ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Emboldened Taliban militants made their presence felt closer to Islamabad on Thursday, raising fears throughout Pakistan and around the world that the nation is increasingly vulnerable.
Gunmen attacked a Pakistani paramilitary force sent to a Taliban-infiltrated district just 60 miles from the capital, killing a police officer and feeding growing doubts about the government's peace deal with extremists in the area.
Militants have made no secret of their desire to see Islamic law imposed across the country, and as they edge closer to Islamabad, unease about the deal is growing in Pakistan and in the West. The United States is especially concerned because it considers stability in Pakistan — and rooting out its militant sanctuaries — critical to success in the Afghan war.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told U.S. lawmakers in an unusually blunt statement Wednesday that Pakistan's leaders were "basically abdicating to the Taliban." On Thursday, however, she said the Pakistani government appeared increasingly aware of the threat.
Clinton was appearing before a House appropriations subcommittee that is reviewing the administration's request for $7.1 billion in additional funds for the State Department this budget year. Of that total, $497 million would be for support of Pakistan and $980 million would be for Afghanistan. About $482 million would be for Iraq.
Over the past seven years, the U.S. government has provided Pakistan with about $12 billion in aid, of which about two-thirds was from a variety of security-related programs, the rest as economic assistance. Nearly half of the $12 billion was from a Pentagon fund created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to reimburse Pakistan for its support of U.S. military operations in the region.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, reflecting the sense of alarm in the Obama administration.
The North-West Frontier Province dispatched a few hundred paramilitary forces on Thursday to the district of Buner, about 60 miles from Islamabad, after 400 to 500 Taliban forces took control of much of the area this week.
Taliban fighters from the nearby Swat Valley have infiltrated the area in recent days, emboldened by a government-sanctioned peace deal allowing them to enforce sharia, or Islamic law, in the valley, a onetime tourist paradise.
Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani told reporters in Islamabad that the government would safeguard against any violation of the peace agreement reached in the Swat Valley. "The government will not allow anyone to challenge the government," he said.
But in Buner, the Taliban remained largely in control despite the stepped-up paramilitary presence. "We will not leave the area," a Taliban commander, Mufti Bashir, said.
Since entering Buner from Swat, the Taliban has reportedly set up checkpoints, started patrolling roads and ordered barbershops to stop shaving beards, which are favored by Islamic militants.
"The news over the past several days is very disturbing," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, adding that the administration is extremely concerned and that the issue was taking a lot of President Obama's time.
Obama held a White House meeting on the subject with Vice President Joe Biden, Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative to the region. Holbrooke telephoned Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday. A vague statement issued a few hours later said only that the two discussed security issues and Zardari's forthcoming trip to the United States.
Supporters of the Swat deal, hammered out in February and signed into law by Zardari last week, had contended that it would secure peace and even divide militant factions. But any breathing room or disunity was apparently short-lived, if it ever existed.
The Taliban's rule in Swat has been characterized by the burning of girls' schools, killing and beating of officials who opposed its rule, and punishment for unrelated men and women seen together in public.
In Pakistan's Parliament, many lawmakers blasted the Taliban for its brand of Islam and fretted over its growing clout.
"They are in Buner and coming toward the town of Haripur," lawmaker Haider Abbas Rizvi told reporters outside Parliament. "The government needs to take urgent steps and counter their march toward the capital."
Pakistan has long focused much of its energy and resources on national security, with India traditionally seen as its biggest threat.
"Everyone and his dog knows this is not a military trained for counterinsurgency," said political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi.