The tanks, armoured columns and helicopter gunships of Pakistan's army stormed into South Waziristan, the global headquarters of al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies. Within hours of leaving their camps early on Saturday morning to fight what is being hailed as the decisive battle in the war against terror, 12 soldiers had been killed in the first ferocious gunfights. Pakistan's generals have called the offensive the "mother of all battles" for the survival of a country under siege. There were reports of Taliban compounds coming under aerial bombardment from Pakistan gunships as troops moved out in three columns from Razmak to the north, Jandola to the east and Shakai in the west, and advanced on notorious Taliban target towns like Makeen and Ladha. The significance of Pakistan's army having Makeen in its sights will not have been lost on Pakistan's president, Asif Zardari: the late Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was in Makeen when he was allegedly recorded on a telephone intercept claiming responsibility for the assassination of Mr Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistan prime minister. The remote, dusty town close to the Afghan border, had expected as much. It has been the scene of American Predator drone attacks on Taliban commanders, kidnappings of Pakistani troops, and fierce gun battles between security forces and militants. Thousands of residents had already fled the anticipated army assault, but one who stayed behind described the first shots. "We heard sounds of planes and helicopters early Saturday. Then we heard blasts. We are also hearing gunshots and it seems the army is exchanging fire with Taliban," said Ajmal Khan in a telephone interview. Those who stayed behind were terrified but were confined to their homes because of an army curfew, he said. The long-awaited army ground offensive had been delayed for weeks as army generals agonised over how the country would cope with the militant backlash which would inevitably follow an all-out assault in the Taliban's heartland. The breakthrough came late on Friday night when, in a highly unusual move, the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, summoned the all the main opposition party leaders to a meeting at the home of the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani.
There, they were asked for united support for what would be one of the army's most controversial operations: the use of overwhelming force against their own people. But after one of the bloodiest weeks in recent history, in which Taliban fighters had stormed the Army's Rawalpindi headquarters and more than 160 people were killed by suicide bombers and commando-style gunmen, the generals and the politicians had little choice. It was the beginning of this month when Sailab Mehsud, a local journalist covering Pakistan's dangerous tribal areas, got a call to meet the Taliban's new "Ameer Sahib" (Mr Chief) Hakimullah Mehsud at a secret location. He was immediately sure he was on to a scoop: Hakimullah was supposed to be dead. According to Pakistani security forces, the militants' notorious "boy general" he is believed to be 28 had been killed in a bitter succession battle with two rival Taliban commanders, Wali ur Rahman and Qari Hussain. His "death" had been a key factor in the army's preparations for a final assault. The Taliban had been wiped out in the Swat Valley, their South Waziristan leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in an American drone attack in August, and now they were in disarray. Would there ever be a better time to launch a massive offensive? But when the handful of journalists summoned by the Taliban awoke after an overnight stop deep in South Waziristan on Oct 4, following an 11 hour mountain and forest drive, they was greeted by the smiling face of the "dead" man, brandishing an AK47 and demonstrating his prowess with a laptop. Alongside Hakimullah stood the man who was supposed to have killed him, Wali ur Rahman, and also the Taliban's master suicide bomb trainer, Qari Hussain. "We met them in a forest. Hakimullah was in the same jubilant mood. He fired his AK-47 assault rifle, he showed us some rockets," said Sailab Mehsud. "Tell the Pakistani government that I'm alive and determined to take severe revenge for Baitullah Mehsud's killing and the continued drone strikes," Hakimullah, told the reporters, urging them to record his message on film. "Both America and Pakistan will have to face the consequences. We have respect for al-Qaeda and the jihadist organisations - we are with them." He pledged to fulfill his predecessor's mission to destroy the Pakistani state for its "collaboration" with the West and drown the country in blood. Within hours of his interview being broadcast on October 5 - he had insisted on a delay to give him time to disappear - the boy general delivered on his threat, unleashing a wave of coordinated commando raids and suicide bombings which shattered army claims of Taliban disarray, and destroyed the notion that they would be easy prey in their South Waziristan stronghold. The attacks began when a suicide bomber dressed as a paramilitary soldier tricked his way into a heavily guarded United Nations office in Islamabad and blew himself up, killing five UN employees. On Oct 9, a car bomb ripped through a busy market place in Peshawar, the capital of the militancy-plagued North West Frontier Province, killing 53. The tipping point came last weekend when the Pakistani Taliban and its extremist allies demonstrated the scale of their ambition: A team of 10 gunmen attacked the army's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, shooting their way through two gates to take 42 people hostage. In a 22-hour siege which was fought out live on television, 14 soldiers and civilian employees were killed along with all but one of the terrorists. Such a brazen assault on the nerve centre of the country's military establishment heightened fears around the world about the security of the country's nuclear weapons if the army could be humiliated like this in its own HQ. Commander Hakimullah, however was only just hitting his stride. Last Monday, a child suicide bomber, described as no older than 13, targeted a military convoy moving through a bazaar in Shangla, close to the Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province. The blast killed all six soldiers in an army vehicle and 35 shoppers on the street. Another myth was exploded with the 41 victims: the idea that the Taliban had been defeated in Swat. On Thursday came three simultaneous gun and explosives assaults in Pakistan's cultural capital, Lahore, in the heart of Punjab. 