Game Changer

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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"

By Arsla Jawaid 

KARACHI, Pakistan—Green and red flags line the streets. The crowd snarls traffic across the city as an estimated 150,000 young Pakistanis fill the roads and alleys to the Quaid Mausoleum—the final resting place of Pakistan’s founder, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Unlike the often tumultuous religious or ethnic processions here, this march is peaceful, albeit with ferocious patriotism and boisterous chants of “Yes, We Khan.” Superstar cricketer-turned-philanthropist-turned-politician Imran Khan is holding a rally in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, the country’s economic hub. Khan’s rallies are bigger, louder, and younger than those of any other Pakistani politician. In the days leading up to this grand event, his party’s computers robo-called 300,000 local phones with a simple, direct message: “Assalam-o-Alaikum. This is Imran Khan speaking. How are you? I am coming to your city to bring everyone together on December 25 at Mazar-e-Quaid for a peace rally. I hope that you can break all the shackles and take part, because at this rally, we need to make the beginnings of a new Pakistan. I will be waiting. Thank you.” It was a wake-up call, doing more to convince people to attend than billboards and posters prone to vandalism. Khan drew crowds from a cross-section of Pakistani society, from the slums of Karachi to the most elite areas.

Girls in T-shirts and jeans mingle with women in burkhas. Young, western-educated businessmen stand with street cleaners, vendors, and boys with tattoos. While some have little notion of what Khan represents, others shout, “He is the only hope for Pakistan. There is no one else.” Rallying a crowd of once apathetic youth is an achievement by itself, but in a nation where so many have been co-opted by the lure of a resurgent and violent Islam, it is a feat of historic proportions. Above all, it reveals an opportunity to engage—even electrify—a youth demographic that will determine the future of Pakistan, perhaps as soon as the next election.

Khan’s persona alone is enough to draw crowds of cricket fanatics and swooning young girls. Pakistanis spanning all social classes have been attracted to his promises of “change” and “hope,” not unlike Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. As Khan steps on stage, with popular national songs blaring in the background, the euphoria is unmistakable. With the fair skin of his Pashtun heritage, crinkled eyes, and that trademark smile, Khan looks the part of a national hero, a status he first earned when he captained Pakistan to victory at the 1992 Cricket World Cup. Standing tall, Khan waves to the tens of thousands gathered to hear him speak. Even for the millions who watch at home on television, Khan has, for a moment, done what no other political leader has been able to do since Benazir Bhutto. He has rallied a nation. But more important than the size of the crowd is the demographic that only he has been able to galvanize—Pakistan’s youth.

Much has changed in Pakistan in the year since this outpouring of support. While still hungry for a leader who embodies optimism and hope, many young voters now say leading a nuclear power may be too serious a task to leave in the hands of an idealistic former sports star. While some remain charmed by Khan’s rhetoric and good looks, others, initially mesmerized, now seek clarity as to what he really hopes to achieve. In recent months, Khan’s popularity has fallen, but the youth movement remains a potent force. An underdog in his campaign to become the next prime minister, Khan still highlights the potential of young Pakistanis to transform the country and suggests how others—for better or for worse—can take advantage of Pakistan’s increasingly powerful and vocal youth demographic.

According to the UN Development Program, 103 million Pakistanis, or 63 percent of the total population, are under the age of 25. Yet, only half of those between 15 and 25 are literate. Pakistan’s youth alone would comprise the world’s 12th most populous nation. Dismal economic growth over the past three years (barely 3.2 percent per year) has intensified poverty and slowed development. The need has never been greater to invest in a more prosperous, educated future. Youth unemployment, widening gaps between rich and poor, and the appeal of religious solutions offered by high-profile imams could easily lead to mass radicalization. In densely populated countries with poor education systems, parents often take a back seat to influences on the street. Pakistan’s youth can either be an asset or a threat to stability in the region, depending on the effectiveness of engagement and investment. With well-directed funding of youth education and grassroots organizations, Western powers can help the country’s young people steer the country toward prosperity—but foreign powers, especially the United States, will need to soften their political bluster regarding Pakistan.

