From barefoot village boy to the Taliban, Saifullah's was a typical journey. The son of a poor family in a tribal area bordering Afghanistan, he quit primary school in Grade 6 - most boys in his town give up by then, tired of absent teachers and a dull rote curriculum. His father had been gone for the best part of 20 years, working as a labourer in Saudi Arabia as so many men from this part of Pakistan do. Saifullah's older brother got work, of sorts, leading prayers at a nearby mosque.
But Saifullah drifted - his family had no land for him to work, there were no jobs for which he was qualified - and spent some time in a madrassa , an Islamic school. He survived on handouts from the money his father sent home.
Then three years ago the Taliban came to Pakistan's lush Swat Valley. They were organized, they were aggressive, they promised swift justice in new courts and government that worked - and they were recruiting. Saifullah, slight, green-eyed and 22, was angry at the Pakistani government, which he saw as an adversary of his religious Pashtun community. "They were acting for the infidels, the Americans," he says.
So he went to see a man he had heard was a leader at a mosque; without further ado, he was in. They gave him this new name, gave him a Kalashnikov, and put him up in an abandoned house with other young recruits. Then they put him to work, sending him into the city in the back of a white pickup truck full of armed men to stock up on staples the leaders needed back in their remote mountain camps.
Saifullah relished the cash that came his way periodically - typically the Taliban paid its rank-and-file about $100 a month - and the power. Soon he was engaged in small battles with the security forces.
And so, as simple as that, Saifullah became one more soldier in the militant movement now embroiling Pakistan in something of a civil war. There are many causes for this crisis, which has the national military fighting Islamist militants on two fronts while police and civilians cower from a wave of suicide attacks. Foreign interference, particularly the open support the United States once gave the militants as proxies in Afghanistan, is an important one.
But the most important reasons originate at home. The country's education system is a shambles; its economy has been ineptly managed, its elites have fought to maintain a feudal system and their place of privilege, its civilian institutions are perilously weak and its government bumbling at best. The astonishing thing about this crisis is not that a homegrown Taliban surged up and challenged the government, but rather that even more people have not joined the Islamists or other rebellions - for the wages they offer, the functional parallel government they introduce or the brief rush of power that comes with carrying a gun onto the property of an oppressive landlord.
There is a false comfort that the world is writing cheques and we'll be fine. Meanwhile we're collapsing - left, right and centre. Ali Tauqeer Sheik
Pakistan's emergence as the nexus of terrorism - from the 2005 London bombings to the Mumbai hotel siege to the growing chaos in Afghanistan - seems still to surprise many people in the West, accustomed to thinking of the country as a functional state, at least compared to next-door Afghanistan. But the roots of this crisis, and the firm green shoots of it, have been visible for two decades or more.
The first problem is the schools. Pakistan allots only 1.5 per cent of its national budget to education (but spends 15 times that on the military). Small as it is, the education budget is rarely spent in its entirety - due to corruption, a bloated bureaucracy and what's known as a lack of "absorptive capacity," and it shows. One in three school-age children does not go to school; girls' enrolment is among the lowest in the world, below that in Yemen. "Fifty per cent of teachers are not on the job and of the half that are there, many are not actually teaching," said Khalida Ahmed, an education specialist with Unicef.
Frustrated with public schools, some parents and students choose - as Saifullah did - the madrassa system. The madrassas serve as incubators for the jihadist movement and offer no education other than Islamic studies (often simple rote memorization of the Koran), but as Ms. Ahmad notes, it's easy to see why students prefer it - they receive a hot meal at the mosque, they get the individual attention of a teacher, they often get help finding jobs.
The blight of the public education system has had a crippling effect on the country. A third of Pakistani men are illiterate, as are 48 per cent of women, a figure much higher than countries with comparable per-capita income.
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."