The Pakistani Army has finally begun to act against the Taliban and its allies in Swat and Buner, but the effort may be too little, too late.  The government in Islamabad told Swat residents to flee, and more than 500,000 refugees may descend on the capital as the Army prepares to dislodge the extremists after an ill-advised truce allowed them to seize control and initiative.  But will the Army actually act on behalf of the tottering civilian government?

Pakistani authorities advised the people of Swat valley, in the north west, to evacuate the district’s main town Mingora Tuesday, as Taliban extremists took effective control of the place.

A humanitarian crisis now looks likely as the provincial government said that 500,000 people are expected to flee Swat.

Locals reported that Taliban fighters in charge of the streets of Mingora, having fought gun-battles with the local army base through the night.

The Zardari government has tried mightily to maintain the fantasy of a peace accord with the Taliban, even as they seized more territory and came closer to the capital.  Now he wants to get the Army out to oppose the Taliban, but that won’t be easy.  Pakistani troops didn’t enlist to fight fellow Pakistanis, and more than a few of them sympathize with the Islamist cause:

Yet even as the Taliban continued its rampage and rejected the government’s latest concession to its demands — the appointment of Islamic-law judges in Swat — Pakistan’s military leaders clung to hopes for a nonviolent solution, saying that security forces were “still exercising restraint to honor the peace agreement.”

Behind this strained hope for a peaceful solution lie an array of factors — competing military priorities, reluctance to fight fellow Muslims, lack of strong executive leadership and some internal sympathy for the insurgents — that analysts say have long prevented the Pakistani army from making a full-fledged assault on violent Islamist groups.

Over the past two days, extremists in the northwest have attacked a military convoy, beheaded two soldiers, imposed a curfew and blown up a boys’ high school and a police station. Troop reinforcements were sent into Buner on Monday after heavy fighting, and there were reports that the army would imminently launch an attack on Swat, an action that could coincide with a crucial aid-seeking visit to Washington this week by President Asif Ali Zardari, whose government has been criticized by U.S. officials for capitulating to the insurgents.

In the past five years, the army has made periodic moves against various militant strongholds but has frequently pulled back, often amid public anger over bombing raids. Insurgent leaders hold news conferences and spew religious hatred on FM radio stations with no interference.

Pakistanis are terrified at the speed at which this government has appeared to collapse:

This and other coordinated attacks — along with threats to women, shops selling CDs and barbers — suggest that the Taliban are bleeding out of their traditional havens in the Northwest Frontier Province into Pakistan’s Punjab heartland, home to more than half of the country’s 180 million people.

A growing terror nexus threatens to engulf this nuclear-armed country, with Pakistan’s previously fragmented militant fringe joining forces against the weak civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Although the country does not appear to be at imminent risk of falling under militant control, many government sympathizers are alarmed at the speed with which the insurgency has spread in recent months — as well as the patchy response from the country’s stretched police and army.

The Taliban already have de facto rule of the northwest’s Swat Valley and are advancing elsewhere with increasingly bold attacks, emboldened by a government peace deal that has been criticized by the United States — and is now close to collapse.

It seems odd to be nostalgic for the Musharraf regime, doesn’t it?  Pervez Musharraf made foolish truces with the extremists, but he eventually fought back, and at least to some degree of effectiveness.  Pakistan’s civilian government appears paralyzed, and unless something changes quickly, it won’t long survive.  An influx of 500,000 refugees from Swat will overwhelm already-drowning state resources and could lead to anarchy and revolution in a very short period.

Barack Obama assured reporters that we have a contingency plan to seize Pakistan’s nukes in the event of collapse.  We’d better be practicing that plan now.