Many young people say the mainstream political parties and their allies abroad have plundered the country, exploited its resources, and ignored their most basic needs and desires. After Khan’s success in rousing this voting bloc, young people have become a formidable political force, likely determining who wins the 2013 election. Today, even mainstream political parties target the group. Pakistan’s young people are increasingly patriotic, socially conscious, and globally oriented, and the person or political party that can play to these qualities and win over this coveted bloc will shape politics in the region for years to come.


A recent political phenomenon, Khan reached heroic status in 1992 when he led the national team to Pakistan’s first Cricket World Cup. At the age of 39, he became a household name and a symbol of national pride. From an affluent background, he attended the elite Aitchison College in Lahore before enrolling at Oxford to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy, politics, and economics, while perfecting his cricket and building a reputation as a wealthy, fashion-conscious playboy. In 1995, he once again made headlines when, in an Islamic ceremony, he married Jemima Goldsmith, the eldest child of Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart and Sir James Goldsmith, the Anglo-French financier. The power couple soon became the poster children for liberal elites in Pakistan, though Jemima quickly soured of the attention. The marriage, which produced two boys, Sulaiman and Kasim, ended amicably in 2004.

Returning home from Britain, Khan became increasingly involved in domestic social and economic conditions. But at first, he says, “I had no intention of setting up my own political party. The country’s rapid decline was alarming me though, and I was already mulling over the idea of getting involved with some kind of political movement.” Despite his lack of political experience, he became determined to set a new course for his nation rather than watch his country deteriorate. An Oxford classmate of the late, assassinated Benazir Bhutto, he disparages Bhutto’s politics. “How on earth can you run a country when your first job is to be prime minister?” Khan asks, unaware of the irony, adding that she “had not been tested by the rigors of the journey towards leadership, nor developed a vision or ideology, nor learned about management or institution building. Family dynasties in politics inevitably lead to incompetent leadership and decay.”


A bitter disillusionment with the course his country was setting led Khan to form the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the Pakistan Movement for Justice, in 1996. It took 16 years, but PTI is finally making its mark. Khan is now a serious player in Pakistani politics. The inadequacies of the current government and the disenchantment of the nation’s youth paved the way for Khan’s rallies in Lahore and Karachi, which showcased his massive popularity. PTI caters predominantly to the youth, providing them with a political platform. Millions joined his ranks in the past year alone. Few, however, really made an effort to understand his agenda, and today, the fascination with Khan has begun to decay into frustration. Many of those who remain within PTI are often unable to offer a comprehensive understanding of party vision beyond referring to Khan as a “messiah,” “rock star,” or even a “demi-God.”

While PTI has failed to present a set of clear domestic policies, Khan does aim to build a democratic party and wants no part of government by the military. Promising to rid Pakistan of corruption in just 90 days after taking power, Khan has built a reputation among senior independent analysts as well as career politicians as a touch naïve and ill-suited for the rough-and-tumble of Pakistani politics. Increasingly suspicious of American intentions, Khan is a strong advocate for ending Pakistan’s involvement with the Afghan war that has spilled into his country. He is convinced that drone attacks in the Northwest Frontier Province must be avoided at all cost and that terrorism can be brought under control. Between 2,562 and 3,325 people have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since they began in 2004, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Instead of drones, Khan advocates negotiating with Islamic extremists directly, saying for “those of us who know the tribes, the obvious solution is to work with them, to cajole them, and to encourage them to collaborate.” Pakistan’s military along with numerous analysts have lambasted Khan’s idea of diplomacy, arguing that you cannot “cajole” terrorists.

