|Pakistan's military has seized Baine Baba Ziarat, the highest point in Swat valley, from the Taliban
It is the roof of North West Pakistan: Baine Baba Ziarat is the highest peak in the Swat valley.
It was also until less than two weeks ago a stronghold of forces aligned to the Taliban.
I was taken by helicopter up to the peak by the Pakistani military, eager to give evidence to its claims that it is making major advances on the ground in the ongoing offensive.
This is more a fortress than a camp. It is a staggering complex of caves, tunnels and concealed gun emplacements – and commands a view of virtually the entire Swat valley.
It’s a place that was built over years rather than months. The caves show signs of permanent habitation – the entire underground labyrinth wired for electricity provided by multiple generators.
It is difficult to comprehend how the fighters were able to bring all the equipment up the mountain – it would be a journey of weeks by mule train.
Earlier at a military briefing, we were shown surveillance footage of the area taken shortly before the army launched its operation to seize control.
Armed individuals are clearly discernible – but what ultimately gave the location away was the network of trails leading to the peak. There would be no reason for anyone other than those seeking concealment to be there.
Also in the briefing was a very clear exposition of the strategy behind the Swat Valley operation, one that has political as well as military components.
Major-General Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, explained the wider campaign against internal insurgency began as far back as December 2007.
This went through various phases of military action followed by either surrender or periods of negotiation with various armed groups.
The peace deal reached earlier this year with Taliban groups in the Swat Valley was yet another pause in the ongoing game of high stakes cat and mouse.
When the deal was broken and the Taliban groups advanced towards the capital, Islamabad, a new phase began.
Abbas says this phase is one that will not end in negotiation – the instructions from the political leaders are to push the campaign until the enemy is defeated.
Essentially the gloves are off, and the military is operating with the assurance that there will be no pause for any negotiation.
Isolating the Taliban
At the same time, there appears to be an understanding among the military of the wider strategy as outlined by the government: The armed offensive is just one component of regaining control of the Swat Valley, the other and perhaps even more important aspect - certainly in the long term - is to regain political control.
In order to achieve this, those supporting the Taliban need to be isolated politically as well as defeated militarily.
The end of the military offensive would be just the beginning of the critical phase in establishing what General Abbas calls “the writ of the government”- the ultimate end of the campaign is to allow the return of a civilian administration that has the support of the majority of people in the valley.
It is only with this in the government view that the challenge of armed insurgency can be dealt with on a long-term basis.
This need to maintain civilian support brings with it specific operational considerations: underlying the ongoing campaign is an absolute imperative to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, the military says.
The officer commanding the 19th Division of the Pakistani army is Major-General Sajjad Ghani, the officer in charge of operations in the upper Swat valley.
General Ghani says the full resources of the military can be deployed in rural areas- for example the capture of Baine Baba Ziarat involved the use of fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships, mortars and artillery.
However Ghani said none of these resources are being deployed in urban combat because that would put civilians in the middle of the fighting at greater risk.
Instead, the general maintains it is infantry and infantry alone that is being deployed in densely populated regions. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the current operation to take control of Mingora will be, according to the army, “painfully slow”.
There are an estimated ten to twenty thousand civilians still in Mingora, and if the declared operational parameters are being followed then only foot soldiers are being deployed with little or no air or artillery support.
The military briefing also made clear that the operation against armed insurgency will not end in Swat.
Major-General Abbas told me that the offensive in Swat could well provide the blueprint for campaigns in other parts of the country.
I asked specifically whether he was referring to North and South Waziristan and he said yes.
He says the government will ultimately determine the priorities - and in consultation with the military - will deploy forces where and when needed according to what is regarded as the greatest challenge to national sovereignty at any given time.
Victory in the Swat valley then, if achieved, may not be the end of the government’s campaign to establish national control – it may well just mark the beginning.