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British troops keep watch at a checkpoint, where a man shot and killed three British soldiers, in Helmand province July 2. The man, an Afghan policeman, shot the soldiers at the checkpoint on Sunday, Afghan officials said, the latest in a chain of increasingly frequent rogue killings. A fourth British soldier was also injured. The soldiers were serving with an Afghan police advisory team. (Abdul Malik/Reuters)

British deaths in Afghanistan: How the war has fallen out at home

By Staff writer / 07.02.12

An Afghan policeman turned his weapon on British troops Sunday, killing three and sending more bad news to a British public deeply unhappy with the war.

British forces have lost more than 400 soldiers as well as public support for the conflict. A YouGov poll in April found just 14 percent supported staying on, with 77 percent favoring troops withdrawing immediately or soon. In the US, by contrast, 32 percent still support staying on until the situation is stabilized, according to a Pew poll in April.

The near universal disillusionment with Afghanistan in Britain has meant anti-war thinking lives not just in lefty and mainstream circles but within some emergent groups on the flag-waving right. 

In the postindustrial city of Luton on London’s northern fringe, Stephen Lennon explained to me this May how he cofounded the English Defence League, an anti-Islamic group, in the wake of an Afghan war protest.

In 2009, some hard-line Muslims protested a homecoming parade in Luton of British troops from Afghanistan. They held signs calling the troops butchers and killers and shouted “terrorists.” Mr. Lennon channeled anger in Luton over the protest into a broader backlash against Muslim immigration and, he argues, those Muslims whose ideology is separation, not integration, into British society. The group is also trying to bolster English pride through St. George's Day celebrations and waving the English flag, which is a less common sight than the British Union Jack. 

“You know how they say multiculturalism has failed?” asks Lennon. “That’s just a weak, pathetic way of saying Islam has failed.”

Despite all this, he told me he doesn’t support the Afghan war either.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m against the war as well, but I still give full support to our boys and girls,” says Lennon, who in the early days of the EDL went by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson. “If you want to protest the war, take it to … Parliament.”

Lennon had just joined the executive council of the recently formed British Freedom Party in May. The first bullet point of the party’s defense platform is “Withdraw British forces from wars that are no concern of this nation.”

The US right has an isolationist strain too, a view that has gotten a high-profile airing by Ron Paul’s runs for president, and before that Patrick Buchanan

The EDL, however, has drawn considerable debate whether they belong within the boundaries of mainstream discourse. The group drew condemnations after some supporters turned violent, something Lennon says is now self-policed. Membership fell quickly after Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik wrote positively of the EDL in his manifesto; Lennon refers to Mr. Breivik with an expletive. Lennon bristles at being called racist or fascist, and banters with black friends who drop in during the interview at a local hotel.  

But the group uses its controversial image for political intimidation.

“We threaten things with [the EDL] really,” says Lennon. “Because it’s all about money with politicians, it costs them a million pounds to police our demonstrations. So if you build a mosque in our shopping center which they wanted to do … [we say] we’ll be here, and then they didn’t.”

Now Lennon, by joining the British Freedom Party, is trying to steer the EDL into politics, albeit on the fringes. 

For a group that formed in reaction to an anti-Afghan-war protest, it’s remarkable the EDL's leader has found a political home in a party that also eschews the military effort abroad. Or as Point 8 in British Freedom’s defense platform puts it: “Desist from tasking our forces to undertake hostilities in a war that is not directly threatening the homeland or British territory abroad.”

The party, formed in 2010, also wants to beef up the Army to 1980 levels, focus it on defending the country’s borders, and strengthen overseas bases in Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falklands, and Antarctica

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A man casts one of his ballots at a polling station in Atlacomulco, Mexico July 1. Mexico's more than 79 million voters went to the polls Sunday to elect a president, who will serve one six-year term, as well as 500 congressional deputies and 128 senators. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP)

Mexicans at polls talk of jobs, drug violence

By / 07.01.12

Jose Eduardo Salas is a young Mexican with a degree in mechanical engineering, no job, and few prospects, he says, so he is placing his vote in Mexico's presidential election today for Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who he says he believes holds Mexico's best hope for progress.

He, like millions of other Mexicans, are at the polls today to elect a leader for the next six years, one who will have to address a sputtering economy and a crime wave that has seen over 50,000 killed in drug-related violence in the past six years.

Polls leading up to the race have put Mr. Peña Nieto at the front of a pack of four, even though the PRI held a tight, authoritarian grip on Mexico for 71 years, until it was voted out of power in 2000.

But many Mexicans remained undecided leading up to the race, and many have also opted not to vote, currents present in Salas's own family.

His grandfather, Roberto Cienfuegos, accompanied his grandson and son to the station, with their 2-year-old Boxer Kikon, but stayed outside. He has no plans to vote.

“It doesn't make a difference,” says Mr. Cienfuegos, who voted for the leftist candidate in the 2006 race who is also running this year, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Mr. Lopez Obrador lost by less than a percentage point, declared fraud, and never accepted the results as many of his followers, including Cienfuegos.

His son, Juan Manuel Cienfuegos, did opt to vote – though kept his pick private, as many Mexicans do – but expressed deep skepticism that it will even make a difference. “Crime and jobs are the most important problems,” says the small business owner. “But no one is going to be able to solve either.”

Reports from around the country showed that voting was underway without any incidents of major violence. The polls are open until 6 p.m. local time and partial results are expected two hours later.

Peña Nieto's main rivals are Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the right-leaning ruling party, the National Action Party (PAN). President Felipe Calderon is not running for re-election, as under the constitution presidents are barred from a second term.

Each of the candidates had clear supporters today when the Monitor asked voters what their preference was, except the fourth candidate Gabriel Quadri, the only candidate from outside the major parties: He is expected to figure in the low single-digits.

Here are profiles are the other three candidates, the policies that they are offering, and the baggage that their parties carry as election 2012 unfolds:

Enrique Peña Nieto

Backroom deals. Rigged elections. Pacts with drug lords.

Those are the accusations thrown at Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 71 years in power, an era that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed the “perfect dictatorship.”

When the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, for the first time since its founding in 1929, there was overwhelming excitement and relief. And yet, just 12 years after Mexico's transition to democracy – amid a public wearied by violence and skeptical about how deep Mexico’s democratic transition really was – the PRI seems to be making a comeback.

Now, many are wondering whether a PRI victory in this election would mean that Mexico is retreating from its long march toward democracy. Student protestors have recently taken to the streets and written on social media with fury about the implications of the PRI coming back to power.

The PRI says it is a political party "of today." Its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, hails from a younger, more modern generation that cares deeply about democracy, the party says, yet with the PRI's backing he can leverage the party's vast political experience and efficiency to solve the country's deepest economic and security problems.

It's unclear how many Mexicans are buying this message, but polls show Mr. Peña Nieto is out front with a comfortable two-digit advantage, according to most polls, in part because they are voting against the status quo.

Twelve years after its democratic transition, Mexicans are disillusioned with the state of democracy, which many say they believed would have deepened by now. Weak institutions, monopolies that cripple competition and economic growth, and corruption still dominate. Among the top concerns is violence, including the 50,000-plus drug-related deaths in six years.

“There is a kind of longing for the 'good old days,' when there was corruption but not as much violence,” says Lorenzo Meyer, a noted historian in Mexico. “[The PRI was] corrupt but not that inefficient. [Mexicans are saying] 'let us return to good old days of efficient authoritarianism.'"

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Across Latin America, the left – from the fiery nationalism of Venezuela to the more market-friendly left of Brazil – dominates. Even in places where leftists are not in power, they’re still a force to be reckoned with.

But in Mexico this election cycle, the left only became competitive less than a month before presidential elections July 1. After languishing in third place as he struggled to brand himself as a capable leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is now in second, though most polls show his rival, frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto, with a comfortable lead. Many say the left should be a powerhouse in Mexico, due to the country’s vast disparities between rich and poor. But the main leftist party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution(PRD), has never held the presidency.

Mr. López Obrador and his PRD almost won the previous election in 2006, and to some observers, he did. After his defeat he declared fraud and led sit-in protests that brought Mexico City to a standstill, alienating many of his supporters and dividing his party.

But the left’s uphill battle this year is not just about the controversial candidate it has fielded or internal divisions in the party. The left is also hampered by Mexico’s unique history of one-party leadership under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is leading the race today.  Founded in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, the PRI wielded socialist rhetoric and a vigorous nationalism that eclipsed and co-opted the message of the left. Put simply, many voters who tilt left in Mexico are drawn to the PRI instead of the PRD.

“[The PRD] is probably too close to the old regime, and that has been a very difficult problem for the left,” says sociologist Roger Barta, a professor emeritus at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

Josefina Vazquez Mota

Mexico's National Action Party (PAN) was targeting the “modern” Mexican woman when it nominated Josefina Vazquez Mota for president.

