MARDAN, PAKISTAN — Three lightly armed police officers man a leaky checkpoint at the southern entrance to this dusty city in the embattled North-West Frontier Province. They wave some drivers through, ask others a few questions, ignore the rest completely. There are also many back roads into town and all manner of carts and foot traffic circumventing the inspection.
"Anyway," said Qaisar Iqbal, owner of a small fabric shop in the city center, "the Taliban are already here. They're relatively few right now, but they're around. All they need to do is push a button. We've seen the bombings. They're watching."
Mardan feels tense. Many in the city of 340,000 people along the strategic Islamabad-Peshawar highway worry that they could be next to come under the sway of the Taliban, even as some deny it could happen here. The city sits on a plain surrounded on three sides by mountains controlled by the Islamic militant group. Swat lies just 30 miles to the north, with the main road to that troubled valley running straight through town.
The army has pushed the Taliban back in nearby Buner and Dir districts, unleashing a flood of terrified residents, many of whom have landed at makeshift government camps here.
Jets and ground troops attacked militants in Swat on Thursday, and Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani pledged in a nationwide address to take decisive action, all but ending a peace deal in the picturesque valley. He promised to double aid for those displaced by the violence to $120 million.
Officials said 50 militants and six civilians were killed in the day's fighting. The figures could not be independently verified.
Some observers maintain that the army's actions in Buner, Dir and Swat are something of a show so the United States feels good about giving the army more funds.
Furthermore, if history is any judge, the army will soon leave and the Taliban will be back, residents predict.
It is difficult to distinguish the Taliban from the rest of the population. The streets of Mardan, like most Pashtun frontier towns, are filled with men with woolly beards, rough hands and wild eyes.
"People are so nervous, they're filled with great fear," said Yasir Ali Bacha, head of the Mardan Foundation, a local humanitarian group. "The Taliban are like a balloon. You squeeze them over here and they pop up over there."
The militants have been softening up the town for some time.
Late last month, a bomb exploded in the Bari Cham Girls High School. A few weeks earlier, the Government Girls Higher Secondary School was the target, followed the next day by a rocket attack on the town from the nearby hills.
In each case, there were no casualties. But the message was clear: Girls should don burkas, stay at home and shun education. If anyone missed the point, the militants warned teachers that they would cut the throat of any female older than 7 who didn't wear a veil.
Last May, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in front of the gate of the Punjab Regimental Center, killing 11 people.
Several cellphone towers also have been hit, a seemingly incongruous target. Video stores and movie theaters in Mardan have been bombed and threatened in recent years by a religious group calling itself Dawat-Elal-Khair, or "Invitation to Virtue."
Stop your "un-Islamic business or get blown up," it said. The scare tactics have worked, with many shutting down or doing business underground.
Though the army has gone on the offensive in recent weeks north of here, the local population is hardly unified in opposition to the Taliban. Moreover, many see the army as the problem.
"There's a group in the military that still sees the Taliban as an asset in their fight against India to take Kashmir," said Mohammed Farooq Khan, a Mardan psychiatrist and democracy activist.
Others can't imagine it happening in their city.
"In the rural areas, people are scared," said Ghulam Habib, 81, sitting in the courtyard of his family-owned Miasray Hotel, a Mardan landmark for the last century. "But we don't see much threat here."
That way of thinking only paves the way for militants to expand their power, said his nephew, sitting beside him. Such underestimation has allowed extremism to grow month by month, Aqbar Hassan said, taking more and more districts in their march east from the Afghan border.
"We're sitting on a big time bomb," said Hassan, a forestry expert. "People don't understand what the Taliban has in store for them."
As militants have directly challenged the state's authority, flouted a controversial peace deal in Swat and tried to expand their influence into neighboring districts, politicians and the news media have become more alarmed. But some wonder whether this concern will be sustained.
What's personally heartbreaking, said Hassan, is that he can no longer travel to the nearby mountains he loves. It's too dangerous.