Taliban militants, heavily armed and disguised in military uniforms, struck at the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Saturday, taking up to 15 soldiers hostage and killing 6, including two ranking officers.
The standoff continued into the early hours of Sunday. Four militants were among the dead.
The attack comes as Pakistan’s military readies for an offensive against militants holed up in the mountainous South Waziristan region in the country’s northwest.
The hostage situation playing out a stone’s throw away from the Pakistani capital Islamabad highlighted the deadly potency of the Pakistani Taliban at a time when reports suggest that one of the strategies the Obama administration is contemplating is a softer approach toward to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, dismissed the rationale behind this strategy — that al Qaeda, not the Taliban, is the real enemy — as a fairy tale.
He said the attack in Rawalpindi showed the extent of the Taliban’s reach. This attack underscores the audacity of the Taliban, Mr. Riedel told The Washington Times. Attacking the Pakistani Pentagon shows the jihadists can strike anywhere.
He said the bar for determining whether the Taliban are willing to enter into serious negotiations with the U.S. should be whether they are willing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Mr. Riedel oversaw the review of President Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said four or five assailants were holding between 10 and 15 troops hostage in a building close to the main gates of the complex in Rawalpindi, the Associated Press reported. He said no senior military or intelligence officials were among the hostages.
Pakistani soldiers had surrounded the complex. They will decide how and when to act, Gen. Abbas said, declining to comment on whether authorities had attempted to talk to the hostage takers or whether they had made any demands.
A shuttle van driver who witnessed the attack told the Associated Press, There was fierce firing, and then there was a blast.
Soldiers were running here and there, Khan Bahadur said. The firing continued for about a half-hour. There was smoke everywhere. Then there was a break, and then firing again.
The assailants drove to the army headquarters in a white van with military plates.
Officials and analysts were stunned by the serious breach of security in one of the most heavily guarded areas of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation.
Gen. Abbas told Pakistan’s Geo TV gunmen had eluded security forces and slipped into the compound.
We are trying to finish it [the siege] at the earliest, clear the area of terrorists and restore complete control, he said.
He said a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel were among the six soldiers who had been killed. Five others were wounded, one critically.
A police intelligence report in July obtained by the Associated Press on Saturday warned that members of the Taliban, along with Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant group based in the country’s Punjab province, were planning to attack army headquarters after disguising themselves as soldiers.
Pakistani media reported that the Taliban had claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack.
The attack in Rawalpindi comes on the heels of a warning from Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud that his fighters will avenge the death of their former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a U.S. drone attack in August, and resist the army’s operation in Waziristan.
The Pakistani government vowed to press ahead with its offensive.
I want to give a message to the Taliban that what we did with you in Swat, we will do the same to you there [in Waziristan], too, said Interior Minister Rehman Malik. He was referring to the military’s operation which drove the Taliban out of the picturesque Swat Valley, about 100 miles northwest of Islamabad. We are going to come heavy on you, he warned.
Officials said Saturday they had raided a house in the capital where the attackers were thought to have stayed. They found military uniforms and bomb-making equipment, the Associated Press reported.
Lisa Curtis, a South Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said recent statements from the White House “making distinctions between the Taliban and al Qaeda and implying that the Taliban is somehow less inimical to U.S. interests are incongruous with developments on the ground.
Saturday’s assault was the latest in a string of attacks by the Taliban. A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week and another bombing across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed at least 49.
Earlier this month, a Taliban suicide bomber struck the United Nations’ World Food Program office in Islamabad. That attack killed five employees. The bomber who attacked the U.N. was also wearing a security forces’ uniform and was granted entry to the compound after asking to use the bathroom.
Indian and Afghan officials have accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of playing a role in the attack on the Indian Embassy.
But Sumit Ganguly, director of research at the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University in Bloomington, said the hostage situation in Rawalpindi showed some factions of the Taliban may well be out of the hands of their Pakistani mentors.
Furthermore, some of these factions may well be unhappy with the willingness of [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari’s government to work with the U.S., Mr. Ganguly told The Times, adding, Their willingness to accept the Kerry-Lugar funds may have also incensed elements of the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan’s military and opposition leader have chastised the Zardari government over U.S. legislation that links military aid to Pakistan to cooperation from Islamabad in the war against the Taliban, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
In an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Wednesday, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi admitted better language could be used in the legislation.