But the PAN’s strategic move – becoming the first major party to nominate a female candidate for president – hasn’t worked out as planned.

Mexico has hit a milestone with Ms. Vazquez Mota’s nomination, but she has been unable to disassociate herself from the public’s discontent with her party’s 12 years in power, especially on security. And even if some women are drawn to her, for many others, she hasn’t come off as modern enough.

Vazquez Mota chose one simple word as her campaign slogan: “Different.” She is presenting herself as a leader in machista Mexico who intimately understands how to navigate work and mothering, and a woman who would be more honest and sensitive to the needs of working families. In a country where fertility rates have dropped precipitously, the education gap between sexes has narrowed, and women are increasingly entering the workforce, many say it’s time Mexico had a female in the top office.

"I will be Mexico's first presidenta," Vazquez Mota said after winning the party's primary in February.

The words capture a sense of optimism about the rise of women in leadership across the region, where females have held presidencies from Chile to Argentina to Brazil.

But, boxed in by party ideology and her own beliefs, she has been unable to capture a significant “female” vote to tip the race in the PAN’s favor. “She [has] tried to promote herself as different because she is a woman but she does not embody any of the feminist discourses,” says Fernando Dworak, a political analyst in Mexico City. “She says she is different, but she can't say how she is different.”

Vazquez Mota was considered the winner in the second round of presidential debates in July, going on the attack and trying to paint her rivals as part of the old corrupt machinery of the past. But catch-up will have to be meteoric if she is to prevail.

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In this Feb. 26 file photo, Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi ascends the stairs towards the stage to deliver her speech during an election campaign rally in Thongwa village some 31 miles from Yangon, Myanmar. (Altaf Qadri/AP/File)

After Aung San Suu Kyi, girl band symbolizes a changing Myanmar?

By Correspondent / 06.29.12

Since Myanmar (Burma) formally ended military rule in March 2011, getting an interview with long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been a sort of rite-of-passage for foreign journalists visiting here.

The Nobel Laureate’s recent winning of a seat in Myanmar's Army-dominated parliament and current high-profile European tour are being taken as further signs that the government is maintaining its reform drive.

But there are other signals that the country is changing for the better. And with those changes come new items on the visiting journalist's to-do checklist.

Over the past year, the Me N Ma Girls (hoping there's no need to explain the obvious pun on the country's name), a pop/dance act made up of five young Myanmar singers and dancers, have appeared frequently in the international media.

“We appreciate all the media who interview us,” says Ah Moon, a 21-year-old singer and dancer from war-torn Kachin state in the country's north. She recently finished a Russian language degree and speaks fluent English with an Americanized twang.

Successive stories have branded the ladies as emblems of cultural change and taboo-lifting in what was one of the world's most oppressive political regimes. The girls, perhaps wise beyond their years, seem wary of being typecast as some sort of cultural fable or cliché, rather than aspiring pop superstars in their own right.

“Yeah, we've been in a lot of articles, it's been great,” says Kimi, 24, an ethnic Chin from the northwest of Myanmar. “But, sometimes it's like 'can we practice now?'" the girls say, feigning good-humored weariness, while gathered around a laptop in Ah Moon's family apartment in Yangon

In between pouting and posing for photos, and gossiping in Myanmar language, the girls peer over the shoulder of band member Htike Htike, a graphic designer in her spare time, while she works on a new album cover design. "I did the cover for our first album," she says.

The pay-off from all the coverage is a chance to go to Los Angeles later this year to record some tracks for the new album and take a shot at making that apparent quantum leap that has so far been too much for most Asian pop acts trying to break into Western markets.

“It has been very hard for Asian acts to score in the West, but they have a chance because the story is compelling, they look great, and have the right disposition for success,” says Daniel Hubbert, Chairman/CEO of Powermusic, in an e-mail.

When the girls head stateside, they'll record at Mr. Hubbert's studio. Musically, he says, “I would categorize the girls as a pop/dance act, musically akin to a Pussy Cat Dolls.”

If that's the case, then the Me N Ma Girls have as good a shot as anyone at making the East-West leap.

After all, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, possibly the most famous Myanmar citizen, has been described as an ideal link between East and West, an Asian Buddhist speaking the Queen's English and the language of democracy and rule of law and who raised a family in Britain.

