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On the Taliban trail in South Waziristan

By Reza Sayah, CNN
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Rare glimpse into S. Waziristan
  • Pakistan army takes journalists for tour of anti-Taliban offensive in S. Waziristan
  • Restive and largely ungoverned region is headquarters of Pakistani Taliban
  • Army says its strategy of surrounding and killing Taliban is successful

South Waziristan, Pakistan (CNN) -- Take a trip to Pakistan's tribal district of South Waziristan these days and there's no guarantee you won't get hurt, kidnapped or something worse.

The restive and largely ungoverned region is the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban and believed to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.

But the Pakistan army extended a rare invitation to a group of journalists to show they have the Taliban on the run. The trip was carefully organized and our military hosts would show us only what they wanted us to see.

Even so, this was the first time journalists could independently verify some of the army's claims of progress in their showdown against the Taliban.

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The early morning chopper ride over Pakistan's mountainous tribal region was a reminder why this is an ideal safe haven for the world's most notorious militants.

This is no-man's land, one of the most severe terrains in the world. The ethnic Pashtuns who live here are few but fiercely independent and rugged like their mountains.

Some of history's mightiest armies have tried to conquer this land and its people, only to be humbled in the end.

Our first stop was a hilltop in the Sherwangai region where we received a briefing by General Khalid Rabanni, a stocky commander who's leading one of three divisions taking the fight to the Taliban.

The army says its strategy is to surround the Taliban from three sides, move in and kill as many militants as possible.

The strategy was going as planned, said Rabbani, with roughly 28,000 troops steadily beating back the Taliban, capturing heights and hilltops, then moving down into the valleys to take over villages.

"It's a professional army and there's no way they can beat us," said Khalid. "We've been able to outclass them, kill them at places, push them back at places." In a nearby village where mud-walled homes lay in ruins from air strikes, soldiers showed off captured weapons and ammunition.

Most of the Taliban's arsenal came from Afghanistan, they said, a not so subtle jab at the U.S. and NATO operation across the border.

Two laptops and a busted hard drive were on display, as well. The army says the Taliban here had Internet access.

Among the seized items, a German passport got the most attention from journalists. The passport appeared to belong to suspected 9/11 plotter Said Bahaji, the alleged member of the notorious Hamburg cell who's still a wanted man by U.S. and German investigators.

The passport looked real, but it was impossible to be sure.

Initially several army officials were not aware of the passport's possible significance. Later the army's spokesman said he would investigate. The document is perhaps proof that when members of al Qaeda want to hide, Pakistan's tribal region is a favorite destination.

Two officers told me they suspect Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud is still in South Waziristan backed by up to 8,000 Taliban fighters including roughly 1,000 Uzbek militants.

The toughest fights are still to come, they said, in the Taliban strongholds of Kanigurm and Sararogha. Three times since 2004 the army has launched similar offensives here without success, sometimes agreeing to peace deals that eventually fell apart.

This time a peace deal is not an option, said army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.

"Certainly there is no scope of a peace deal," Abbas told CNN. "It is a fight to the finish."

The army is not so certain if success in South Waziristan will mean an immediate end to the wave of deadly suicide bombings in Pakistan. That, said Abbas, would be a long haul.