By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, North Waziristan
The Taleban roam many border areas unimpeded
As the spring sets in Taleban fighters in Pakistan's tribal region of Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan, are increasingly visible.
This bodes ill for the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
But it also highlights problems for Pakistan's government. It is faced with the prospect of the Taleban and their allies trying to consolidate their expansion eastwards inside North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
They have already carved out two safe havens in NWFP. They were able to do so after signing deals to the west in the tribal districts of South Waziristan and North Waziristan with the Pakistani government in 2004-05.
The deals have enabled different factions within the Taleban to start moving in significant numbers into the cities and towns of NWFP with the aim of overwhelming the local administration. This is an area that has been historically under much closer control of central government than the tribal border areas.
Last year, the militants' gradual incursions into the district of Tank, neighbouring South Waziristan, led to a total collapse of the civil administration in the district.
The police there have abandoned four out of five major police posts, and the gates of the police stations remain closed. They have also asked some nine bank branches in the town of Tank to arrange for their own security.
While the courts still function, the task of dispute settlement has passed into the hands of the Taleban groups operating in the area.
The Taleban also dominate the entire countryside further north around Bannu and the neighbouring district of Lakki Marwat.
In the capital of NWFP, Peshawar, schools belonging to international chains such as Bloomsfield and Beacon House had to shut down for four days at the end of last month when threats of attacks were issued by militants.
"We thought the militants wanted to fight the foreign troops in Afghanistan, but they seem to be hitting back at us," says Bahramand Jan, media secretary to the NWFP chief minister.
The question is, why has this Taleban intrusion into Pakistani territory gone unchallenged?
Some in NWFP say the Pakistani military establishment has deliberately allowed the Taleban to expand their area of influence.
This, they say, provides the government with the argument that the Taleban phenomenon is a spontaneous development which is difficult to control in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.
NWFP Governor Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai seemed to be arguing this way when he told journalists last month that the Taleban movement was "developing into some sort of a nationalist movement, a sort of liberation war against coalition forces".
But senior administration officials in Peshawar say the government is not colluding with Taleban.
Instead, they say, the government simply lacks the capacity to counter an increasingly aggressive Taleban force both on the border with Afghanistan, and in the provincially-administered Frontier Regions (FRs), those areas that separate the border tribal regions from NWFP.
"The police force is inadequately equipped in terms of manpower, logistics and weaponry, rendering the NWFP cities vulnerable," says Ejaz Ahmad Qureshi, chief secretary of NWFP.
Critics say the security forces are inadequately equipped
This vulnerability arises from a power vacuum in the FR areas where security is traditionally provided by the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary, drawn from the tribes.
"Two-thirds of this force is deployed outside of the FR areas, leaving very little force to secure these areas," says Malik Naveed, the commandant of the Frontier Constabulary.
The Frontier Corps, another paramilitary force comprising tribesmen but with officers drawn from the army, is largely tied up inside the two Waziristan districts.
And in the Waziristans, it seems, the military are often not prepared to take on the militants.
One Taleban fighter in Miranshah in North Waziristan told the BBC that Taleban fighters crossing over into Afghanistan often take a rest at border posts manned by the army and the Frontier Corps.
Some officials concede that confronting Taleban fighters at these posts could lead to armed hostilities which the government troops would be unable to control.
More than 700 Pakistani troops have been killed in confrontations with the militants since 2003 when the army moved into the tribal border areas, over which central government had until then exercised only nominal control.
Officials say that such high military casualties forced the government to sign peace deals with the Waziristan tribes.
But far from achieving peace in the tribal areas or in Afghanistan, it seems these deals now threaten peace in Pakistan itself.