Already discredited by the army, Khan’s foreign policy took a hit when 15-year-old female peace activist Malala Yousafzai was targeted and shot by Taliban gunmen, simply for wanting to go to school. Scores of young Pakistanis organized street protests, prayed, and held up posters for Malala with some young girls in Swat proclaiming, “Malala is our sister, and if terrorists think they can silence us, they are wrong. We will only speak louder.” Politicians like Altaf Hussain of the liberal Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) condemned the Taliban in harsh terms, asking his followers not to pray with any mullah who supported the attack. Even the Army’s chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, denounced Taliban practices, saying, “We refuse to bow before terror. We will fight, and regardless of the cost, we will prevail.” Young Pakistanis took to social media, vociferously condemning the attack, and in a rare show of support, 50 ulema of the Sunni Ittehad Council issued a fatwa in Malala’s favor, deeming the attack “un-Islamic.”

Imran Khan, however, remained quiet on the topic. Refusing to single out the Taliban, he instead linked the attack on Malala to American drones that he says trigger harsh reactions, including attacks on Pakistanis themselves. His statements reinforced his nickname “Taliban Khan” and left many young followers in shock. Pakistanis today are looking for a leader who is decisive, brave, and not afraid to publicly denounce acts of terror. Khan’s “Taliban apologetic” behavior has hurt his reputation badly. Attacks like the one on Malala remind young Pakistanis that the war surrounding them is their own and that they will have to battle a radical ideology if they want the freedoms they desire. To lead them, an individual must have clear priorities and a strategic understanding. The youth are beginning to realize that Khan may not fit that bill.

In Pakistan, foreign policy has become a central domestic debate. America’s drone policy has affected numerous young people in the North, particularly in the tribal areas. Many young people around the country see these attacks as a brazen violation of their country’s sovereignty. Of course, most Pakistani youth do not support terrorism, knowing that they, too, may wind up as targets. A study by the Pew Research Center on the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death claims that 55 percent of Pakistanis view al-Qaida unfavorably, 13 percent express at least some support for them, and 31 percent remain undecided. While Pakistan’s youth are increasingly unsettled by America’s military strategy, they are also angered by Taliban attacks on their own people. To many young Pakistanis, Khan was the initial beacon of hope, but his failure to portray leadership qualities in the realm of national security has cost him dearly in terms of youth support.


Pakistan’s youth are disenchanted by the current government and concerned about their future. A recent Gallup Pakistan poll revealed that 53 percent of Pakistanis are highly skeptical of their current government. Young people regularly riot in city streets over perceived attacks on Islam from the West, electricity shortages, and skyrocketing fuel and food prices triggered by a rapidly deteriorating economy. In a country where the government is unable to deliver even basic needs, discontent and frustration are bound to find outlets. Even in areas where young people are turned off by extremist ideologies, crime thrives. As youth resentment grows, the window of opportunity to engage Pakistan’s young adults with the ideals of democracy is closing rapidly.

Mehmoodabad and Adam Basti are small slums behind Karachi’s affluent neighborhood known as Defense. Most of the slum dwellers depend on daily wages. Garbage covers the streets, and the air is thick with the smell of raw meat. As children play cricket in the alleys, stray dogs wander looking for food. Arif Niazi, 25, who runs a betel leaf shop sits by the curb with Shabaz Puran, 21, a tailor, listening to loud Sindhi music. Both voice the same complaints—lack of jobs, inflation, and crime. “The rich can afford things, but for the poor, inflation is crippling,” moans Arif. “The price of diesel and petrol paralyze our businesses. The current government is corrupt, and until law and order comes to Pakistan, nothing will be right.”

What about Imran Khan? As soon as his name is uttered, young boys playing cricket nearby rush over. “Imran is honest,” says Shabaz. “He is not corrupt. But his staffers are not good and come with an agenda. We can work with him, but no single leader can save this country. We have to depend on ourselves.” A boy, no older than eight, tunes in, his cricket bat slung confidently over his shoulder, and says, “Imran Khan will win. The same way he won the World Cup.” He grins and leaves. It is his turn to bat.

