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Difference Maker

Key to Afghan crisis: tea and education

Greg Mortenson, author of 'Three Cups of Tea,' says success lies in building trust and schools in rural Afghanistan.

By Todd WilkinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2009

Chairman Joint Chiefs Of Staff Admiral Mullen and Greg Mortenson, director of Central Asia Institute Pushgur Girls school inauguration, Panjshir valley, Afghanistan, July 15.

Chad McNeely/US Armed Services

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Bozeman, Mont.

Greg Mortenson doesn't need to rely on think tanks or arcane policy documents to find the road to a better Afghanistan.

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The mountaineer-turned-school builder from Montana – recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize – depends on what might be called his own show-of-hands index, based on his visits to speak with children in the United States and Afghanistan. In the past few months alone, he's spoken to tens of thousands of them.

"I always ask American schoolchildren how often they talk with their grandparents about the important events of history in the past. Invariably, maybe 10 percent at most will raise their hands," he says.

He poses the same question in the remotest corners of Afghanistan, where he has successfully erected 80 schools, many of them focusing on education for girls. There, the range of responses he receives seems to reflect the social health of a particular community.

In rural villages where the Taliban has not exerted its will on the community, Mr. Mortenson says perhaps 80 percent of kids respond affirmatively. But in areas where home-grown and foreign Taliban fighters have established brutal strongholds, sometimes with connections to Al Qaeda, almost no child raises a hand.

As President Obama pledged another 30,000 US troops Dec. 1 to root out terrorists in Afghanistan, Mortenson is suggesting that effort must go hand in hand with another: grass-roots education.

The cause of religious extremism and distortion of the writings of the Koran is ignorance, illiteracy, and joblessness, he says. They all can be blunted by education. But classrooms can only rise if the local population has a stake in their success.

"The Taliban succeeds because it disrupts social order at the local level by severing the learning relationship kids have with shuras [tribal councils]," he explains. "When you do that, you erase not only the importance of local history and identity, but you destroy the ability of the shuras and mullahs [religious leaders] to have positive influences on young people."

More important than troop levels or war budgets is winning trust at the local level, he says. How the US conducts the next phase of its operation in Afghanistan will determine whether it will leave the country without having to return.

As the title of Mortenson's 2006 bestseller "Three Cups of Tea" attests (his new book, "Stones Into Schools," picks up where the first leaves off), relationships evolve slowly, literally over cups of tea.

It's a message that has sparked a paradigm shift in the attitude of top US military brass, one that began during the last years of the Bush administration.