Over the last few months, Pakistan has learned a hard lesson about cutting deals with Islamist extremists, and at least for now appears ready to act on those lessons. Today Pakistan declared war on Baitullah Mehsud, the most powerful of the Taliban warlords, in South Waziristan. That will come as good news to Afghanistan and NATO, assuming Pakistan doesn’t quit halfway into it:
Pakistan has ordered its army to attack Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taleban, in his mountainous stronghold of South Waziristan — also believed to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda chief.
The order to open a new front was announced last night by Owais Ahmed Ghani, governor of North West Frontier Province, and confirmed by the army, which is already fighting the Taleban in several regions across the northwest.
The announcement will be welcomed by the United States, which has been pushing Pakistan to attack South Waziristan, although some officials and experts have raised concerns about overstretching the Pakistani army.
Mr Ghani blamed Mr Mehsud for a suicide bombing that killed eight people yesterday in the town of Dera Ismail Khan — the latest in a spate of attacks since the army attacked the Taleban in the northwestern region of Swat in late April.
Mehsud and his arm of the Taliban has a close relationship with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Mehsud has been on the US target list for years, but successive Pakistani governments have been reluctant to go after Mehsud. The terrain in South Waziristan strongly favors Mehsud, and previous skirmishes have alienated tribes in the region that have taken the worst of the fighting.
Musharraf and Zardari have both tried truces and bribes in the region, to no avail. Mehsud has no intention of retiring, and he wants to see an Islamist revolution wipe out the Islamabad government. A series of very foolish truces with the radical Islamists nearly achieved that end earlier this spring, until the Islamabad government had no choice but to fight or flee.
How long will Zardari and Gilani fight in South Waziristan? The army has not performed well there in the past for various reasons, and the intelligence service is almost openly sympathetic to the Islamists. If Islamabad could call for NATO support and coordination in the fight, it would make a great deal of difference, but that itself could create a revolution. But even a half-measure at this time would be better than the full-scale retreat of the past year or so, and the US and NATO can take advantage of the fighting through less public means and squeeze Mehsud and AQ in their stronghold.