“She is like another mother for us,” says Cha Cha, 22, also an actress with 14 movies already released, speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The country's reformist President Thein Sein comes in for hearty praise too. Wai Hnin, the quietest of the five girls, chimes in. “Thein Sein is amazing,” she says, “everything is changing now here after the end of the military government.”

The girls aren't getting too big for their boots or forgetting their roots, however, despite their success to date and hopes for the future. "We don't try to be too sexy, or go too far from our culture," says Ah Moon, adding that "we all still love our traditional dress."

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A Pashtun boy stands at the window of his family's mud house, looking at children playing nearby on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, last week. (Fayaz Aziz/Reuters)

Pakistan's Texas-sized problems

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / 06.28.12

Years ago, before Sept. 11, when I first started traveling in South Asia, a Pakistani diplomat gave me a quick tutorial about how his people, Pashtuns, were not so very different from my own people, Texans.

We both follow conservative religions, although not so closely as we like others to believe, said the diplomat, delicately cutting into a plate of enchiladas at a Tex-Mex joint in Washington. Like Texans, we love our guns. We have very traditional beliefs about marriage and the role of women in society. We love barbecued meat. We distrust government, and hate paying taxes. We’re not as different as you might think.

As intriguing as this Pashtuns-are-Texans theory is, it is clear that the differences between the United States (which includes Texas, for the time being) and Pakistan (which includes many ethnic Pashtuns, for the time being) have become vast. US military airstrikes, aimed at Islamist militants but also killing civilians and even Pakistani soldiers, have turned many Pakistanis against what they see as a “great Satan.” Pakistani tolerance of, and even support for, Islamist militant groups on Pakistani soil has pushed many US military commanders to conclude that Pakistan is, in effect, more an enemy than an ally. According to Christine Fair in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine, some are contemplating a new approach: either containment, or benign neglect.

At present, Pakistan no longer allows the US military or the NATO alliance to use its ports or roads to resupply NATO troops based in Afghanistan. And with US elections approaching, and Pakistan’s government increasingly fragile, it is hard to see how the two countries can bridge the gap.

Pakistani public opinion has turned sharply against the United States, with a recent Pew Research poll showing that 74 percent regard America to be an enemy, up from 69 percent in 2011, and 64 percent three years ago.

Recent headlines indicate that things are not getting better, but rather worse.

* In her Foreign Policy piece, Ms. Fair suggests that US military are close to giving up on its tactical alliance with Pakistan. As Fair writes, Pakistan is in such a state of crisis, it couldn’t change course even if it wanted to do so.

Pakistan is in crisis. Its courts act on whim rather than jurisprudence. Its political parties are vast pools of corrupt patronage networks that aggregate elite interests while disregarding the interests of Pakistan's struggling masses. Neither elected politicians nor military rulers have had the political courage to right the nation's fiscal woes by enforcing income tax or imposing industrial and agricultural taxes on the ruling elites and their networks of influence. While the army has retrenched from a direct role in politics, it has done so likely because it has no other option: Pakistan's military suffered a mighty humiliation after the bin Laden raid, which left many citizens wondering whether their country is a failed state, a rogue state, or both.

* Adding pressure from within, the militant Maulana Fazlullah, who briefly took control of the Swat region and ran it along Taliban lines before being pushed out by a Pakistani Army operation, has returned to the Pakistani-Afghan border region. He released a video showing the severed heads of 17 Pakistani soldiers, together with their identification cards, almost taunting the army to come and get him.

* Indian investigators say that an Indian militant, allegedly linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008, has reportedly admitted under interrogation that Pakistani intelligence officers were with him in Lashkar’s “control room” in Karachi as the attacks were being carried out. Pakistan has claimed it had no involvement in the attacks, which killed more than 166 people, and wounded more than 300.

* And in Islamabad, Pakistan’s government moved ever closer to paralysis, as Pakistan’s Supreme Court pushed newly appointed Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to reopen corruption cases against President Ali Asif Zardari. Mr. Ashraf was elected prime minister last week to replace Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was banned by the Supreme Court from holding office after he refused to reopen the case against Zardari.

So let’s review: US and Pakistani relations are at a low point, with both countries increasingly regarding and treating each other like an enemy. Pakistan’s military may have been implicated in terrorist attacks against India, and it now has an armed militia leader apparently planning to carve out a part of the country to rule as a Taliban-like state. And amid all this trouble, Pakistan’s Supreme Court and its executive branch appear to be facing off in a fight to determine who gets to run the country.

