ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Islamic extremists killed a paramilitary officer, set up checkpoints and ransacked homes Thursday as they enforced their control over a district 60 miles from Pakistan's capital, while other reports said they were infiltrating districts even closer to Islamabad.
The White House called the growing crisis in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation "deeply disturbing," and several key U.S. lawmakers told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Obama administration's new $7.5 billion plan to help stabilize Pakistan could be doomed by the failure of its government and military to battle the insurgents.
Failure in Pakistan also would doom the U.S.-led effort to defeat the Taliban and al Qaida in Pakistan, and could lead to new tensions between Pakistan and India.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking at a news conference, urged Pakistan's leaders to "not only recognize" the threat facing their country "but take the appropriate actions to deal with it."
Never miss a local story.
Many U.S. officials and some Pakistani experts think that the country is heading for all-out conflict, with militant groups determined to impose harsh Taliban-style Islamic rule on the country and setting up fiefdoms where al Qaida and allied extremist groups would find sanctuary.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, huddled with his Pakistani military counterparts in an apparent effort to persuade them to move against the extremists, and it appeared that some Pakistani leaders were starting to recognize the growing danger.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said that the government might have to reconsider an April 13 decision to capitulate to militants' demands for the imposition of Islamic law in Swat, a one-time tourist area about 100 miles from Islamabad, because of their refusal to disarm and halt their advance.
"If peace is not restored, certainly we have to review our policy," Gilani said.
The militants, however, showed no sign of backing down as they consolidated their grip over Buner, a district on Swat's southern boundary about 60 miles northwest of Islamabad, that they moved into last week as security forces stood by.
Extremists belonging to a loose amalgam of al Qaida-allied groups called the Taliban Movement of Pakistan on Thursday ambushed a convoy of paramilitary Frontier Constabulary troops in Buner, killing at least one officer and wounding another, government officials said.
News reports said Taliban fighters were also moving south from Buner into the Swabi and Mardan districts, which are even closer to Islamabad, and east into the Shangla district.
From Swabi and Mardan, the militants could threaten the Tarbela Dam, the world's largest earth-filled hydroelectric dam, and be positioned to cut the six-lane highway that links Islamabad and Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, a principal land route for U.S. military supplies into Afghanistan.
The MQM, the only Pakistani political party that opposed the Swat deal in parliament, suggested that the Taliban could soon appear on the hills on the western edge of Islamabad.
"Between Buner and Islamabad, there is only one city, Haripur," said MQM lawmaker Haider Rizvi. "The way they are spreading, fast and furious, this should be a point of concern to everybody."
About 250 Frontier Constabulary troops began moving into Buner Wednesday on the provincial government's orders in an effort to prevent the Taliban from seizing bridges, roads and government buildings.
However, residents of Buner, which has a population of about 500,000, reported that many people were fleeing as extremists looted homes, preached religious messages over loud speakers and manned checkpoints.
"The situation is terrible," said Istiqbal Khan, a local member of parliament, who added that he couldn't go to his constituency. "They have overrun Buner. But if the army is deployed, I fear a conflict will begin. We must negotiate with the Taliban."
"They have taken over my home and ransacked it. Other homes too," said a local councilor who escaped to Peshawar and requested anonymity out of fear of retribution. "The police are nowhere to be seen. People don't dare come out of their homes. The whole of Buner is in their (Taliban) grip."
As the Taliban advanced, however, many Pakistani politicians expressed outrage at Clinton's call on Wednesday for Pakistanis to speak out against the government's surrender of Swat. They defended the decision to seek a political accommodation with the Taliban.
"We don't need to be told by Americans," said Marvi Memon, a member of parliament for the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Q. "The moderate liberal forces of Pakistan are standing up to the Taliban. We're doing it for our own security and we're not doing it at (Clinton's) beck and call."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said the problem stems from the "spillover effects" of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. "There is enough resilience in our nation to sail through these problems, and we are confident we will succeed," he said.
Clinton, apparently aware that her remarks had inflamed the already high anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, sounded a more tempered tone on Thursday.
"There is an increasing awareness of not just the Pakistani government but the Pakistani people that this insurgency coming closer and closer to major cities does pose such a threat," she told a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee.
Several of the panel's members, however, expressed concern that the U.S. strategy to stabilize Pakistan would fail because the government and the military have shown no sign of being able to cope with the insurgency.
"I have absolutely no confidence in the ability of the existing Pakistani government to do one blessed thing," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis. "Without a functioning government focused on the right issues in Pakistan, we cannot achieve our goals in that region."
"I'm concerned that the Pakistani government is cutting deals with extremists without getting anything in return. The agreement (in Swat) is only emboldening the Taliban," said the panel's chairman, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. "How do we succeed in Pakistan if the Pakistanis themselves are either unwilling or incapable of making the tough choices and taking the tough action needed to confront the insurgency?"
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY