“The move by Taliban-backed militants into the Buna district of northwestern Pakistan, closer than ever to Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, have prompted concerns both within the country and abroad that the nuclear-armed nation of 165 million is on the verge of inexorable collapse.” So begins a report from TIME‘s Aryn Baker.

On Wednesday a local Taliban militia crossed from the Swat Valley – where a February cease-fire allowed the implementation of strict Islamic, or Shari’a, law – into the neighboring Buner district, which is just a few hours drive from Islamabad (65 miles, separated by a mountain range, as the crow flies).

Residents streaming from Buner, home to nearly a million people, told local newspapers that armed militants are patrolling the streets. Pakistani television stations aired footage of Taliban soldiers looting government offices and capturing vehicles belonging to aid organizations and development projects. The police, say residents, are nowhere to be seen. The shrine of a local Muslim saint, venerated across the country, was closed. The Taliban, which adheres to a stricter version of Islam than is practiced in most of Pakistan, hold that worship at such shrines goes against the teachings of Islam.

Meanwhile courts throughout the Malakand division, of which Swat and Buner are a part, have closed in deference to the new agreement calling for the implementation Shari’a, law. “If the Taliban continue to move at this pace they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of one of the country’s Islamic political parties, warned in Parliament Wednesday. Rehman said the Margalla Hills, a small mountain range north of the capital that separates it from Buner, appears to be “the only hurdle in their march toward the federal capital,” The only solution, he said, was for the entire nation to accept Shari’a law in order to deprive the Taliban of their principal cause.

The fall of Buner is raising international alarm. Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the situation was a danger to Pakistan, the U.S. and the world. “We cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state,” Clinton said. She also accused Pakistan’s leaders of “basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists” by signing the cease-fire agreement.

Those are bold words from the chief diplomat of the world’s most powerful country, especially one that is not only an ally of Pakistan but desperately needs the cooperation of its government in its fight against extremists in the region.   They’re months too late, however.   My colleague Shuja Nuwaz, head of our South Asia Center, told al Jazeera in mid February that the agreement was “a repeat of what happened when prime minister Benazir Bhutto was in power in 1994 and a number of districts in Swat and Malakand were handed over to essentially the same group so they could impose their rather convoluted view of sharia on those districts.” Prophetically, he continued, “The moment you cede space to them, the Taliban will want to extend that control and then the government will have to go through this business of sending in the military yet again to clear and hold the territory.”

That’s exactly what’s happening.  At a Council event two weeks ago, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, laughed off suggestions that his country was in serious trouble, noting that its demise has been predicted time and time again.   Perhaps.  But, as the pseudonymous Randy Waterhouse notes, the country is in more perilous circumstances than we’ve seen in some time.  Indeed, as his colleague Dan Nexon points out, we should be calling what’s happening in Pakistan right now by its rightful name:  civil war.

John Robb goes further than that:  “Pakistan is on its way, if not already, a hollow state.  In short, that’s a government that controls the capital and has international legitimacy, but has ceded control over much its territory to non-state groups.”  Terming what’s happening right now an “open source counter-insurgency,” he observes,

These militias aren’t getting support, instead the opposite is happening: the government is extending authority and legitimacy to the Taliban through promises of self rule (deals should only be made to the extent they divide the opposition).  As these militias fall and the wealth of their owners is distributed (paid off to locals with a cut to the external Taliban groups making the advance), the Taliban’s plausible promise of economic justice and fair sharia rules/courts gets stronger.   This will attract more self-organizing groups to join the effort.

Given the rate of the advance, the Taliban may soon be in a position to cut critical services (energy, water, etc.) to key cities.

To be sure, the government is making some feeble attempts to demonstrate its existence.  CSM‘s Issam Ahmend reports “a modest show of force aimed at containing the increasingly aggressive militants” underway today.  But this sort of thing is looking like too little, too late.  

Robert Oakley, who served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan during the first Bush administration, recently told me that Pakistan’s president is “incompetent and corrupt.”  The former, at least, appears evident.  Given the country’s history, one expects the military to take over governing any time now.  But it’s not precisely clear what will be left to govern.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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