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 initial fierce firefight left six military personnel and four attackers dead, but a tense standoff continued for 18 hours as five other militants took more than 20 soldiers and civilians hostage within the compound. Early Sunday morning, a military spokesman said, Pakistani commandos raided the building and freed 22 of the hostages, though three of them died in the operation; four of their captors were also killed.
It was the third major attack in Pakistan this week, adding fresh urgency to the Pakistan army's plan 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 Islamabad office of the World Food Program (WFP), which killed 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 and opened fire, 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 a 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 militants. 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 Taliban-linked militants are burgeoning.
So far, the government has shown no sign 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 in a U.S. air strike on Aug. 5. His successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, recently re-emerged 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, more than 5,000 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 2½ 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 antimilitant 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 being beefed up outside government buildings, Western targets and civilian areas. There is also fear that moving against the militants in one area may simply prompt them to relocate to other regions. Nor does the army have the luxury of fighting on a single front: battles continue in pockets in Swat and across the tribal areas.