Posts Tagged ‘ U.S.-Pakistani relationship ’

Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can an Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation?

By Aryn Baker for Time

For a 3-year-old who has yet to master the use of the personal pronoun, Elmo is a whiz at foreign languages. Already fluent in Chinese, German, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, among others, the fluffy red icon has just picked up Urdu, the most common language in Pakistan. At a time when the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is at its worst in more than a decade, Sesame Street — the quintessential American children’s television program — has burst onto the Pakistani scene in a flurry of fake fur, feathers and infectious ditties about the letter alef, or A.

With its background of ripening wheat, banyan trees and a center stage that features a village snack shop overflowing with exotic fruits and vegetables, the set of Sim Sim Hamara, as it is called in Pakistan, may seem far removed from the urban street scene familiar to most Americans. But the lovable Muppets, child actors and messages of tolerance are pure Sesame. And they have all been brought to life in Pakistan with the help of a $20 million, five-year grant from USAID.

Developed in 1969 by TV producer and early-childhood-education advocate Joan Cooney, Sesame Street was designed to tap the addictive qualities of television to bring early literacy education to American preschoolers. The “quaint” American streetscape, as Cooney then called it, has since grown into the “longest street in the world,” with more than 20 unique programs worldwide, according to Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of global education Charlotte Frances Cole. Some features dubbed segments lifted from the American version; others, like Sim Sim Hamara, which means Our Sesame, are created in partnership with local production teams to reflect native culture. In Pakistan, Big Bird and Oscar have been replaced by a self-involved crocodile and a donkey with rock-star ambitions. “Children have to be able to recognize their environment and their friends if they are going to learn,” says Faizaan Peerzada, who directs Sim Sim Hamara from a studio just outside the city of Lahore. “So we had to give Elmo Pakistani citizenship.”

On a tour of the workshop where the show’s Muppets are made, Peerzada, a master puppeteer with more than 40 years of experience directing educational puppet shows for Pakistani children for the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, slips his hand into a limp, feathered pocket of gray felt. Even without eyes, the unfinished puppet springs to life with the mannerisms of an owl, swiveling its head to listen as Peerzada expounds on Sim Sim’s potential with evangelical zeal. Underfunded and neglected for more than 30 years, Pakistan’s education system is in a parlous state. The recently released Annual Status of Education report in Pakistan reveals that nearly 60% of school-age children can’t read, or even do basic, two-digit subtraction problems. For a country where 35% of the population is under the age of 14, the consequences are enormous.

“As a nation, Pakistan has failed its children,” says Peerzada. If Sesame Street brought the joy of learning to generations of American preschoolers, why can’t it help teach Pakistan’s 66 million children under the age of 14 how to read? he asks. “Our children deserve this. All children deserve this,” he says. Obviously a television program that airs twice a week can’t compensate for missing teachers and limited school access, but it’s a start. “To me, Sim Sim Hamara is a gift to Pakistani children, and a window into homes that might think their children are better employed in the fields than at school,” says Peerzada.

Like the original, Sim Sim Hamara is a half-hour-long program divided into skits, song segments and celebrity appearances designed to appeal to a wide spectrum of Pakistani society. The Muppets caper with live actors on a set that combines features recognizable across the country, a kind of Pakistani Main Street that doesn’t stand out as belonging to any particular region. A dhaba, the ubiquitous snack-and-grocery shop that is the center of any Pakistani community, stands in for Mr. Hooper’s store, and is manned (or womanned) by a heavily made up Muppet auntie who anchors the show with amusing lessons about manners, safety and healthy eating. In an effort to promote tolerance in a country marked by ethnic divisions, the Muppets’ skin colors range from brown to pale orange.

