Twenty years of visiting Pakistan still doesn’t amount to much. My footprint is limited, especially lately, and I can only converse in English. Nonetheless, if you don’t learn something from repeated visits, you’re not paying attention.

There’s no shortage of bad news about Pakistan. Lots of trend lines are worrisome. That said, allow me to fuzz up your mental image of Pakistan with these thoughts, while they are still fresh from a trip in mid-September.

Pakistan has lots of bright, able, independent-minded, young talent.

Pakistan has a middle class. This cohort can grow and prosper if a nation of traders is free to trade freely and directly to the subcontinent, as well as to Central Asia.

Pakistan has vigorous political parties. It has an election coming up whose outcome cannot be confidently predicted. Religious parties are minority parties. How many Islamic states fit this description?

Pakistan’s armed forces are beset by many problems. These problems will only be compounded by seizing power. Pakistan’s politicians have running room to succeed – or to make the same old mistakes.

Everyone in the country understands that the economy has to improve. Without economic growth, national security is a mirage.

The Line of Control dividing Kashmir has been mostly quiet for almost a decade now.

On August 14th, Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, gave a speech at the Pakistan Military Academy on the occasion of Pakistan’s 65th Independence Day. What he said has gotten little play outside of Pakistan.

Here’s a sampler:

It becomes blatant extremism when one not only insists upon finality of personal opinion, but tries imposing it on others. More so, if one tries to enforce his opinion through use of gun, it becomes terrorism. That is why Islam does not allow anyone to claim to be a know all, and flirt with divinity.

If this is the correct definition of extremism and terrorism, then the war against it is our own war, and a just war, too. Any misgivings in this regards can divide us internally, leading to a civil war situation. It is therefore, vital that our minds must be clear of cobwebs on this crucial issue.

The war against extremism and terrorism is not only the Army’s war, but that of the whole nation. We as a nation must stand united against this threat. Army’s success is dependent on the will and support of the people… It is also crucial that appropriate laws are passed to deal with terrorism. Since 2001, many countries in the world have formulated special anti-terrorism laws. Unfortunately, our progress towards such legislation remained very slow…

We are fully aware that it is the most difficult task for any Army to fight its own people. This is always done as a last resort. Our ultimate aim is to bring peace to these areas so that the people can live a normal life. But for that to happen, it is critical that people abide by the constitution and law of the land. No state can afford a parallel system of governance and militias.

Please compare these remarks with those Gen. Kayani gave at the same venue shortly before the Osama bin Laden raid. It is standard practice to blame Pakistan’s ills on unwise choices by its military leaders. I’ve been there and done that, and will probably do so again. And yet, no other Pakistani politician has come close to framing the issues that Pakistan faces in this way.

Is this hokum, or is there a shift underway? Is the trade initiative a tactical maneuver or a possible strategic opening? We’ll see. There are too many complicating factors to enumerate, but here’s one: India, like Pakistan, has a national election coming up.