|Major-General Abbas said that the army has no option of losing the battle against the Taliban [AFP]|
Outside Pakistan’s main army headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi stands a makeshift memorial. It is covered with flowers and messages of support for soldiers who have died, particularly those killed when armed men stormed the compound earlier this month.
On the fence, hangs a large, white banner which tells the tens of thousands who pass this spot every day: “We sacrificed our today for your tomorrow.” While we stand and wait for permission to film it, a young man steps forward, carrying a bouquet of flowers.
He salutes, and slowly bends to add his tribute to those already there. He takes a few steps back, bows his head and begins to pray silently. It is a simple and heartfelt tribute.
The shrine may soon have a few more names. Those of the soldiers killed in the offensive now under way in South Waziristan.
The army’s voice
In another part of the complex we are introduced to Major-General Attar Abbas. He is the army’s senior spokesman, the man who articulates the message the military wants to get out to the public. He is smart and polite. He has had a busy few days since the security forces launched their attack against the Pakistan Taliban led by Hakimullah Mehsud.
“This is a fight to the finish. There is no option of losing”
Major-General Athar Abbas, Pakistani military spokesman
About 30,000 soldiers are involved in the operation he believes is vital for the army and the state.
“The people want this to finish off, because they are fed up from the acts of terrorism in their cities and their towns. They want this organisation which is responsible for so much of the mayhem and so much panic and terrorism, they want the military to finish the job,” he says.
People knew the offensive was coming and 80,000 of them left the area, heading for safety. It the past few days, they have been joined by another 25,000. The army knows how many soldiers it has lost, and makes daily claims on the number of Taliban it has killed.
So I ask just how many civilians have died after being caught in the fighting. He is certain: “None.”
When I tell him pictures from the area show the dead in the streets of one of the towns near the frontlines in South Waziristan, he apologies: “We deeply regret if there is a civilian casualty and we are with the grieved family at that.
“I have not seen the pictures you are referring too, but if it is true, we deeply regret in case there is a casualty.
“We are fighting a remote area, away from the population centres, we are doing all we can to avoid casualties.”
For days, rumours have circulated that the government made a deal with two powerful, anti-US tribal chiefs to stop them joining the battle against them.
It has been reported that Taliban factions run by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur would allow the army to move through their lands without being attacked. This would open up new fronts in the assault. In return, the army would ease patrols and bombings in the areas controlled by the two men.
The Pakistanis have been criticised in the past for making deals like this, but Major-General Abbas, while not confirming any agreement, says it is a sensible step which could bring long-term peace to the region.
“When the state is seen to have turned out the biggest bully from the area, it has defeated that and it is seen by everyone around to have done that, then it creates vibes all over the place.
“It radiates effects all around and, therefore, what we expect is that since we have broken the centre of gravity, we have made them see this bully has been defeated, the terrorist organisation, this network has been dismantled and thereby the effect, which is natural, sees others re-adjust to this new existing reality.”
The battle in South Waziristan has, in some quarters, been described as the fight for the future of Pakistan.
The general doesn’t disagree: “This is a fight to the finish. There is no option of losing this. It is very important to our people that we must win this fight, we must get rid of this organisation which is responsible for over 80 per cent of the acts of terrorism and mayhem in our country.”
Opinion polls suggest that the Pakistani public support the action in South Waziristan although there are loud dissenting voices.
The army knows if Operation Path of Deliverance takes too long, if civilian casualties mount or their makeshift memorial gets much bigger, that support could quickly disappear.