In Pakistan's Afghan border regions, the month of January began with the imposition of harsh new directives.
As of January 2, women in the region were prohibited from holding compulsory identification cards bearing their photographs. Widows were warned against applying for or accepting government handouts.
Video DVD shops and television viewing were banned. In some districts, women were barred from shopping.
On January 5, additional restrictions came into effect banning coeducation and alcohol. Those who violate the new dictates could even face the death penalty.
The new regulations are being imposed by an increasingly aggressive Taliban, which argues they are tenets of Islamic Shari'a law.
Local officials say the militia is seeking to expand its influence throughout the Pashtun border regions to the whole of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). And this, locals say, they are doing by killing as many perceived opponents as they can. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, and Taliban fighters have been reported killed in the past five years.
Officials like Sardar Hussain Babak, the province's minister for education, who says the Taliban is using Shari'a as a pretext for conducting a reign of terror. "Today I'm asking you: Is slaughtering people [allowed] by Shari'a? Is closing schools [compatible with] Shari'a? Does Shari'a permit [video DVD] shops to be burned down?" Babak asks. "All of these acts are part of a complicated conspiracy against this land in the sacred name of religion and Shari'a."Parallel Power Structures
In the past, some experts claimed the Taliban was capitalizing on the conservative social attitudes existing in the border regions.
But a recent survey by the Center for Research and Security Studies, a private think tank based in Islamabad, tells a different story. More than 90 percent of the respondents to the survey expressed their opposition to the Taliban violence, banning education for girls, and destroying shops selling DVDs.
The Taliban has for years controlled pockets of Pakistan's western border regions, an area covering 100,000 square kilometers and home to an estimated 26 million people.
The region is divided between two separate units with distinct forms of government. One is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which is under Islamabad's control and governed according to a colonial-era legal system.
The second, the NWFP, is by contrast governed by mainstream Pakistani law and elected provincial authorities. As the Taliban moves beyond its pockets of influence in FATA to regions of the NWFP, authorities are concerned the militia is seeking to systematically usurp control of Pakistani structures by creating its own shadow government.
Afrasiab Khattak is an ethnic-Pashtun politician currently serving as a peace envoy for the frontier province government. He tells RFE/RL the Taliban is entrenched in parts of the tribal areas and is using the threat of its military strength to raise taxes, amend educational norms, and establish its own Islamic court and prison systems.
"In fact, a parallel system [of government] already exists," Khattak says. "Its center is located in the Waziristan [tribal district]. And it has now expanded into all the tribal regions. Swat is its most successful example in the settled [or regularly administered] areas [of NWFP]. But such activities are spreading to [the districts of] Bannu, Hangu, and elsewhere."
In late December, a local Taliban shura, or council, imposed a complete ban on education for girls living in Swat, a northern NWFP district plagued by insurgency. Following protests from other Taliban factions, the ban was softened to allow girls up to 9 years of age to attend classes in single-sex schools.
But education officials like Babak argue that schools remain a favored target of local Taliban groups. He says the Taliban has used fire and explosives to destroy more than 165 schools and colleges in NWFP -- the majority of them for girls.
"They claim to be opposed to America. But they should think about the fact that no American or Russian children are being educated in the schools they're burning down in the land of Pashtuns," Babak says. "Only Muslim Pashtun children living in this region are studying in those schools. These are barbaric acts, and it's very unfortunate."Growing Danger
The Taliban crackdown comes as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari arrives in Kabul for talks
with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, on tackling Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgencies in both countries.
Five years after Pakistan launched its first military operation against the Taliban in the restive South Waziristan tribal district, the Taliban appears to be gaining strength. So far, military operations, government-sponsored peace deals, and uprisings by Pashtun lashkars or tribal militias all appear to have failed to stop the Taliban onslaught.
Many girls schools have been destroyed by the Taliban.
Regional experts tell RFE/RL that apart from controlling large swathes of territory, the Taliban also acts as host to Al-Qaeda and other militant movements from across the Muslim world, turning Pakistan's Pashtun borderland into a global security flashpoint.
Khattak says that Pakistan's elected government has long been aware of the simmering problem in its border regions. But he says the country's past military dictatorships tolerated the presence of the Taliban and other militant groups, hoping they would act as proxies in fighting what they perceived as the rising Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Zardari has made the Taliban a central issue of his presidential agenda. But Khattak says the current civilian government has had difficulty fighting support for the Taliban and other militant groups.
"The situation will fundamentally change only after all the centers of power [in Pakistan] unanimously decide that the war in Afghanistan will not be fought from [extremist] centers here," Khattak says. "This will do away with the utility of having such centers and they can be gradually eliminated. But if people [in Pakistan's security establishment] still want to play both sides and continue with politics of duplicity, then such problems will only magnify."
Khattak says the Pakistani government will need to move quickly to extend its authority to all of its territory -- or risk the expansion of extremist groups like the Taliban across other parts of the country.
"If that happens, it will result in tumultuous events in Pakistan's western border regions. It will further weaken the state [authority] and might create a dangerous vacuum," Khattak says.
"I am afraid this problem will turn into both a regional and global one. If a vacuum is created here, it will further attract regional and global powers," he continues. "It's a dangerous scenario, and people [in power] in Pakistan, the regional states, and global powers must all pay attention to this."