'Fidayeen' commandos struck at two police training centres and the office of the Federal Investigation Agency, the national law enforcement body. The so-called "swarm" attack was modelled on last year's Nov 26 attack on Mumbai, and the death toll could have matched it had it not been for a fight-back from local security forces which limited the deaths to 28. Meanwhile in Kohat, back in the NWFP, another suicide bomber killed 11 on the same day when he rammed his car into a police station. Later that day, a car exploded outside a housing complex for government employees in Peshawar, killing a six-year-old boy and wounding nine others, including women and children. On Friday the death toll climbed higher still when a car bomb exploded as it drove into the front of Peshawar's police intelligence headquarters. According to some reports - still unconfirmed - one of the attackers was a woman who jumped from a motorbike, unbuttoned her coat and detonated her suicide vest by a neighbouring government housing complex, killing 13. Half the police station being completely destroyed by the blast, and the other half engulfed in flames while dazed police officers searched for their missing comrades in the rubble. Ordinary Pakistanis have been left bewildered, unable still to believe that the danger comes from within the country. "Only God knows where such people come from because I know that Muslims cannot kill other Muslims," said Mohammad Yousaf, a 55-year-old, who runs a tea shop near one of the police training schools in Lahore and spent several hours hiding instead his store Thursday as gunfire and explosions engulfed the area. This latest Taliban onslaught, waged by leaders who were supposed to be dead, has shocked a Pakistan which had been getting used to the idea of militants beating a retreat and commanders being killed by drones. But in just 10 days, Hakimullah dispelled the myth live on Pakistan's 24-hour news channels. In fact, despite its ominipresent ISI intelligence agency and vast standing army, it was the Pakistan army that was in the greatest disarray. Its headquarters had been left poorly guarded despite several Taliban attacks on military centres in the last two years. The militants anticipated similar chaos when they decided to attack the same Lahore police training college they laid siege to earlier this year. The Army's top brass was reported to be furious not only with their own failings but also with their political leaders. The country's interior minister Rehman Malik was virtually banned from paying his respects to the dead at the army's GHQ by generals who blamed him for leaking their plans for the imminent South Waziristan offensive. Local residents in the tribal agency told The Sunday Telegraph that many Taliban fighters, including Uzbek militants, Arabs and Mehsud tribesmen had slipped away into neighbouring Orakzai to dodge the army onslaught and live to fight another day. Some of their fighters however, stayed behind to put up a fight: an army convoy was bombed at Razmak, several soldiers were killed and wounded at Sarwakay and more were injured in a gun battle at Spinkay Raghzay. Local residents said the real fighting had yet to commence most of the Taliban's fighters had retreated into the mountains surrounding Makeen and Ladha, where they are waiting to make their move. For Pakistan's allies in the war on terror, while the offensive is a welcome development, it may not necessarily help their struggtle against the Taliban, across the border in Afghanistan. The army is targeting Taliban fighters from the Mehsud tribe, which have allied themselves with al-Qaeda in attacking Pakistan's military institutions. But its offensive will not target the notorious "Haqqani network", a branch of the Taliban which has mounted some of the worst attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan. Nor will it take on other pro-Afghan Taliban factions which support Mullah Omar's call for militants to focus their attacks on Western forces rather than the Pakistani military. Pakistan's reluctance to target anti-Nato Taliban factions has caused irritation in London and Washington, but has not appeased critics at home. "The Pakistan army is supporting the Americans, so they [the jihadists] consider the Pakistan army to be like American and Nato forces," said Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI officer who describes Osama bin Laden as a friend. "America is trying to destroy Pakistan as a state. You [Pakistan] have to turn your back on America and they [the US] have to get out of Afghanistan. Otherwise, this will never end." His warning was backed by Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq who described its attack on the army's GHQ as a "first small effort" and revealed the involvement of a "Punjabi faction" in the attack. Orders for similar attacks had been given to allies in Sindh and Balochistan, he said. The Sunday Telegraph has learned that five of the 10 gunmen who attacked the army GHQ were in fact members of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, one of a number of militant groups based in southern Punjab which were once trained by the ISI intelligence agency, but which is now beyond its control. Analysts fear that even if the Pakistan army is able to douse the flames in South Waziristan, the fire has already spread to the country's Punjab and Sindh heartlands. "The assumption that Pakistan has the means to fight its own Taliban rebels and control Afghan Taliban, and Kashmiri militants, all at the same time, has to re-examined," said one intelligence analyst. Right now the time to analyse is a luxury neither the country's political or military leaders can afford as they fight what they regard a battle for Pakistan's survival. When General Kayani called together members of the cabinet with the country's main opposition leaders on the eve of the offensive on Friday night, he warned them to brace themselves for an unprecedented terrorist backlash and remain united throughout. Finally, it is "them or us," the army has concluded. "If we don't take the battle to them, they will bring the battle to us," one senior officer explained. (The Sunday Telegraph)