Which brings me back to my Pakistani diplomat friend; if Pakistanis and Americans are more alike than they admit, could the same host of problems affecting Pakistan now – rising religious extremism, military adventurism, constitutional fights, and separatism – happen in the US too? Perish the thought.

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Gen. John Allen the top US commander in Afghanistan, salutes before he observes Memorial Day on May 28. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Top Pakistani and US generals meet as analysts question the value of military talks

By Correspondent / 06.27.12

The top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, met with Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani today to urge Pakistan to crack down on militants who launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. 

Military-to-military meetings are common between the two countries, especially as Pakistan’s military apparatus has had the power there. But as the civilian government and the courts begin to establish themselves in line with more democratic norms, some are questioning how good military-level meetings are for Pakistan’s democracy.

Amid the deterioration of US-Pakistan relations, some US officials say Washington should take a different tack and circumvent the military to talk directly to the civilian government. By negotiating primarily with the Pakistan military, the argument goes, the US inadvertently strengthens Pakistan's Army, rather than civilian rule, even as the military undermines American interests in Afghanistan.

Though the premise is correct, according to Stephen Cohen and Moseed Yusuf in an op-ed in The New York Times, circumventing the military is just as ill conceived “as was past support for Pakistan's military dictators.”

“American attempts to actively exploit Pakistan's civil-military disconnect are likely to end up strengthening right-wing rhetoric in Pakistan, create even more space for security-centric policies, and further alienate the Pakistani people from the United States,” write Mr. Cohen and Mr. Yusuf.

The two countries have been at loggerheads ever since NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and injured an additional 13 at the Salala military checkpoint close to the Afghan border in November. Pakistan retaliated by closing supply routes to ISAF forces. A 14-point parliamentary resolution requesting an apology for the Salala incident, along with more funds for use of Pakistani motorways to transport supplies, has been met with US reluctance. Reports yesterday indicate that reopening NATO supply routes would be at the top of the agenda, along with border coordination.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is currently leading negotiations on the NATO supply routes with the US, and Kayani has referred the US to the civilian government on the question of reopening the border after the Salala incident. The military continues to define key parts of Pakistani foreign policy, but there is a public attempt to boost the civilian government. However, the seemingly similar interests in maintaining a defiant stance vis-a-vis the US comes from a broadly-shared frustration with US foreign policy toward Pakistan.

Conversations about a US decision to stop talking altogether with the military or the civilian branch of Pakistan is an indication that the US thinks of Pakistan as a clear cut division between civilian and military elites that largely disagree on their approach to the US. That assumption is wrong. But, say the analysts, maintaining relations with Pakistan's military and security agencies as well as the civilian government is essential for intelligence cooperation in the long run.

Still, if democratically minded activists within Pakistan had it their way, any cooperation with Pakistan on security matters should always go through a people's assembly. 

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Britain's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (c.), Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (r.) and Sophie, Countess of Wessex (l.) attend the annual Order of the Garter Service last week at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle in Windsor, southern England. (Paul Edwards/Reuters)

UK's thoroughly modern royals? Not exactly. Commoner Kate has to curtsy.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent / 06.26.12

News that the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, the probable future queen of England, has been instructed to curtsy to her husband’s younger cousins has caused some surprise here, where she has quickly come to be regarded as one of the most senior members of the royal family.

Queen Elizabeth II has approved an update of the Order of Precedence in the Royal Household, a sort of manual of court rules, that has been amended to take into account the addition of Kate, who married Prince William last year.

The Order now states that Kate, who has no royal blood in her veins, must curtsy to the “blood princesses”: the Princess Royal, Anne; Princess Alexandra, the granddaughter of George V; and the daughters of the Duke of York, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie; when she is not accompanied by her husband.

When Kate is with William, she need not curtsy to the blood princesses, but even in his presence she must curtsy to the Queen and Prince Philip; her father-in-law Charles, the Prince of Wales; and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.

It has come as a surprise to some that the royal family should spell out such an arcane piece of protocol at a time when it is seeking to project a more modern image. Kate, with her relaxed, easy manner, is considered to have been great asset in this endeavor.

The royal family is also attempting to pare itself down and present a more compact group of key family members at public events. During the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations earlier this month only Prince Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry joined the queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

Ten years earlier, at the Golden Jubilee events, all the queen’s four children stood alongside her.

"It is quite apparent that the more distant royals are being phased out, in terms of their duties and privileges, although it will be done slowly,” says Liz Brewer, an expert on etiquette among the British upper classes. “But this is the form, this is how things are done, and there are certain rules that you follow. Once you start to say, let’s forget that one, the whole thing starts to fall apart.”

