The heart of Pakistan’s military establishment came under attack on Saturday as Taliban gunmen disguised as soldiers attempted to break into the army’s heavily-fortified headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. The fierce firefight left six military personnel and four attackers dead, and by evening, a tense standoff continued as military officials reported that at least three remaining gunmen had taken military personnel hostage and were holding them in the offices of an intelligence agency within the compound. The number of hostages was not clear, but was believed to be at least 10, and a special unit of army commandos had arrived at the scene.
It was the third major attack in Pakistan this week, adding fresh urgency to the Pakistan Army’s plans to mount a much-anticipated ground offensive in the Taliban’s mountainous base in South Waziristan, along the Afghan border. Earlier this week, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing of the World Food Program’s office in Islamabad, killing five people. The militant group is also believed to be behind a devastating suicide bombing in a Peshawar marketplace on Friday that killed 49 people. With Saturday’s attack, the government has been left with “no other option” but to hit back, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told a local news channel. “We will have to proceed. All roads are leading to South Waziristan.” As in the attack on the WFP office, the attackers managed to confuse guards by disguising themselves as soldiers. Arriving in a small, white van, they drove up to the first checkpoint, opening fire and killing at least one guard and others present. They then spread themselves around the compound, hurling grenades and exchanging fire with military guards. They proceeded to a second checkpoint, where a fierce firefight broke out for an estimated 45 minutes, military officials said. Four of the attackers were killed, but not before they had killed an army brigadier and lieutenant colonel.
This “fedayeen” tactic killing until killed was also deployed with chilling effect on March 30, when Taliban attackers wearing police uniforms stormed a police academy just outside the eastern city of Lahore, leading to an eight-hour firefight before paramilitary troops and police commandos eventually overwhelmed the attackers. That attack came just weeks after gunmen attacked the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore. In both instances, while the operation was surely orchestrated from South Waziristan, the attackers were traced to southern Punjab, where the presence of Taliban-linked militants is burgeoning. So far, the government has showed no signs that it is willing to take action against the militants in southern Punjab. Access to ready and heavily indoctrinated recruits from that part of the country is crucial to the militant’s demonstrated ability to continue to strike in Pakistan’s heartlands, despite losing their much-feared leader Baitullah Mehsud to a US airstrike on Aug. 5. Last week, his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, reemerged after weeks of silence to vow a series of revenge attacks. Hakimullah Mehsud is considered a much weaker leader, and the already fractious alliance of militant groups under the Pakistani Taliban umbrella is expected to fracture further under his inexperienced command.
Still, the Mehsud network and its deadly allies remain a major threat to Pakistan’s stability. In perhaps its toughest challenge yet, the Pakistan Army is gearing up, after much reluctance, for a ground offensive in South Waziristan to target what remains of Baitullah Mehsud’s group, over five thousand well-armed central Asian fighters known for their brutality, and Arab fighters belonging to al-Qaeda. From their eastern patch of South Waziristan, the militants have authored close to 250 suicide attacks across Pakistan in the last two and a half years, and trained other militants who have spread the Pakistani Taliban’s brutality across the northwest. Pakistanis will have to be braced for the fallout. At the moment, after a largely successful sweep of the Taliban who dominated the Swat Valley in the northwest, army morale is cresting. Revulsion against the militants’ brutality has also sent anti-militant sentiment to an all-time high. But it remains to be seen whether that resolve will hold up in the face of expected troop losses and further bombing attacks across the northwest and in major cities; security is now being beefed up outside government buildings, western targets, and civilian areas. There is also the fear that by moving against the militants in one area, they may simply relocate to others. Nor does the army have the luxury of fighting on a single front: battles continue in pockets in Swat and across the tribal areas.
See pictures of a Pakistani forces confronting the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
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