ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 17, 2008— -- For the second day in a row, Pakistani troops abandoned an army base in South Waziristan, a region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that is a stronghold for militants. And this time, the militants didn't even attack.
One hundred frontier troops in the Chagmalai Fort received threats from militants and apparently decided it was a better idea to flee than to stay and defend themselves, an intelligence source and local residents told ABC News. The fort was filled with heavy weaponry, including artillery guns and rocket propelled grenades.
"They've abandoned the place," Abid, who lives in the area, told ABC News as helicopters circled overhead. "They've made so many blockades, we can't even get food, and we only have three to four rations left."
The abandonment comes one day after 22 soldiers were killed by as many as 600 militants who overran the nearby Sararogha fort. It was one of the first times that militants have forcibly captured an army fort, representing an embarrassing defeat for the government and the Pakistani military.
The militants' victories are more evidence that the pro-Taliban insurgency is growing in Pakistan's tribal areas, and what little confidence there once was in the Pakistani military to fight back is virtually gone.
The military, analysts say, is unable -- or at least unwilling -- to stand up against the Taliban and its allies in the tribal areas, an area the size of Luxemburg along the border with Afghanistan. And the militants have managed to stop their infighting and unite themselves under the title of Taliban Movement of Pakistan.
"This group has decided that they will collectively respond to any military operation by the Pakistani authorities and they were demanding an end to the military operations by the Pakistan army in Waziristan, Swat and other areas," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, an ABC consultant who has covered the Taliban since its inception. "And they also gave a threat. That if these military operations were not stopped, then they would react: They would launch more attacks in Pakistan."
In a secret meeting held last month in South Waziristan, delegates from more than 26 militant groups joined forces and chose a man named Baitullah Mehsud as their leader, tribal sources told ABC News.
Mehsud, also known as the emir of South Waziristan, is described as a brutal and able leader who commands thousands of fighters. He is, for Pakistan, more dangerous than Osama bin Laden.
"He seems to have a large reservoir of suicide bombers, and he is a bigger threat in this region -- in Pakistan and certain border provinces of Afghanistan -- than even the al Qaeda leadership," Yusufzai said.
His attacks are getting more sophisticated. Militant groups from North and South Waziristan, who had never worked together before are now coordinating. Yusufzai called Mehsud's operational capabilites "remarkable."
"He's able to target the precise unit or department or organization, which is involved in military operations against him or his allies," Yusufzai said. "He's able to hit any place, any where, any time."
Although the militants never take responsibility for suicide attacks, which are now almost a daily event in Pakistan, analysts do link moves made by the military against Islamic radicals in the cities and in the frontier agencies with some 400 attacks in the last year. The targets are mostly police and soldiers, but civilians have died as well.
"They see an enemy at home," Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Daniel Markey said of the militants. "The apparatus of the Pakistani state has turned from their protector and their supplier to an enemy, or at least an authority that is not theirs."
Pakistan is in the middle of its most violent nine months since $10 billion flowed here from the United States. It is, by some measures, the most violent period in Pakistani history, since it was born out of British India in 1947.
Since the government cracked down on heavily armed militants holed up in an Islamabad mosque last summer, there have been some 400 attacks, killing at least 3,000 people. In October, Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa against Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, saying his "loyalty, submissiveness and aid" to the United States "makes armed rebellion against him and removing him obligatory."
The violence has gotten worse lately. In just the last week, three suicide bombs have exploded in three of the country's largest cities, killing more than 30 people, about half of them police officers.
The U.S. government has taken notice. The New York Times reported that the White House was considering authorizing the CIA to launch more attacks inside Paksitan near the border areas, where bin Laden and al Qaeda's leadership are believed to be hiding.
And last month in widely reported comments, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that al Qaeda had shifted its focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan and "re-established itself" along the ungoverned border.
"Al Qaeda right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistan people," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.
The Pakistani government blames militants and specifically Mehsud for at least 21 suicide attacks in the last few months, most notably the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The Musharraf administration released an audio tape it claimed included Mehsud calling Bhutto's two assassins "brave boys."
Mehsud's spokesman denied that he was involved in Bhutto's death, calling the audio tape a "drama."
"He had no involvement in this attack,'' Maulana Omar told wire services over the phone. "This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies. It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman."
But it is clear that Mehsud is targeting Pakistan's institutions, more specifically and more successfully than ever before.
"It's not just that they are carrying out regular attacks," a Western official told ABC News. "It is that they are able to target the Pakistan military so effectively."
The attacks have been especially successful against the outgunned and outmanned Pakistani troops near the border with Afghanistan.
"The frontier corps isn't prepared for this mission in the least. They'd be stupid not to run away sometimes, because the alternative is much worse. And they're neither trained nor equipped to stand up against these kinds of attacks," Markey said. "The militants have lived there their whole lives. The Pakistani army are just imports. They're like the red coats of the Revolutionary War."