She cites as an example of this general rule the relaxation of protocol at Royal Ascot – an annual horse race attended by the queen, a racing fanatic – governing which people are invited into the royal enclosure.

“Once those rules were relaxed the dress code got more and more inappropriate until you had people with short dresses flying up and all that sort of thing,” says Ms. Brewer.

This year, the organizers sought to undo the damage with an exacting new dress code that specified skirts of knee-length or longer and hats “with a base of four inches or more.”

The order was last updated in 2005, following Prince Charles’s marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles. That change clarified that neither Princess Anne nor Princess Alexandra would have to curtsy to Camilla when Prince Charles was not in the room.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the new update of the order is whether Kate Middleton is expected to curtsy to the younger princesses when the royal family is relaxing in private. If she is, it must come as a relief that Debretts, which has published a heavy “Peerage and Baronetage” tome since the 18th century, defines the curtsy as “just a short bob (not a full ground-sweeping dip).”

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A group of 22 high-ranking Pakistani education officials and policymakers are in the US meeting with education experts, as part of the USAID Teacher Education Project. (Courtesy of Education Development Center)

Where the US and Pakistan are working together

By Staff writer / 06.15.12

Every few months, US-Pakistan relations seem to fall to a new low.  

The latest tumble happened this week when the United States announced it had called off negotiations with Pakistan to reopen NATO supply routes. 

But even as Washington and Islamabad figure out how to mend their struggling relationship, soft diplomacy efforts – and billions of dollars – are in place to keep US-Pakistan ties from fraying completely. 

In fact, a group of 22 high-ranking Pakistani education officials and policymakers are in the US meeting with education experts. It's part of a first-of-its-kind, USAID-funded project to professionalize Pakistan's teachers and upgrade the quality of education in the nation's elementary and secondary schools.

The USAID Teacher Education Project alone may not patch the relationship between the US and Pakistan, but funding education projects is one way the US is able to support the kinds of moderate values that both the Pakistani government and the US say they want to promote.

“We need a strong civil society here in Pakistan that is safe and secure. We cannot produce that without good education,” says Mahmood ul Hasan Butt, director of the USAID Teacher Education Project, which is being implemented by EDC, a nonprofit based outside Boston.

Pakistan is having trouble attracting both teachers and students to classrooms. Dr. Butt attributes a large portion of these problems to the state of the teaching profession. Until now, there was no special training for teachers and few incentives to teach.

The USAID Teacher Education Project is a $75 million, five-year project under the Kerry-Lugar-Bergman Act. Since the project began in 2009, Pakistani teachers and policymakers have been meeting regularly in Pakistan, working on developing and implementing their own education policy changes, developing new syllabuses, and working with the higher education commission to implement new education degrees.

Pakistan is introducing both a two-year associate's degree and a four-year bachelor’s degree in education, with a plan to require a bachelor's degree in education by 2018. To encourage teachers to get the degree now, schools are offering higher pay to teachers with the new qualification.

Some in Pakistan criticize USAID’s approach to dispensing aid and Pakistan’s apparent dependence on it. The US has pumped $20.7 billion in aid into Pakistan since 2002 (some two-thirds military, the rest civilian). US lawmakers often complain that Pakistan does not cooperate as much as hoped, and have threatened to suspend aid. And in some cases have acted: After the doctor who helped the US track down Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison, the Senate voted to cut aid by $33 million. And more recently, the US cut $20 million for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street after USAID made allegations of fraud against the show's producers.

But Gita Steiner-Khamsi says this project is worth keeping.

“It’s a different approach to aid work. That’s what makes it interesting,” says Ms. Steiner-Khamsi, professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University, which is a partner of the program. Rather than deliver an aid package and having the donor dictate how to implement it, this project gives ownership to Pakistanis, and US partners act as consultants, she says. 

That furthers Pakistan’s goal to “move away from dependence and move to self-reliance,” says Butt. “It took America 50 years to transform its educational model. We’re trying to do that in five years,” he says, adding that the USAID project is helping accomplish something that should have been done years ago in Pakistan.

Today, almost 6,000 Pakistani students, policymakers, and faculty members from 75 colleges and 22 universities are expected to participate in the various project activities over the life of the project, according to administrators. They would presumably then help sustain the teacher education reform movement in Pakistan.  So far, 51 out of 75 colleges have begun offering the new associate's degree. On top of that, some colleges and universities not associated with the project are starting to model it.  Next year, when the first group graduates from the bachelor's degree program and starts teaching, officials will begin to assess how having better teacher credentials affects student success.

