ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan declared war on its homegrown Islamic extremists Thursday in a dramatic move that could trigger a wider conflagration.
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.
Islamabad acted under intense American pressure and after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned last month that the situation in Pakistan "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world."
The Taliban, which seized control of Swat in northeastern Pakistan early this week, are linked to al Qaida and other extremist networks in the ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border, as well as to cells in Islamabad and across Pakistan. A spinoff of the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani militants are even more extreme and ideologically committed.
In taking on the homegrown Taliban, nuclear-armed Pakistan risks devastating retaliatory terrorist strikes in its cities. Extremists are sure to accuse the pro-Western government of buckling under U.S. pressure. The move conceivably could also trigger terrorist assaults in the West — which would probably require cooperation from al Qaida, as the Pakistani Taliban have no known strike capacity overseas.
The Obama administration, which had been criticizing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari before his arrival in Washington this week, welcomed the move.
"We have seen, in the last week or two, significant Pakistani military action against . . . the Taliban in Buner District and in clear recognition that the agreement in Swat has failed," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Kabul. He added that he was "very satisfied with the strong response that the Pakistani government and army have taken in response to this."
Ruling out any active role for U.S. combat troops in Pakistan, Gates said that the U.S. "goal is to work with the Pakistani army, with the Pakistani government as they deal with this problem. And we are willing to do all we can to help them."
In Washington, however, U.S. officials said they'd still seen no indication that the army was pulling any major combat formations off the border with India and preparing to dispatch them or other major ground units to the battle in and around Swat.
The bulk of the government offensive, they said, was still being carried by the frontier corps, a paramilitary force commanded by regular army officers and comprised of troops drawn from the Pashtun tribes that inhabit the area along the border with Afghanistan where most of the Taliban originate. The officials couldn't be named because they weren't authorized to speak to the news media.
Swat is a partly urbanized area, making civilian casualties a near-certainty. There are fears of a bloodbath if residents are unable to evacuate the main city, Mingora, and other towns.
Thousands fled southwards as skirmishes broke out in recent days, but according to desperate civilians in Swat, most residents north of Mingora, in towns such as Matta and Bahrain, have been prevented from leaving by an official curfew and by Taliban roadblocks.
"People from the upper areas are trapped," said a man from Bahrain, too afraid to give his name, who managed to get out by circumventing the roadblocks, but he had to leave his family behind. "The curfews had only been relaxed in Mingora (over the past few days), not in other places."
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 ambition of the Taliban brought about an unusual coming together of political and public opinion, although sections of the Islamic right still opposes military action.
Crucially, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a religious conservative, spoke out recently against the Taliban advance, following assiduous courting by the U.S. and other Western powers. Sharif, whose base is in Punjab, the most populous Pakistani province, previously had advocated dialogue as the only solution.
"The situation reached a point where we cannot keep talking only, we have to couple it with force," said Khawaja Asif, a senior member of Sharif's party, responding to the televised speech. "The country must rally behind the armed forces."
Pakistan's army had privately complained that the federal or provincial governments gave it neither firm direction nor strong backing for military action, following the restoration of democracy in early 2008. Now, even the pacifist-inclined Awami National Party, which runs the government of the North West Frontier Province and had promoted the Swat peace accord, supports a military offensive. Nevertheless, there will be condemnation from Islamic nationalists.
"We are opposed to this policy; it is directed against the innocent people of Pakistan, not the militants," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the former head of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the two mainstream religious parties. "This is for the Americans and the Indians."
The Taliban, previously based in large numbers only in the tribal areas, began their annexation of Swat in mid-2007. The army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said the army estimates there 4,000 to 5,000 Taliban fighters in Swat.
The major open question is whether the army will throw more firepower at the operation and employ its full resources, perhaps even moving troops stationed along its eastern border with arch-enemy India.
A meeting of corp commanders, led by the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, took place ahead of Gilani's announcement. Kayani said in a statement that the "Pakistan army is fully aware of the gravity of internal threat. It will employ requisite resources to ensure a decisive ascendancy over the militants." In a pointed reference to India, he added: "Concurrently, army is also fully prepared to meet the conventional threat."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
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