PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — When government troops pushed their way into a local warlord's stronghold just outside one of Pakistan's major cities over the weekend, what they found followed a familiar pattern.
With plenty of warning from officials that troops were coming, Islamic insurgents in the mountainous Bara district outside Peshawar, the provincial capital, had simply melted away, disappearing into a remote valley to the north.
Pakistani authorities declared Sunday that the district had been restored to their control. But residents said they expected the militants to return whenever it suited them.
What's more, almost no one in Bara's dusty and deprived main town had anything bad to say about the vanished warlord, Mangal Bagh, an illiterate bus driver-turned-cleric. Bagh maintained law and order, people said, and the shadow government he set up in recent months was more effective than the state-sanctioned one.
Even after he and his men had decamped, the black flags of his group, Lashkar-i-Islam, or Army of Islam, still fluttered from homes, schools and government buildings.
The military operation to retake Bara and the rest of the Khyber tribal agency -- home to the Khyber Pass, a key supply route for Western forces across the border in Afghanistan -- was deemed a success by Pakistani authorities, who said Sunday that mopping-up efforts might continue for some days.
At the same time, the assault showed fundamental ambiguities in the government's stance toward Taliban-linked militants who have made the tribal areas their sanctuary. Pakistan's ruling coalition, in office for three months, has sought to strike deals with local Taliban commanders rather than confront them militarily.
However, senior officials said the Khyber offensive did not necessarily mark a break with the notion of choosing negotiations over force when possible. Although the operation involved hundreds of paramilitary Frontier Corps troops backed by tanks, artillery and armored vehicles, representatives of the central government shied away from referring to it as a military offensive.
"This is a purely civilian law-enforcement action," said Rehman Malik, the senior official in the Interior Ministry. The Frontier Corps, a force with career soldiers in command, technically reports to Malik's ministry, a civilian body.
Pakistan's tribal northwest is predominantly Pashtun, the same ethnic stock as most of the local Taliban-linked groups. In this part of the country, the war against the militants, which began in 2001 when President Pervez Musharraf sided with the United States against the Taliban in Afghanistan, has never been a popular cause.
On the militants' side, a head-on fight with government troops, even the relatively weak and disorganized Frontier Corps, was clearly not on the agenda. The government move was telegraphed well in advance, with the army spokesman sounding warnings for days before helpfully announcing Friday, the eve of the offensive, that it was about to begin.
"When they heard that, they just got in their vehicles and drove away," Khan Mohammed, a watchman in Bara, said of Bagh's followers.
The warlord went on the air via his pirate FM radio station, later destroyed in the offensive, and instructed his followers to leave rather than face off against the troops.
Even as the government touted its success, the statement only underscored previous failures. Officials announced with fanfare Sunday that tribal paramilitary soldiers were back at their posts in the Khyber agency, without referring to the fact that these troops had fled without a fight when Bagh's men moved into the area a few months ago.
Although militants have free rein in most of the semiautonomous tribal areas, authorities have generally drawn a line at condoning an obvious presence of insurgents in any big city in "settled areas" -- those under government control.
The operation was triggered when vigilantes loyal to Bagh moved closer and closer to Peshawar, trying to impose a Taliban-style social code in outlying villages and suburbs. In recent days, truckloads of his followers had been making brazen patrols in the city center and abducting people, including the brief kidnapping of a group of Christians. Finally, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani pronounced the situation intolerable.
The move against Bagh was praised by North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Afghanistan. They have complained for months that cross-border incursions from the tribal areas had risen dramatically after the Pakistani government began making peace deals with local Taliban commanders.
Many analysts and officials, though, believe Bagh served as a counterweight to a rival militant commander in Khyber, Haji Namdar. Unlike Bagh, Namdar actively recruits fighters to send across to Afghanistan to attack Western troops and is formally allied with Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement.
Malik, the Interior Ministry official, declared Sunday that Peshawar was now "totally safe." But some residents said they thought the government offensive had been largely theatrical.
"It was a drama to make the Americans happy," said Abed Turangzai, who was watching over his mother's home in Hayatabad, a Peshawar suburb from which many people fled when troops and tanks massed there Friday.
"In the longer term, where the Taliban are concerned, I do not think it will make any difference," Turangzai said. "When they are ready, they will be back."
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Bara contributed to this report.