The Taliban have made very public inroads into formerly peaceful areas of Pakistan, thanks largely to a peace deal that imposes Islamic law on nearly a third of the Northwest Frontier Province. Militants have used that area as a base, residents say, and they have flouted requirements in that area that they disarm. Wednesday they set up checkpoints and began patrolling the streets with weapons, just as they did for months during nearly two years of fighting with the military.
The Taliban's increasing strength caught the attention of U.S. officials Wednesday, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling Pakistan a "mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world."
"I think that we cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the continuing advances, now within hours, of Islamabad," she told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, "being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state."
"I think that the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists," she said.
Islamabad Residents Worry Taliban Encroaching on Capital
The Pashtuns who dominate the area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have a saying: "Every passing moment is better than the next one here."
Residents say that is an apt description of the current state of law and order in Pakistan, which has deteriorated to the point where people living in Islamabad are questioning whether the Taliban will soon challenge the writ of the state inside the capital itself.
The most public Taliban advance came in Buner, just south of the Swat Valley, part of the northwest area where the government signed a deal last week to impose Islamic law. In Buner, residents had managed to fend off Taliban militants for months. But eventually the militants overran the area, forcing many to flee to Islamabad, less than 100 miles away.
Horrific Stories of Escape
"We were crying for help because we knew we were next," 35-year-old Sami ur Rehman told ABC News, referring to the week before the Taliban overran Buner. "The government did not bother [to help] -- as if we did not matter."
Buner residents who have since fled their homes tell horrific stories of escape.
"First my marble factory in the area was captured and then my house and now they all were on the loose to destroy everything in the village," one resident currently in Islamabad told the Pakistani newspaper, The News. "I lifted my aging mother in my arms along with my son and wife to cross the mountains to reach the nearby road and hired a taxi to reach Islamabad. I cannot sleep as the families of my brothers, sisters and their children were still trapped in the village, which is now under occupation."
Police in Buner have largely disappeared, much as they did in Swat before the peace deal was signed. The Pakistani government hoped the deal would placate the Taliban, bringing peace to a restive valley and confining militants to a section of the northwest they largely controlled already.
President Asif Ali Zardari, according to intelligence officials, also signed the agreement under a great deal of fear. The officials say they had information the Taliban was on the verge of a major attack, and so encouraged Zardari to sign because it would likely prevent the attack from occurring.
But since the deal was signed, the religious leader who helped negotiate it for the government has indicated he will never be in favor of a Pakistan ruled by a democratic government.
Sufi Muhammad told reporters earlier this week that Pakistan's supreme court no longer applied to laws passed in the Swat Valley, now that Islamic law has created a system of courts whose judges are approved by the Taliban. He also called the supreme court and democracy itself "un-Islamic."
The spokesman for the Taliban in Swat, Muslim Khan, told the Associated Press earlier this week that international militants should come to Swat in order to find a safe haven.
Taliban's Movement Alarms Islamabad
"Osama can come here," Khan said, referring to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "Sure, like a brother they can stay anywhere they want. Yes, we will help them and protect them."
The Taliban's movement south toward Islamabad has alarmed the capital, which has been on edge for weeks.
Diplomats who used to drive around in traditional cars are now moving into bulletproof SUVs.
"Give them an inch and they'll take a mile," said one Western diplomat of the Swat peace deal. "The government is in a position of weakness."
Today residents of Islamabad described seeing two women in burqas, walking around the city, taking a kind of informal census. The two were asking who lived in certain homes, residents said, presumably looking for foreigners, diplomats, or NGOs.
Similar incidents have taken place in Islamabad before, especially during the 2007 crackdown on the Red Mosque, when security forces battled with radical, well-armed students in the center of the city.
The incident only served to increase fears in a city where NGO workers are leaving their offices early because of security risks and many diplomats are being told not to travel around.
"It's all very depressing," said one senior diplomat who sees intelligence reports about risks to the city. "It's hard to stay optimistic about the place."
One resident of Buner, who refused to give his name out of fear of reprisal, said he wanted Islamabad to suffer. That, he said, would be the only way the government would choose to fight the Taliban instead of sign peace deals with them.
"I just pray it happens to them so they realize what we went through," he said. "We are finished. We have nothing left."