Most striking, however, considering Pakistan’s male-dominated society, is the lead character, Rani, a 6-year-old female Muppet who captains the cricket team and who is passionate about science and reading. In a country where only 22% of Pakistani girls complete primary school, Rani is a model of female empowerment. But it doesn’t stop there. The rest of the show’s characters encourage Rani’s quest for knowledge — “Where does the sun go every evening?” was a recent one — modeling acceptance of women’s progress for a wider society. “You are not just teaching little girls that they can have dreams,” says Sesame Workshop executive vice president Sherrie Westin. “You are also teaching boys that it’s O.K. for girls to have those dreams.”

Of course progressive values in one culture can be interpreted as transgressive in another. Sim Sim Hamara has the added burden of being sponsored by the U.S. in a country where American meddling is viewed with increasing hostility. For that reason, the program’s authors have had to broach sensitive issues with subtle creativity. One recent segment opened with a despondent Baily, the would-be rock-star donkey, who decided he would never sing again because someone told him it would make him grow horns. “This is how we get at the idea of mullahs who are against singing,” explained one of the producers. The skit ended with the appearance of one of Pakistan’s most famous rock stars leading the whole cast in an uplifting song about believing in your self, entitled, fittingly, “Faith.”

Teachers who see it as a way to promote literacy at home have praised Sim Sim Hamara, as do children who have never really had a program to call their own. “I find that those who regularly watch Sim Sim Hamara know more about health and body parts and their functions,” says Islamabad school principal Masart Sadiq. “They get lots of ideas about careers, which they discuss with their teachers too.” Aniqa Khan, a 12-year-old from Rawalpindi, says she now wants to be a pilot, like Munna, Rani’s 5-year-old Muppet co-star. “He is excellent at math, which inspires me to spend more time on math.”

So far, and against fears in a country where the assassination of a governor accused of blasphemy was celebrated in the streets, there has been no negative response to Sim Sim Hamara. “I think my biggest fear was that the program would be misunderstood before it even aired,” says Peerzada. “People might have thought it was some kind of brain-washing project. But at the end of the day, all we are doing is teaching a child to count.”

The same could not be said of reactions to the program in the U.S., where Fox News in October dubbed Sim Sim Hamara a boondoggle for Elmo and conservative commentators quickly took up the cause. But as Sesame Workshop’s Westin points out, $20 million pays for a lot more than Elmo’s Urdu lessons and a plane ticket to Pakistan. It covers a state-of-the-art studio, high-definition digital-video equipment that won’t be obsolete in a few years, and the foundations of an educational institution that, if all goes to plan, will provide Pakistani children with the basic-literacy building blocks that have been the mainstay of early-childhood education in America for more than four decades. Current estimates say that Sim Sim Hamara is reaching more than 3.5 million Pakistani children who have no other access to preschool education. “This is a smart investment,” says Westin. “Early-childhood education is one of the most effective ways to build stability in any country. An investment like this is not only going to benefit Pakistan, but our children as well. If we can help to create a more peaceful world, that is a benefit to all of our children.” And that sounds like something Elmo would love, in any language.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– We commend this great project by the United States government and the USAID program. The $20 million grant and this educational program will not only help the children of Pakistan who are not provided an adequate educational system by their own government but a program like this goes a long ways in the betterment of ties between the United States and Pakistan and leaves a lasting legacy for the area’s children for years to come.

Musharraf Moves to Mend US-Pakistan Relations

By Lydia Mulvany for The Mimami Hearld

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that his country wasn’t complicit in hiding Osama bin Laden but was “extremely negligent” for not knowing that the al-Qaida leader was living a 75-mile drive from the Pakistani capital.

Speaking in Washington, the former military dictator sought to heal a U.S.-Pakistani relationship that’s become badly strained since the American raid May 2 that killed bin Laden, saying mutual interests in the global war on terrorism bound the countries and that blaming each other was counterproductive.

“The United States and Pakistan must restore trust,” Musharraf told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Confrontation would be most unwise.”

