Toronto/New York, June 28 : The fall of Peshawar, the provincial capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to heavily armed Islamic militants is eminent, say experts and locals of the area.
According to the Globe and Mail, Peshawar, which borders Pakistan's wild tribal belt, is menaced by Taliban groups and other warlords on three sides.
To the south in Darra Adam Khel, forces of the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan, an umbrella group of Taliban, have taken virtual control of the city some time ago. Baitullah Mehsud leads this group.
To the east, a militant named Mangal Bagh leads a group called Lashkar-i-Islam. He holds sway in the Khyber agency and is so flush with men and money that he is fighting another Islamic group in the Tirah valley, law enforcement officials said.
To the north, the forces of Tehrik-e-Taliban have established a prison in the town of Michini. In the town of Warsak, the Taliban have constructed a training camp, officials said.
In Shabqadar, a few miles away, the Taliban have turned up in the central square and posted a notice urging people to contact them rather than the courts to settle their disputes.
And, if it is taken over by the extremists, the rest of the North West Frontier Province is also threatened, raising the possibility that religious fundamentalists may gain control of a state on Afghanistan's border.
The new Pakistan Government's policy of pulling back the army and seeking peace deals with militants, therefore, stands exposed, though paramilitaries have been deployed to guard the city's boundaries. The army is also on standby.
The paper quoted NWFP Police Chief Malik Naveed Khan as saying that the government has been sensitised to the problem.
"We told them that if we don't take action, things could get bad. Now we have charted a plan, and beefed up security," Khan said.
"[Central] government has not got to grips with the problem," said one provincial government official who decline to be identified.
"Things have moved fast and unpredictably. Last month, we drew up a plan for the defence of Peshawar. We have a vast area to defend and our forces are thinly spread. They [the militants] have mobility and guerrilla tactics," he said.
The provincial government is now considering arming local citizen groups, called "peace committees," across NWFP to act as the first defence against extremists, one official revealed.
Residents of Peshawar, a colourful city of three million, have expressed alarm at the developments in and around the city.
According to the paper, militants have started openly entering Peshawar to threaten businesses they disapprove of, such as music shops.
Last week, a band loyal to warlord Mangal Bagh arrived in several pickup trucks in Peshawar and abducted a group of Christians. They were released after 12 hours.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas are in the grip of militancy, and this threat has increasingly spread into "settled" areas such as Peshawar, Mardan and Charsadda.
In the last two months, Taliban militants have suddenly tightened the noose on this city of three million people, one of Pakistan's biggest, establishing bases in surrounding towns and, in daylight, abducting residents for high ransoms.
The threat to Peshawar is a sign of the Taliban's deepening penetration of Pakistan and of the expanding danger that the militants present to the entire region, including nearby supply lines for NATO and American forces in Afghanistan.
For the United States, the major supply route for weapons for NATO troops runs from the port of Karachi to the outskirts of Peshawar and through the Khyber Pass to the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Maintaining that route would be extremely difficult if the city were significantly infiltrated by the very militants who want to defeat the NATO war effort across the border.
NATO and American commanders have complained for months that the government's policy of negotiating with the militants has led to more cross-border attacks in Afghanistan by Taliban fighters based in Pakistan's tribal areas.
With the militants crowding in, the Pakistan Government held a special meeting in Islamabad on Wednesday to address the rapidly deteriorating security situation.
The government issued a statement after its meeting announcing that it was turning over security of the province directly to the army. In the tribal areas, the police and the paramilitary Frontier Corps would remain the first line of defense, and the policy of peace deals with the militants would continue, the statement said. The military would be a force of last resort.
"The government is helpless. It has lost its wits. The police have lost so many men at the hands of the Taliban they are scared," the New York Times quoted Arbab Hidayatullah, a former senior police officer, as saying.
In the 1980s, the Americans used the city as rear base for Islamic fighters supplied by Washington to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
More than 20 years, there has been a role reversal of sorts.Today, the Taliban, sometimes working with Al Qaeda, have almost total control over the tribal agencies, and their influence has steadily bled into Pakistan proper. In all of these places, the militants have used a mixture of fear and social co-option, techniques similar to those used by their kin in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the Taliban emerged after the retreat of the Soviets and the end of the American financing for their mujahedeen proxies.
Nobody knows exactly when the Taliban will actually try to take on Peshawar.
Few people expect a direct assault but rather a mounting campaign of intimidation and fear, and the posting of heavily armed men at carefully chosen strategic points.
Some people believe that once the summer fighting in Afghanistan is over and more Pakistani Taliban return home, they will turn their sights on Peshawar.
Waris Khan Afridi, a tribal leader from the Khyber agency and a former member of the National Assembly, said: "There is no strategy to counter them. Very soon, the Taliban will go to Peshawar and say: 'Hands up.' "