Hurdles

The 2015 United Nations Millennium Development Goals in education aim for Pakistan to have all children complete primary school and to reach gender parity in enrollments. But among Pakistan’s 170 million residents, some 40 percent are under the age of 14; getting these children – especially girls – to go to school is one of the biggest hurdles to educating Pakistan. Only 50 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys go to primary school.

Some participants worry about what will happen after the funding dries up in 2013. “The past few years have been good years for Pakistan’s education. If we needed something, we got it. Now money is tight,” says Maryam Rab, an administrator at Fatima Jinnah Women’s University.

Butt acknowledges this and says it’s a tough problem, but individual institutions will have to figure out ways to better manage their budgets. He’s confident the program will succeed.

It’s too soon to tell what that will look like in quantitative terms, say analysts, but the Kerry-Lugar-Bergman Act was designed to improve relations between regular Pakistanis and Americans, and these types of projects make a difference on a people-to-people level.

“The program,” says Perveen Munshi, dean of the Department of Education and professor at the University of Sindh,  “is very wonderfully impressive.” She adds that as busy as it is – keeping her here in classes and back-to-back seminars at Teachers College, Columbia University – “it is bringing understanding not only of the US, but of all world education. This is one learning place.”

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Newly constructed residential buildings (back) are seen next to a construction site in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, China, in this May 25 file picture. (Rooney Chen/REUTERS/File)

Is China really the world's top economy? Much of the world thinks so

By Staff writer / 06.14.12

For the first time, more people around the globe think that China, not America, is the world’s biggest economic power.

They are wrong, of course, at least for the time being. America’s economy is much larger than China’s however you measure it, and when it comes to personal wealth, there is no contest.

But a recent 21-country survey by the Pew Research Center offers a snapshot of global perceptions of power, and the results are sobering for the United States.

World's top 5 economies. Where is China?

Americans themselves are almost evenly split over who they perceive to be the premier global economic heavyweight: 40 percent say the US, 41 percent say China. (Interestingly, the Chinese have no such illusions about themselves – they put America ahead by a margin of 48 to 29.)

Europeans seem most overawed by the China hype, with 62 percent of Germans putting China at the top of the heap, compared with just 13 percent who still see America as the world’s top economic power. In Britain the split is 58-28, in Spain it’s 57-26. 

Worldwide, 42 percent of respondents put China ahead of America; 36 percent perceived it the other way around.

That 42 percent of respondents are off the mark. There are different ways to measure the size of a national economy, but even using the system most generous to the Chinese, called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the US economy was nearly half as big again as its nearest rival, the Chinese one, in 2010, according to the IMF. US Gross Domestic Product weighed in at $14.5 trillion against China’s $10.1 trillion, according to the September 2011 IMF report. 

If you go by straightforward GDP, America’s economy is two-and-a-half times as big as China’s according to the World Bank. And if you compare personal wealth, well, there is no comparison.

America’s per capita GDP came in at nearly $50,000 last year, while China’s was just over $8,000 at the most generous estimate – about the same as Ecuador and Belize.

Of course you could use other criteria than mere size to judge which nation is the world’s leading economic power; innovation, for example.

But China still lags well behind the US in that field too. And when it comes to how much each country has invested abroad, Americans account for 20 percent of global foreign direct investment and the Chinese for only about 1.5 percent.

When it comes to energy, dynamism, and growth potential, the Chinese do look more impressive. And, of course, China’s population is five times bigger than America’s. At current growth rates, China probably will have the biggest economy in the world (measured on the basis of PPP) within 15 years.

But it hasn’t happened yet, whatever people around the world may believe.

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People watch the Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft as it moves to the launch pad at the Jiuquan launch center in Jiuquan, China's northwest Gansu province, June 9. (AP)

Space launch: One small step for China, one giant opportunity for investors

By Staff writer / 06.14.12

For the Chinese government, this weekend’s space shot – the country’s first manned space flight for nearly four years – is a matter of national pride.

For some canny Chinese stock pickers, however, it is a chance to make money.

The Shenzhou 9 mission, due to take off on Saturday, will send three “taikonauts,” one of them a woman, to dock for the first time with China’s orbiting space lab. The maneuver will mark a major step toward Beijing’s goal of building its own space station.

