Pakistan goes to war?

The civilian government in Pakistan has finally admitted what everyone else knew from the beginning — that signing peace agreements with the Taliban amount to surrender.  Now, with the rebels gobbling up territory and pushing within sight of Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousuf Gillani has finally declared war on the Taliban … again:

Pakistan’s prime minister told the nation Thursday that the armed forces were being “called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists” who have forcibly occupied part of the country’s northwest, sending thousands of civilians fleeing from the region in the past week.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani’s announcement, made in a late-night, televised address, signaled the final collapse of a fragile peace accord between the government and Taliban forces in the Swat region. It also represented the civilian government’s formal green light for a full-fledged offensive by the military, which until now has been fighting sporadically.

Gillani called on all Pakistanis to unite behind the armed forces “to restore the honor and dignity” of the nation, the safety of citizens and the authority of the government. “We will defend every inch of our homeland at any cost,” he declared.

Gillani’s address came on another day of intense but scattered clashes. Military officials said the army and other security forces had attacked militant positions with warplanes, attack helicopters and tanks. They said that they killed at least 80 Taliban fighters in Swat and Buner districts, and that nine soldiers died in an ambush and other attacks. A son of a senior Islamist leader in Swat, Sufi Mohammed, was also reported to have been killed by army shelling.

Gillani and President Asif Ali Zardari aren’t the first Pakistani leaders to mistakenly trust a peace accord.  Pervez Musharraf tried it twice, with similarly disastrous results.  The Taliban repaid Musharraf with repeated plots against his life and uprisings that eventually forced Musharraf to use the army to suppress.

The situation is more dire now than ever before.  The lax effort by Pakistan to confront radical Islamist forces have emboldened them to a much greater degree than before.  Pakistan all but surrendered Swat, once a tourist destination, in the hope that Baitullah Mehsud and his cohorts would be satisfied with it.  Instead, they surged into Buner and towards Islamabad.  Their successes have created 500,000 refugees fleeing into Islamabad, creating a public-services crisis on top of the military problem of recapturing the territory.

The big question will be whether the military will follow Gillani and Zardari into battle against other Pakistanis.  Reportedly, one of the considerations that went into Pakistan’s decision to acquiesce in Swat was a lack of confidence that the military would respond well in a confrontation.  Now they have a much bigger conflict on their hands, with an enemy that has entrenched itself even deeper in that region.  That will make for very harsh fighting, and if the military doesn’t have the heart for it, this “war” will be very short, and could undermine what little confidence is left in the civilian government.