The bin Laden incident pushed U.S.-Pakistani relations to their lowest point in years. American officials weren’t happy when, after a decade-long hunt, they found al-Qaida’s leader living in a garrison town so close to Islamabad. Pakistani officials were outraged that they weren’t told about the unilateral raid beforehand.

Since the raid, Pakistan has restricted visas for American officials and expelled military trainers. The U.S. has cut off $800 million, about one-third of its aid to Pakistan’s military. The U.S. has long complained of ties between Pakistan’s military and insurgent groups that have attacked American-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

But Musharraf said that if Pakistani intelligence had colluded with bin Laden, it also would have known that the CIA was operating a safe house nearby and whisked the al-Qaida leader away. He described bin Laden’s high-walled compound in the town of Abbottabad as a normal dwelling that wouldn’t have raised suspicion.

He also claimed that Abbottabad – which is home to a major military college that’s been described as Pakistan’s West Point, as well as other military installations – wasn’t a garrison town but a touristy resort area with many colleges.

The recent raid was a “violation of sovereignty,” Musharraf said, echoing a widespread Pakistani complaint. He added that Pakistani antipathy toward the U.S. also stems from the American campaign of drone strikes on militant targets, which reportedly have caused civilian casualties, as well as lingering bitterness over U.S. sanctions for developing nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

The way forward for Pakistan, Musharraf said, is to show that it isn’t complicit with terrorists and to deal with domestic extremism. It also needs to establish an honest, stable government in the 2013 elections, said the former leader, who’s expected to mount a run for president.

Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999 and resigned in 2008, embodied the frustration and contradictions of American policy toward Pakistan.

Mark Quarterman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington research center, said that many wanted to see Musharraf as a modern, progressive leader: He wasn’t an extremist, his wife and daughter didn’t wear veils and the family even had a dog, an animal many Muslims view as impure. Ultimately, however, Musharraf’s rule was a military dictatorship and, according to many experts, he didn’t do enough to rein in Taliban militants who were operating in remote corners of Pakistan.

How to Win Back Pakistan

By Michael O’Hanlon for Foreign Policy

Nine years into the war in Afghanistan, the United States should have a clear idea of Pakistan’s interests there. It’s time to take these lessons to heart — and start applying the right incentives. As recent intelligence findings reported in late October confirm, Pakistan remains at the heart of the U.S.-led coalition’s problems in Afghanistan — where the war is hardly lost, yet hardly headed for clear victory either. Indeed, Pakistan arguably remains the most complex ally the United States has ever had in wartime, making President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s challenges in dealing with Stalin (a far worse leader, but at least one who knew the outcome he wanted) seem simple by comparison.

Nine years into the campaign, we still can’t clearly answer the question of whether Pakistan is with us or against us. America needs bold new policy measures to help Islamabad — in all its many dimensions and factions — make up its mind.

The crux of the problem is this: Despite allowing massive NATO logistics operations through its territory and helping the United States pursue al Qaeda operatives, Pakistan tolerates sanctuaries on its soil for the major insurgencies fighting in Afghanistan. These include the Afghan Taliban (otherwise known as the Quetta Shura Taliban because its principle base remains in Quetta in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan) as well as the Haqqani and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) networks. The Haqqanis straddle the border between the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika as well as North Waziristan and other tribal areas within Pakistan; HiG is further north, operating in and around the Khyber Pass connecting Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan with Peshawar and points east in Pakistan. Thus, all three major Afghan insurgent groups have home bases in Pakistan, and despite the occasional drone strike are generally beyond NATO’s reach as a result.

Pakistan has done some worthy things against extremists in its remote northern and western areas in recent years. Specifically, it has recognized the so-called Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) as a mortal threat to the Pakistani state and responded accordingly. After suffering hundreds of bombings and assassination attacks by the TTP, including the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and several thousand casualties a year to its troops and citizens since roughly that time, it has responded in force, particularly over the last year and a half or so. It has swung about 100,000 troops previously guarding the border with Pakistan’s nemesis India to the northwestern tribal regions and cleared several major areas including South Waziristan, Bajaur, and the Swat Valley. This is all to the good.