With the youth unemployment rate as high as 30 percent, many Pakistani youths can’t find jobs, and as the rural-urban migration escalates, the jobs crisis only deepens. Even those who somehow complete an education find themselves unemployed. Katherine, 26, lives in a low-income area in Lahore. Her father works as a driver, and her mother is a housecleaner for a doctor. Despite her college degree, she can’t find suitable work, and the rhetoric of Khan falls flat without a specific and workable economic plan. “Education and security are the biggest problems in this country,” she says. “Imran Khan is all talk, no action, and people will have too many expectations. I liked [former president] Pervez Musharraf. At least we were safe then.”

Near Katherine’s home in Lahore, five young men sit on the curb. Aged 23 to 27, they too fear inflation, unemployment, and corruption. But Kamal, the oldest, speaks most bitterly about the energy crisis. “People complain about education. But until we have a solution to the energy crisis, nothing will be solved. Industries and businesses are paralyzed, because there is no electricity. Children can’t study, because there is no electricity.” With a group of friends, Kamal is developing a compact technology that will enable the neighborhood to use solar energy to power small appliances. Many young people, he says, don’t know if they can trust Khan, because “leading a team of some cricketers is not the same as running a country of 180 million.” Nonetheless, three of these five young men say they are voting for Khan in the 2013 election.

Khan and other wannabe leaders are doing their best to tap into a youth movement, understanding that they are harbingers of change. Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, argues that even though “youth segments are suffering from ideological, cultural, and social confusions, I have a firm belief that this youth bulge will be the game changer. They are becoming more aware and realize a broader worldview. They want a progressive, developed, and democratic Pakistan.”

Since its inception, Khan’s PTI has catered to young people. PTI’s president, Javed Hashmi says he could give its youth members a staggering 80 percent of the electoral ticket. If PTI can win elections, a large number of youths will be brought into the halls of power.

Members of the PTI’s young, educated elite are vigorously recruited to serve as media and policy advisers. Political talk shows prominently feature PTI reps—articulate, young, and globally aware. A young, soft-spoken dentist, Awab Alvi, son of the party’s secretary general, joined PTI after the Lahore rally in October 2011, convinced “that we have to stand with people who mean good and want change.” As the leader of PTI’s social media campaign—which is the best and most responsive in Pakistani politics—Awab live-streams Khan’s major rallies to millions of young voters.

This fall, Khan’s party held its first political rally in the unstable area of Waziristan—the most difficult and dangerous the party has conducted. Marching confidently through the tribal belt with party members and international human rights workers, even Khan’s rally failed to reach its destination, halted by a raft of security threats. With fewer supporters than anticipated, Khan also failed to make an impact, either at home or abroad.


Seeing Khan’s hold on the youth voting bloc loosen, career politicians are rapidly recognizing an opportunity. Leaders of the ruling Pakistan’s People Party (PPP) have turned to their children in an effort to project a younger and more vibrant image. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari—the 24-year-old son of President Asif Ali Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto—is co-chairman of the ruling PPP, while his younger sister, Aseefa Zardari, has entered the limelight as the Pakistan Ambassador for Polio Eradication. Added to this mix is Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of Punjab political boss Nawaz Sharif of Lahore, who, following the massive youth turnout for Khan’s rally, was introduced as a central player in her father’s party, the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).

Whether these mainstream politicians are truly committed to changing the political status quo of the country or are simply riding the coattails of PTI remains to be seen. The mass defections of PPP and PML-N loyalists to Khan’s ranks immediately following his monumental Lahore rally sent chills through the political elite. Weeding out corruption and enforcing transparency have always been at the heart of PTI’s agenda and that of its leader, a politician with an impeccably clean slate. Yet as he promises a new deal, Khan is welcoming scores of career politicians, many bringing with them political baggage and tarnished reputations. Furthermore, Khan’s reputation for arrogance has started to push out a number of heavyweight supporters. Whether it is a result of friction with Khan or a fear that PTI’s popularity has peaked, the trend is nonetheless damaging.

The former president, General Pervez Musharraf, has adopted a different approach. He became the first Pakistani political leader to create a Facebook page that he uses devotedly. In three years, he has managed to attract a following of over 500,000 “friends,” using Facebook to assert that his middle-class background and experience serving in wars make him the right choice to lead the nation. Currently in self-imposed exile in London, Musharraf has vowed to return for the next election.


