In this audio slideshow, Stephanie Nolen describes her interactions with Pashtun women in Pakistan The displaced women of Pakistan
In contrast to India, where institutions of higher education are churning out workers for a rapidly expanding economy, Pakistan's is moribund. Officially, the economy grew by 2 per cent last year, but most economists say that statistic is a result of government fiddling with baseline numbers.
While Pakistan did see growth as high as 9 per cent under the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, today the economy is being strangled by a softening of external demand, high domestic interest rates, political instability, the perilous security situation and a chronic shortage of electrical power caused by poor planning. Manufacturing growth is negative and only the telecommunications sector has been a good-news story, generating tens of thousands of jobs and pushing business costs down. The lack of growth weakens an already fragile tax base, just at the moment that the country's defence spending is escalating wildly.
At the root of the economic woes is something more basic: Pakistan has seen no significant land reform (of the kind undertaken in India half a century ago). This remains a feudal society, a majority of its citizens rural farmers who work someone else's land all their lives for the privilege of living on it.
Ali Tauqeer Sheik, who heads a non-governmental group called Leadership for Environment and Development, said population pressure and the lack of job prospects are leading to conflict over natural resources. "People are attracted to the [militants]not just because of the lack of formal education - there was none for centuries but we were mainstream people - but we had ways to sustain ourselves," he said. He compared a map of the areas of greatest political instability with one showing the areas of greatest resource depletion. "Today people have fewer and fewer ways," he said.
The income gap between Pakistan's rich and poor is wider than ever. The government fails miserably at delivering basic services in most areas, and the legal system is corrupt and backlogged - which leaves many people enthusiastic when the Taliban promise instead to introduce a swift-moving sharia court system. And that in turn leads young men such as Saifullah to ever greater militancy; the Pakistani police say the average age of a suicide bomber today is 16.
Aid from the West has poured into Pakistan for decades - first to support the mujahideen as a proxy force against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then, after 9/11, to bolster the country's own ostensible fight against the Islamists, although al-Qaeda and other militant groups received as much help within Pakistan as they did resistance. The United States alone has given $1-billion a year to the military for most of the past decade; all external aid to civilian sectors over the decade was less than a tenth of that.
Gen. Musharraf, who was bolstered and praised by the West even as he manipulated democratic institutions to cement his hold on power, was finally forced from office last year. The civilian government that replaced him inspires little more confidence. President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani openly wrestle for primacy, and Mr. Zardari has stumbled from one embarrassing episode to the next.
There have been positive developments in recent months - the media are flourishing and largely free, and amendments have been proposed in parliament to balance the powers of president and prime minister. Pakistanis have a tangible new faith in the ability of their government to keep the country functioning.
But at the same time, there are aggressive forces pulling the country in the other direction. Two million people have been displaced by the fighting between the military and the Taliban. As Khalid Rahman, head of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad noted, having them sit and swelter, idle in refugee camps (with disguised Taliban fighters among them) is a fine way to churn out a new cadre of militants.
Saifullah was told last month by his commanders to shave off his beard and go back and live with his family until the military operation ends. The Taliban's ground troops are no match for air strikes, they told him. But he is confident the order to regroup will come soon - "The Taliban are everywhere," he said - and that their ranks will swell with thousands more people whose families or property have been bombed by government in this operation.
That thought alone is enough to undermine any sense of optimism in the new civilian rule. "Everybody is in a rush to solve our problems, to write a cheque and feel it's fixed," Mr. Sheik said. "There is a false comfort that the world is writing cheques and we'll be fine. Meanwhile we're collapsing - left, right and centre."