p.36.
  10. Dani, op.cit., pp. 13-16.
  11. Yousuf Abadi, op.cit., pp. 34-36.
  12. Adam Nayyar, “Baltistan (Research Translation) Islamabad, Lok Virsa, 1987, p.133.
  13. Yousuf Abadi, op.cit., p.43.
  14. Nayyar, op.cit., p.134.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Dani, op.cit., p.424.
  18. Dr. Qabil Khan Afridi, “The Geo-political Importance of the Northern Region”, Central Asia, Peshawar, no. 30, Summer 1992, pp. 76-77.
  19. Muhammad Amin, D. Willetts, G. Hancock, journey through Pakistan Nairobi, Camerapix publishers, 1982, p.112.
  20. Qabil Khan, op.cit., p.77.
  21. A.B. Awan, “Northern Areas, Constitutional Status. Dawn Magazine Lahore, October 4, 1985.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Qabil Khan, op.cit., p.77.
  24. Dani, op.cit., p.43.
  25. Alastair Lamb, Kashmir – A Disputed Legacy 1846-1990., Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1991, p.9.
  26. Ibid., p.8.
  27. G.J. Alder, British India’s Northern Frontiers 1865-1895, London, Longman, 1963, p.156.
  28. Dani, “Gilgit Scouts Win the Battle of Freedom,” The Muslim Magazine, November 2, 1984.
  29. Josef Korbel, Danger in Kashmir, New Jersy, Princeton, 1966, p.92.
  30. Muhammad Qasim Nasim, Baltistan: History and Politics. Lahore, Progressive Publishers, 1994, pp.68 – 77.
  31. Ibid., pp. 159-192.
  32. Diamir is an indigenous name for Nanga Parbat: The local name for Gilgit is Vershe – Gum, which means the lost valley.
  33. Nazir A. Kamal, “Karakoram Highway. A Nation Building Effort; Strategic Studies, Islamabad, no. 2, Spirng 1979, p.22.
  34. A.Z. Hilali, “Pakistan’s Geo-strategic importance and security threat,” Pakistan Defence Review, vol.6, no.1, Summer 1994, p.84.
  35. Brig. Iqbal M. Shafi, “Communication in People’s Republic of China with special reference to Xinjiang autonomous region.” Central Asia, Peshawar, Area Study Centre, no. 24, Summer 1989, p.26.
  36. Bernard D. Nossitor, “Silk Route”: Washington Post, Washington D C, April 24, 1968.
  37. Muhammad Ahsen Ch. “Strategic and Military Dimension in Pakistan-China Relations.” Pakistan Horizon, vol.39, no.4, 1986, p.20.
  38. Saeed Qamar, The Lure of Karakoram, Lahore, Ferozesons Ltd., 1974, p.69.
  39. The Nation (Daily), Lahore, August 29, 1994.
  40. The News (Daily), Lahore, October 25, 1996.
  41. Moonis Ahmar, “Conflict resolution and confidence building in Central Asia. “Strategic Studies, vol.xvi, no.3, Spring 1994, p.78.
  42. “Kazakhstan – Economic Review”, IMF publication service, 1992, Washington DC., U.S.A. p.1.
  43. Richard Nixon, 1999: Victory Without War, London. Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd., 1988, pp. 242-243.
  44. Unal Cevikoz, “A brief account of the economic situation in the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia. Central Asian Survey U.S.A. vol.13, no.1, 1994, p.46.
  45. Pakistan Banker, Lahore, January – June 1993, vol.3, no. 1, p.21.