Pakistan has deployed 1,500 paramilitary troops to protect Peshawar, the provincial capital of the Northwest Frontier Province that many fear could soon fall to the Taliban.
As Pakistan moved in its forces, it also bombarded suspected militant hideouts with mortar shells, The Associated Press reported.
Islamic militants and criminal gangs have taken advantage of a leadership void in Islamabad to expand their activities rapidly in recent weeks, according to security officials, analysts and terrorized residents.
"I am really alarmed by the way things are moving," said Lt. Gen. Talat Massood, a former defense secretary. "It's not just creeping Talibanization. Now it's rapidly advancing."
This week alone, militants held a public execution before thousands of cheering supporters torched the country's only ski resort and threatened music shop owners with dire consequences if they didn't close down.
They bombed schools for girls, and even held a march in an upscale Peshawar suburb, warning women not to come out on the streets.
Frontier residents also complain of a rising tide of violent crime: roadside banditry, rape, extortion and kidnapping. Even Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan was kidnapped and held for ransom by militants who snatched him on the outskirts of Peshawar.
Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a semiautonomous region that buffers the Afghan border, has been wracked by militant violence since 2006. It surged into the so-called "settled" regions of the frontier in recent months, and its rapid spread across the Northwest Frontier Province has alarmed many.
Analysts say it's not that the Taliban — and allied criminal groups working with them — are so strong, but that Pakistan's government, elected in February, is so weak and indecisive.
"The strength of the militants is worrisome, but the lack of governance is now critical," said author Ahmed Rashid, whose latest book "Descent in Chaos" portrays a Pakistan spinning out of control.
Even Fazl-ur-Rehman, a pro-Taliban cleric and member of parliament, told the National Assembly this week he believes the entire frontier province could for the first time soon fall into the hands of the Taliban.
A senior provincial security official told ABC News he didn't even think police and paramilitary forces could defend Peshawar if the Taliban entered the teeming city.
"If they decide to walk into this metropolis, we don't have the force to stop them," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment to the media. "Law and order is nonexistent and our security forces are tired and have no will to fight."
Under the previous regime of President Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan military battled the militants, a policy which sparked a wave of terrorist violence across the country.
When the present government took power in March, its leaders pledged conciliation over confrontation.
However, security officials and local residents in the frontier province said there are now so many militant groups and criminal gangs operating that would be impossible to forge inclusive and lasting peace deals with all of them.