In recent years, youth organizations have sprung up all over Pakistan. “We don’t need to wait for the government to solve our problems,” says Rabi-ur-Rehman, founder of Karachi Youth Organization. “Sixty-three years have proven that they are incapable. Now we are here, and we will stand for Pakistan,” he says.

Initiatives like the Young Leaders Conference and Youth Parliaments allow young people to make their voices heard, enter the political mainstream, win exposure in the national media, and mold a can-do attitude in a setting rarely receptive to change. Pakistan’s youth are fiercely patriotic, enthusiastic about changing their nation’s future, and unsettled by negative international perceptions of their country. “Project Clean-up for Pakistan,” for example, encouraged people to take to the streets and clean up the mess left behind by protesters. On their Facebook page, they pointed out that “REAL Pakistanis do NOT believe in violence.” Individuals from eight to 60 years old took to the streets with brushes, brooms, and garbage bags. Dressed in T-shirts and jeans or shalwar kameez and burkhas, the diverse group transcended any political affiliation.

Apart from youth institutions, social media has become a strong tool to bring together the youth of Pakistan—an opportunity to show the world a young, moderate, and responsible side of their nation. “Let’s Think Pakistan,” a campaign aimed at promoting responsibility and accountability, invited young people to write down promises of how they were going to help their country. Pledges ranged from, “Pledge 52: I will author easy to understand literature in all local languages informing women of their rights as a wife and as a legal heir” to “Pledge 138: I will not leave the water running and will make sure all the taps in my house are tightly closed when water is not needed.”


The air is heavy with tear gas, and the screams just keep getting louder. Pakistan is engulfed in protests against the controversial anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. Conservative, bearded men and uneducated youths are armed with sticks, rocks, and Molotov cocktails. As the government blocks YouTube and tries to appease Islamist parties by declaring a “Love the Prophet Day,” chaos erupts. Young people, reporters, and police swarm Karachi’s M.A. Jinnah road. Angry youngsters rob ATMs, break into shops, and set cars on fire. Across the city, men set cinemas on fire, but not before stealing sodas from the vending machines. They chant, “We are standing up for Islam. America treats us like dogs. They have abused us.” When asked what exactly America did to deserve a protest like this, the crowd has no answer. There are no women on the streets. Young college boys say, “We aren’t with any political party. We are just outraged and hurt.” No one can articulate why they are there. Men throw themselves against shop shutters, hurl rocks in every direction, and yell anti-America slogans. In a corner, a group is burning an American flag and a poster of President Zardari.

The demonstrations this film sparks gives Pakistan’s disenchanted youth an opportunity to vent, whether against their own government’s ineptitude or America’s insensitivity. Pakistan’s youth is politicized but impatient, eager but directionless, and often quite reactionary. Youths are targets of opportunity for Islamist parties and extremists—not just for Khan. But it would be a mistake to view a couple of thousand violent, young men as representing the larger youth population today.


Model Colony is a low to middle income area in Karachi’s Malir district. Like most other districts, it has its own mosque and a highly vocal, anti-American mullah who seizes any opportunity to condemn American actions and the loss of Pakistani lives. Once mass transit arrived, the area suddenly tripled in size, with an influx of young people, most attending the mosque regularly for prayers. The Friday khutba, or sermon, often contains emotional speeches by the mullah proclaiming America to be the center of all evil, supporting “blasphemous material produced to target Muslims.”

Uzair Dadabhoy, 25, a trader and active PTI member, has strong views about PTI’s foreign policy. Recently returned from Canada, Uzair simply says, “PTI is not anti-American. We just don’t want to do America’s dirty work. If we attack people in Waziristan, they’ll retaliate. It’s common sense. It’s like asking America to go attack Mexico, because we are at war with them. When Mexico retaliates, they won’t attack us, they’ll attack America because of its proximity. It is very important to establish a relationship of mutual respect.”

