Friday, May 08, 2009

Pakistan Launches Assault on Taliban

The truce between the Taliban and Pakistan in the Swat valley comes to an end:

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in a late-night televised address to the nation, said Pakistan would launch a full-scale offensive against Pakistani Taliban guerrillas who've seized control of the vast Swat valley, which is about 100 miles north of the capital.

Pakistan will no longer "bow our heads before the terrorists," Gilani said in an 11 p.m. address as he called on citizens to rally behind the armed forces. He said that the government had tried peaceful negotiation with Taliban entrenched in the Swat valley, but the strategy hadn't worked.

Pakistan had "reached a stage where the government believes that decisive steps have to be taken," he said, and the army's job now was to "eliminate the militants and the terrorists."

Thousands of civilians have fled from Swat and neighboring districts in the fighting between the army and militants in the past week, but hundreds of thousands are unable to move and could be caught in the crossfire. Gilani appealed to the international community for humanitarian aid.

The government's call to arms only seemed possible because of a seismic shift in public opinion against the militants, which only took place in the past few weeks after a deal with the Taliban in Swat went badly sour.

"After a long time, the people see a ray of hope," said analyst Khadim Hussain, of the Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, an independent research organization in Islamabad. "For the first time, the majority of the population, the people in the conflict zone, and the military, are thinking along the same lines."

The February peace accord, following two half-hearted army operations against the Taliban, would've imposed Islamic law in Swat. The Taliban, however, failed to disarm as they'd pledged, and invaded the neighboring district of Buner — which put them within 60 miles of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. The Taliban may have overestimated their invincibility and their popular support.

Many Pakistanis thought that the Taliban and other extremists sought only to root out vices and usher in Islamic law in a country that's almost entirely Muslim.

Brutal behavior by the Swat extremists had the nation recoiling in horror, realizing that the real agenda was to seize territory and power. As well as the shock of the Buner incursion, a video emerged last month of a young woman being publicly beaten in Swat for alleged adultery, and the Taliban's political representative, Sufi Mohammad, gave a speech in which he denounced democracy as an "infidel" system.

The Taliban may have overplayed their hands, but it's not at all clear that the Pakistan army possesses the capability to rout the Taliban. As is usual in war, the offensive will hardest on civilians who are unable to get out of the line of fire.

No comments: