This is not the Pakistan that I left when I went off to study at Williams College in 1999. Some things, of course, have changed little: foreign aid, refugees, conspiracy theories, fiscal deficits and IMF loans were already part of our collective consciousness. The world even knew we had nukes. So what has changed? Repeated visits revealed an evolving social landscape. There is a thriving media, both print and electronic. A decade ago Pakistan had about two or three TV channels to its name; now it has about ten times as many, with some broadcasting in regional languages. Internet and mobile phones were luxuries enjoyed by the wealthy few, now they are necessities. The middle class, comprising mainly business entrepreneurs, is swelling. A progressive youth keenly takes up social and political issues.This all came about in less than a decade.
The post-9/11 world is a new world, and with its advent Pakistan became a different place. Internationally, the political discourse has come to focus on one thing: terrorism. A culturally rich and diverse people came to be sharply defined. Through the narrow lens of terrorism, perceptions changed and new realities took shape. Pakistan came to be articulated in terms of what it allegedly lacks: democracy and security. Both are still goals in process. Nothing in Pakistan's past or present suggests that democracy and security of the sort the international community expects will come to prevail. Little or no attention is being paid, however, to what the country has: a vibrant youth, a relatively free media, and a growing business community. It is likely that these groups will be the catalysts of change, with or without intervention.
For now, the current conflict, very much a product of 9/11, has taken center stage. Until very recently, the public was, at best, indifferent to the military effort along the border with Afghanistan. It was more of an imposition, lacking support of the people. Several attacks in Islamabad and Lahore didn't strengthen the public resolve. On March 15, 2008, at home in Islamabad, we heard a loud thud; Luna Caprese, an Italian restaurant a couple of hundred meters away had been bombed. The illusion that Islamabad was relatively safe was shattered for the moment, but it took almost a year for the public to believe that this was not just America's war, but their war as well. What changed their mind?
The defining moment came when a piece of paper was signed giving Swat to the Taliban. Until then, the Taliban were relatively invisible, but in one stroke this act confirmed their presence. Swat is less than a 100 miles from the capital. This played to our territorial tendencies. The media was quick to mobilize opinion. This is when it became the people's war.
There is broad consensus that the current civilian government came to power through a relatively fair electoral process. The resolute lawyers' movement, underpinned by political leadership, played a role in keeping constitutional issues alive. The media has proved critical in garnering support. These are developments which are not given due recognition, and illustrative of what can be accomplished. However, our gaze is focused elsewhere: on a battle that, in all probability, will not be characterized by victories, but by casualties. There are clear signs of this already as Pakistan faces a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, with over 3 million persons without adequate refuge. We need a clear plan to handle this disaster. For now, people are being sent back to homes that may no longer exist. The current trust deficit between the provinces and the centre is likely to exacerbate leading to greater fragmentation, all while billions of dollars are spent, and hundreds of lives lost, on an interminable conflict.
Pakistan needs to turn its gaze quite seriously towards its neglected, but relatively informed and energized population. A state loses legitimacy in the eyes of its people when it neglects the basic needs of a large proportion of its people. In recent times, public expenditure on health has been an embarrassingly low 0.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), while only 2.3 percent of GDP was spent on education.1 Private schools have gained in a limited way, but it is really the madrasas that have capitalized on these shortfalls. The latter provide education, food, clothing and shelter, often at no cost. It is the social sectors where the frontlines of the battle should exist - though that would assume the battle is yet to be fought. In the eyes of some, this round has already been lost.
The true irony lies in the fact that there is often just two degrees of separation between a minister and a young boy in a madrasa. The minster's domestic help usually sends at least one child to a madrasa. A boy of eight sent to a madrasa in 1999 is now a young adult. This is indeed the first generation of young men emerging from this social experiment. Not all madrasas teach hate, which crucially points to the importance of working closely with them in bringing the curriculum and quality of instruction closer to that of the fee paying private education system. We are told a greater proportion of the budget is being allocated towards education. It takes about a generation to find out. There is no quick fix to this problem.
I flew to Lahore a couple of months ago. On the ride home from the airport, I asked our jovial - though religion observing - driver, Rehman, how his family was doing. He told me his seventeen year old daughter is going to be married soon, and his son is learning the Quran - which means the son is most likely in a madrasa and his daughter is of age. He asked me, "How is Amrika, sir?" I said, "I now live in Sri Lanka, and have been there for the past year." Stroking his long beard, ignoring what I had said, he quipped, "The next time you go to Amrika take me along," Anticipating my response, he quickly added, "I want to go there because it offers opportunity." This still remains his dream.
Part of an older generation, Rehman continues to see America through the lens of hope and opportunity. Once we broaden our view, we see that the real doors to opportunity lie at home, where the youth, media and the growing middle class are, in small measure, shaping Pakistan's future.
A version of this article appeared in the The Friday Times, July 31st issue
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