With their middle- to upper-class backgrounds and western education or training, many elite youths will soon be in positions to effect policy change. Armed with a strong desire to work within the system to bring incremental change, most recognize that ties with the United States can be lucrative. Over the last 10 years, the United States has poured over $18 billion in aid into the country without improving its image. With this in mind, the United States needs to engage with Pakistan’s civil society and its educated youth who understand their would-be partner and can serve as advisers and consultants. With mistrust, misunderstanding, and preconceived notions on both sides, the need has never been greater to focus on people-to-people interaction. The West must make an effort to involve itself directly with grassroots movements and increase funding in that area. Government-to-government programs often fail to reach the masses. The West cannot afford to isolate itself from the youth of Pakistan. With Khan standing tall against the United States, the need is even greater for Americans to rebrand themselves and build foundations with the many youths ready to engage as equal partners.

With anti-Americanism at a high, the United States must be vigilant about where it invests. Avoiding any interference in politics, it must aim to elevate education in a country where young people consider it essential for a better future. Various education initiatives under the USAID banner are already underway, but with the government spending barely 2.7 percent of its GDP on education, about half the country remains illiterate. Concerted efforts must be made to invest in the economy to create jobs, which will allow the United States to show more for its presence and involvement in Pakistan. Above all, American aid must transcend any single government, since animosity and discontent are created every time a development project or investment is halted due to a change in regime or military strategy.

The political game is changing, not because Imran Khan’s party has finally gained some traction, but because the average young voter today is more patriotic, better informed about his country, and increasingly suspicious of foreign dominance. While most would like an engaged partnership with America, reaching a level of mutual trust and respect will take time. The United States and its western allies must be patient and revise their public diplomacy. Few Pakistanis treat hostile comments from senior western officials as constructive criticism. While they may be justified, harsh criticisms of a military strategy or civilian leadership by politicians in the West should not be aired in public. Many simply want Americans to understand the sacrifices made by the people of Pakistan and that they are ready to view the United States as a friend, just not a master.

Youths from Western powers and Pakistan must engage directly through social media programs. Pakistan’s youth will play a major role determining which path their nation adopts—isolation and violence or collaboration and prosperity. Discriminatory attitudes at airports and embassies create resentment among Pakistanis. Many end up frustrated, angry, and confused by the dichotomy of “supporting the United States as a frontline ally in the War on Terror and being singled out, deported, or refused visas in large numbers,” writes Mooed Yusuf, a Pakistan scholar at the U.S. Institute for Peace. At rallies across Pakistan, politicians like Imran Khan highlight the shame and disrespect faced by their young citizens in America and vow to restore the country’s pride. The United States needs to practice sensitive diplomacy, confine
aggressive rhetoric to closed-door discussions, and make a conscious effort to rebut sensational and provocative anti-Pakistan rhetoric from public quarters.


Some 35 million voters will be casting their ballots for the first time in the next election, likely in April 2013. Pakistanis want a leader who requires accountability from both domestic actors and international players. Khan’s nationalistic pride has gained mass support among young people who feel cheated, used, and betrayed, but his lofty rhetoric is unlikely to survive his image as a Taliban apologist in the crucible of a Pakistani election. But by energizing Pakistan’s youth, Khan has already revolutionized his country’s politics. The nation’s youth have finally emerged on the national, and increasingly international, stage.

Given this dynamic, the West needs to consider this an opportunity. Through careful policies and sensitive diplomacy that engages Pakistan’s youth demographic, both the United States and Pakistan can move toward a brighter future. Money alone can’t buy love. The American strategy of “winning hearts and minds” can’t be achieved with unending government-to-government aid. It requires committed, respectful, equal, and transparent partnership, especially with Pakistan’s young people.



Arsla Jawaid, an associate editor of Karachi’s SouthAsia Magazine, serves as director and executive producer of the social media campaign, “Let’s Think Pakistan.”

[Photo courtesy of A Majeed/AFP/GettyImages]


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