Imran Gul would like to see a better future for the tribal youth of his corner of Pakistan, but most days he only sees military helicopters returning from Waziristan, ferrying wounded and dead. Casualties in the conflicts along the Afghan border serve as a reminder that the tribal system, once strong and proud, is now falling apart.
History and war have slowly eaten away its edifice, and Mr. Gul worries that what the tribal system can no longer provide young people – peace, income, a sense of purpose, a social network – a new and rising force can: the Taliban.
"Due to poverty, young people have no activities," says Gul, program director of the Sustainable Participation Development Program, a nongovernmental organization in Banu, just outside North Waziristan. "They do not want to join the Taliban. But their sympathies are with the Taliban to bring peace to our area."
The field for such sympathies is wide and growing, many say. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have always been the least advanced lands in Pakistan. Illiteracy and joblessness are rampant. There are no universities in FATA, and political parties are absent due to colonial-era tribal laws, robbing youth of an outlet for talent and expression.
The tribal system itself is partly to blame. Many elders have traditionally resisted modern education, roads, and electricity, fearing their power would be threatened the more FATA opened up. But the government is also at fault, observers say, by failing to integrate FATA into Pakistan. Voting rights were extended to the full tribal populace only in 2000.
"Young people ... oppose the current tribal system because they know that this is not ... harnessing their potential," says Naveed Ahmad Shinwari, chief executive of the Community Appraisal & Motivation Program, which works on development in the tribal zone. "If you ask any young man, he's frustrated because the government of Pakistan is clearly not doing much to create employment for young people."
These problems were exacerbated when the Pakistani military entered the tribal areas for the first time in 2003. Their operations, which many tribes believe is the dirty work of Washington, have further weakened the system while sowing sympathies for extremism. In such situations, analysts say, people look to the standard-bearers of Islam for guidance and solace.
Tariq Aziz, a 17-year-old from Mir Ali in North Waziristan, sees the Taliban as a viable solution for future generations. "There are no opportunities for young people," he says by telephone from Banu. "The people of Mir Ali have sympathies for the Taliban. They fight for Islam."
Mr. Aziz says he might like to join the Taliban himself, but that his parents prefer him to continue his studies.
Like many his age, Aziz is trapped between the present danger of conflict and the elusive dream of a better life. Only hours after he hung up the phone, two suicide bombers struck a military convoy just outside Banu, killing four soldiers and wounding seven. It is to the Taliban that he looks for peace. "Under the Taliban government, there was peace in Afghanistan and no crimes occurred in the government."
In such strife, pragmatism draws young people to the Taliban. They are building a new form of social capital, a network that offers the opportunities and prestige that the tribal system once did.
"Where do they go for problem solutions? Their [members of the National Assembly] are marginalized pieces of the political system. The [tribal elders] are not recognized. The cost of living has gone up," says Khalid Aziz, chair of the Regional Institute of Policy Research & Training, a think tank in Peshawar. "[The Taliban] make life livable. They have a bureaucracy, soldiers."
Such prospects are an oasis in a desert of grim statistics, Mr. Aziz says. "Twenty five percent of an ordinary man's income [in FATA] is spent on medical expenses, aggravated by bad delivery of basic services. Sixty percent of the incomes come from migrant workers. Eighty-five percent are working on land. Seventy percent are working on rented land. The only asset left for a frontiersman is to get a job. If I were in that area, I would definitely go Taliban."
Alternatives seem in short supply, but a few find another way of life in education. One of them is now a student at Peshawar University. He is afraid to be named because his family in Miran Shah, North Waziristan, was recently the victim of violence. Like others his age, he feels the tribal system cannot adequately prepare his generation to interact with the modern world, and hopes that education can repair the cracks left by the tribal system.
"Today people in Waziristan are interested in coming to university. Our young generation is interested in business," he says, adding that the best solution is to integrate the tribal areas with the rest of Pakistan.
It's a dream shared by many, and perhaps the best way to dampen the appeal of groups like the Taliban, analysts say. Optimists hope the way will be paved by education programs and development projects in the short term, and the introduction of political parties in the longer term. The latter, they say, are one of the few immediate prospects for confronting the growing power of the mullahs and the Taliban they support.
Perhaps the greatest question for youth to ponder is how modern they want to be.
Akmal Sayal, the 16-year-old son of a tribal elder from Mohmand Agency, intends someday to lead his tribe of 200,000, but for now he's concentrating on learning computer science. "I hope to go back to the tribal area and teach computers," he says. "The solution must be education."
But he is careful to underscore the delicate business of embracing modernity. "I've got my [studies], but I don't want that this cap can't be used," he says, pointing to the traditional skullcap worn by Muslims.