Saturday's attack on Pakistan's military headquarters was not entirely unexpected as militants have in the last two years struck at several military targets in Rawalpindi, including a suicide bombing at a GHQ checkpoint in November 2007.
But it was the method and the audacity of Saturday's attack, and the apparent inability of the Army to bring the situation back under control more than 12 hours after it began, that has left observers stunned and shaken.
Until late in the night, some militants were still holding about seven civilian and military personnel hostage in a building at the GHQ, evoking memories of the hostage crisis during the Mumbai attack in November 2008.
Interestingly, as the attack was taking place, an anti-terror court in Rawalpindi's Adiala Jail was framing charges against seven suspects arrested by Pakistan for their involvement in the Mumbai attacks.
The attack at the military headquarters began at 11.30 a.m. when the heavily armed militants drove up to the outermost checkpoint of the GHQ in a Suzuki high-roof van. They were wearing army camouflage uniforms.
Their military attire appears to have given the militants an upper hand as, according to Major-General Athar Abbas, it caused a “slight confusion” among the guards at the checkpoint, allowing them to fire their way through.
By the time the Army managed to mount a response, the militants, throwing grenades and firing away from their automatic weapons, had reached the second checkpoint.
A one-hour gunbattle ensued at this checkpoint, after which four militants and six soldiers lay dead. Among the six soldiers were a brigadier and a lieutenant-colonel.
At this point, the military announced that the attack had been repulsed and all the militants killed, but at least two or more militants had managed to sneak past the second check-point into a building housing security offices.
Major-General Abbas said it was only when the militants fired from the building that it became clear they were inside and holding hostages. Late at night, the military said there would be no negotiations with the militants.
The attack, claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, has shown that the militants, who were thought to have been weakened by the death of their leader Beithullah Mehsud in a U.S. air strike on August 5, still retain capability to carry out ambitious attacks.
The Pakistan Army and the government had announced plans to carry out an anti-Taliban operation in South Waziristan, similar to the one earlier this year in Swat.
Observers see the attack on the GHQ as an attempt by the militants to pre-empt the attack and shatter the confidence of the armed forces.
Third attack in a week
This was the third attack by militants this week. On Monday, a suicide bomber dressed as a paramilitary trooper, entered the office of the World Food Programme and blew himself up, killing five people.
On Friday, a deadly car bomb explosion in the heart of Peshawar killed 50 people and left more than 150 others wounded.But the attack on the GHQ, as one senior Pakistani journalist observed, has a symbolism as powerful as the attack on the Twin Towers in the U.S.
The GHQ, located in Rawalpindi, is the most important power-centre in Pakistan, much more so than any other civilian institution.It is here that the all powerful Army chief and other senior Army officials have their offices.
It is at the GHQ that Pakistan's most important decisions are taken and conveyed to the civilian leadership, when there is one, such as earlier this week, when the corps commanders made their “concerns” over the Kerry-Lugar Bill public.
But the Army has said the South Waziristan operations will take place. The Awami National Party, which ruled the North-West Frontier Province, however, warned that an operation in the tribal areas was no longer sufficient.
Mian Ifthikar, NWFP Information Minister, warned that militancy and terrorism could not be controlled unless the Army closed down the “nurseries” of the militants in the Punjab province.
At a press conference earlier on Saturday, he mentioned Muridke, where the Jamat-ud-dawa, a front of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has its headquarters, as one such place.