ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Dozens of militants attacked a Pakistani security outpost Saturday in an area near the Afghan border, leaving 18 people dead and adding another trouble spot to the nation's extended list.
With the country's army on the offensive against Pakistani Taliban fighters spreading out from the Swat Valley, the attack prompted questions about how effective and long-lasting some of its efforts may be.
The attack took place in an area in the northwestern Mohmand tribal region where the military had said militants were driven out and various ministates dismantled.
The clash underscored the frustration of Pakistan's traditionally trained and organized army as it battles a fluid insurgency. It also raises questions about why the military hasn't done more to change its orientation away from conventional warfare or at least build up its capacity to battle both kinds of foes.
The army said in a statement Saturday that about 100 insurgents attacked the Spinal Tangi post before sunrise.
"Sixteen militants were killed in retaliatory fire," the statement said, and two members of the security forces died.
The area is strategically important given its proximity to Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province.
"Peshawar is increasingly endangered and encircled," a Western diplomat in Pakistan said. "It's a troubled map."
Militants retain control of much of the tribal belt along the mountainous frontier, an area where some U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden is still hiding and where, in some quarters, he still commands respect.
"I met Osama bin Laden in 2000," said Sajid Mazai, 30, an Afghan from the mountainous Tora Bora area straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border who works in electronics in Lahore. "His face was bright, he was impressive and had a real moral authority. I think he's still alive."
In other developments, incidents in the Swat Valley threatened to further weaken a controversial peace deal.
The army said Saturday that troops exchanged fire with militants who refused to stop their jeep at a checkpoint in Swat, and that five militants were detained while trying to plant a bomb.
Under the terms of the February truce, Taliban militants were allowed to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, over the Swat Valley and neighboring areas in return for putting down their weapons.
Supporters of the deal said it would bring peace to the area, a former tourist destination, after years of bloodshed. Critics said it would only embolden radicals. In recent months, girls schools in Swat have been destroyed, police officers beheaded and morality campaigns organized against unmarried men and women appearing together.
Even before the Swat peace deal was sanctioned by President Asif Ali Zardari in mid-April, however, the Taliban moved hundreds of fighters from Swat into the neighboring Buner and Dir districts. There they set up checkpoints, seized police stations, kidnapped security officials and intimidated residents.
This prompted the army to launch its offensive against the militants, fueled by growing public concern that Taliban forces were operating openly within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad, had not put down their weapons and were directly challenging the authority of the government.
Foreign governments and some analysts also have pressured the government to act decisively against extremists.
"If the government doesn't have a firm response, the Taliban will grow and spread its tentacles," said Ayaz Amir, a commentator and opposition lawmaker. "Certainly many people are getting concerned."