Pakistanis argue, however, that limited numbers of ground troops combined with the past year’s admittedly devastating floods prevent them from doing more. Quetta, North Waziristan, and other key places remain dens of iniquity, havens for extremists who continue to attack NATO and Afghan troops across the border and then return home for rest, regrouping, and fresh recruiting. Major command-and-control hubs are permanently located within Pakistan as well, and key insurgent leaders like Mullah Omar (to say nothing of Osama bin Laden) probably remain safely ensconced on Pakistani territory where U.S. forces cannot get at them.

But even if limited Pakistani capacity is part of the problem, there’s more at stake. Pakistan worries that President Barack Obama’s promise to start reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan come July will lead to anarchy and civil conflict next door, and it is retaining proxies that it can use to ensure that its top goal in Afghanistan — keeping India out — can be accomplished come what may. Pakistan would rather have the Taliban and the Haqqanis back in power, especially in the country’s south and east, than any group like the former Northern Alliance, which it views as too close to New Delhi. It is this strategic calculation, more than constrained Pakistani resources, that constitutes Obama’s main challenge in Afghanistan. And it could cost him the war.

Under these circumstances, part of the right policy is to keep doing more of what the Obama administration has been doing with Pakistan — building trust, as with last month’s strategic dialogue in Washington; increasing aid incrementally, as with the new five-year $2 billion aid package announced during that dialogue; and coordinating militarily across the border region. But Obama also needs to think bigger.

First, he needs to make clear America’s commitment to South Asia, to wean Pakistan away from its current hedging strategy. Obama has frequently used general language to try to reassure listeners in the region that there will be no precipitous U.S. withdrawal next summer. But few fully believe him. Hearing stories like Bob Woodward’s accounts of how the vice president and White House advisors have generally opposed a robust counterinsurgency strategy in favor of a counterterrorism-oriented operation with far fewer U.S. troops, they worry that next summer’s withdrawal will be fast. Obama needs to explain that he will not revert to such a minimalist “Plan B” approach under any imaginable circumstances. More appropriate would be a “Plan A-minus” that involves a gradual NATO troop drawdown as Afghan forces grow in number and capability, without necessarily first stabilizing the entire south and east, should the current strategy not turn around the violence by next summer or so. This would represent a modification to the current plan rather than a radical departure. The president can find a way to signal that this is in fact his own thinking, sooner rather than later — ideally before the year is out.

Second, Obama should offer Islamabad a much more expansive U.S.-Pakistani relationship if it helps win this war. Two major incentives would have particular appeal to Pakistan. One is a civilian nuclear energy deal like that being provided to India; Pakistan’s progress on export controls in the wake of the A.Q. Khan debacle has been good enough so far to allow a provisional approval of such a deal if other things fall into place as well. Second is a free trade accord. Struggling economically, Pakistan needs such a shot in the arm, and a trade deal could arguably do even more than aid at this point.

But the key point is this: Pakistan should be told that these deals will only be possible if the United States and its allies prevail in Afghanistan. Small gestures of greater helpfulness are not adequate; bottom-line results are what count and what are needed. If Afghanistan turns around in a year or two, the deals can be set in motion and implemented over a longer period that will allow the United States to continually monitor subsequent Pakistani cooperation in the war.

It may seem harsh to Pakistan that America would put things in such stark terms — but in fact, it is not realistic that any U.S. president or Congress would carry out such deals if the United States loses the war in Afghanistan partly due to Pakistani perfidy. As such, these terms are really just common sense, and they are based on political realism about America’s domestic politics as well as its strategic interests.

America’s current strategy for the war in Afghanistan is much improved. But it is not yet sound enough to point clearly toward victory. The most crucial problem is the role of Pakistan in the war, and so far, the Obama administration is not thinking creatively enough about how to fix it.

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