Back on Earth, meanwhile, the flurry of publicity surrounding the launch has done wonders for the stock prices of Chinese state-owned firms in the space sector. One of them has seen the value of its shares jump 16 percent since the mission was announced Saturday.

The Chinese government and the companies it controls are generally tight-lipped about the space program, releasing information to the public only at high points such as rocket launches. “Shares go up because they are stimulated by the news,” says Li Qin, an aerospace analyst at China Investment Securities in Beijing.

At the same time, adds Mr. Li, launches are evidence of progress in China’s space sector, “which sparks market expectations of the sector, so speculative investors jump in.”

The last time China launched a rocket in its space lab program, last year, space sector stocks bucked a falling market to rise by about 10 percent, Li recalls. They have risen by the same amount over the past four days, he says, led by Shaanxi Aerospace Power, a manufacturer of rocket parts, whose shares have leaped 16 percent.

Last year, though, as soon as the Shenzhou 8 rocket had docked with the space lab and interest in its journey faded, the stock prices fell back to their previous levels, Li says, and he expects the same thing to happen this time.

“You could make money if you’d bought space sector stocks on Monday,” he says. “But you’d have to be careful to sell them before the rocket is launched.”

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A sign for $2.99 a gallon gasoline is seen as vehicles wait for a traffic light to turn green at a Hot Spot convenience store on the corner of Henry and Converse Streets on June 1, in Spartanburg, S.C. (Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)

Oil prices rise, drop, and rise again. Buckle up, Earth.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / 06.06.12

For sheer roller-coaster thrills, picture yourself as an oil market analyst.

Imagine the challenge of (correctly) predicting the future price of oil and all those wonderful fuel products Americans love to use, in the midst of a crucial election year.

When oil-producing countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Nigeria, become unstable, oil prices can soar. When economies shrink in energy-consuming places like Europe and the United States, oil prices can sink. When both trends happen at the same time, oil market analysts dig into their pockets for a coin to flip.

In February, when oil prices surged over $110 a barrel, some oil analysts were predicting an End Times scenario, where the US economy would go into a fetal position, rocking back and forth and singing Adele songs. Fox News Channel, the drama queen of the global news pageant, was betting that gasoline pump prices were likely to hit $8 a gallon, a factoid that, at least for now, appears to be utterly false.

RELATED: Eight ways $100 oil may affect you 

Early this week, crude oil prices had dropped to $84, driven downward by the lower demand of a contracting global economy. Gasoline prices are dropping with them, down to a national average $3.56. This is significantly higher than the 26 cents it cost to fill your father’s – or your grandfather’s – Oldsmobile, but the dollar is worth less today than it was in the 1950s. In inflation-adjusted dollars, we have been paying $10 to $30 a barrel for the past 160 years or so, with just a few major spikes in 1860-1861, 1979-1980 and 2007-2008.

Now the bad news has gotten so bad, it’s good. On Wednesday, oil prices shot up again to $85.56 a barrel, ahead of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony before Congress, as oil market analysts bet that he would urge for some kind of stimulus package.

Aside from gasoline price swings from nearly $4 a gallon to $3.50, the volatility of oil prices has other effects. Higher oil prices, which drive up the cost of production, make factory owners think twice about expanding. High oil prices also encourage consumers to start thinking about conservation, such as turning off lights and buying fuel efficient cars. But high oil prices also make oil exploration in new places more attractive. And as oil companies start finding oil in untapped fields in Kenya, North Dakota, Ghana, Alberta, Israel, and Somalia, that increases the overall supply of oil, which ends up driving prices down again.

A growing global supply of oil might seem to be the solution to America’s economic doldrums, but this solution brings a host of ecological problems, according to Foreign Policy magazine’s Steve Levine.

Already, carbon emissions last year reached levels that are linked by scientists with a 2 degree rise in global temperatures over the past 50 years, according to the International Energy Agency. But if carbon emissions continue to rise – as they will if more energy is produced, and if energy prices drop enough for people to consume more of it – the world will “blow through” emissions targets agreed to in global treaties.

So this provides what may be the most vexing moral dilemma of our times: to grow, or not to grow. That is the question.

One thing you will notice about this process: It has very little to do with politicians. These days, the price of oil is determined more by roughnecks in greasy denims or Wall Street futures traders than by Middle Eastern oil sheikhs or White House economists. But voters, driven by fear or angst, still feel the need to punish the man in charge for their economic suffering. And in an election year – as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy can attest -- the economy matters above all else.

The roller coaster continues. Buckle up, Mr. Obama.

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