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.
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"Many of the elders I know are really angry at the Americans," Mortenson says. "It has less to do with our presence and more to do with the huge outcries caused by drones and bombers attacking suspected Taliban hangouts but killing a lot of innocent people."Skip to next paragraph
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The shuras said that even though they welcome eradication of terrorists, they can never countenance what the Bush administration dubbed "collateral damage."
What mystified Mullen was how Mortenson was able to build schools in places where the US has suffered its stiffest resistance and casualties. Just one of Mortenson's schools has been attacked by the Taliban at a time when fundamentalists opposed to women's empowerment have violently tried to thwart girls' education.
Since 2007, according to UNICEF, 850 schools have been bombed, burned, or destroyed in Afghanistan and 600 in neighboring Pakistan. Former President Clinton has said of Mortenson: "He is effective in an area where Americans are not popular, because he relates to people as human beings."
Mortenson was already building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan before Sept. 11, 2001. In the years since, he has made more than three dozen trips to the region.
Capt. John F. Kirby, who travels with Mullen and serves as his personal spokesman, says the Joint Chiefs chairman has been "riveted" by Mortenson's grasp of tribal nuances. The two men often exchange e-mails.
"He asked Greg how he was able to make progress, and Greg's response was, 'Why don't you come and see it for yourself?' " Kirby says.
Mullen accepted Mortenson's invitation to open a girls' school this past July in the Panjshir Valley, and he saw firsthand the impact – but only after Mullen sat amid a circle of elders and drank tea.
"We need to put human faces on each other," Mortenson says. "Admiral Mullen didn't go there for a photo op. He wanted to see things from the dirt floor of a local school on up. What grew outof it was mutual respect."
The Central Asia Institute, Mortenson's nonprofit organization, provides 50 percent of the funding, which must be matched by in-kind contributions of materials and local sweat equity. "The community must want the school," he says. "It's not ours to give them. What they're really doing is consciously choosing to create a different future."
Mortenson stops short of condemning the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose reelection was marred by fraud, but he says asking people to accept the primacy of a central government runs counter to thousands of years of history.
Mr. Karzai's legitimacy is rejected in the hinterlands because shuras and religious leaders believe his administration is rife with corruption, says Wakil Karimi, who serves as a conduit between Mortenson and the shuras. Mr. Karimi arranged cellphone interviews with shuras in three provinces.
"God does not like terrorists. Terrorism is not promoted in the Koran," says Muhammad Azan from Maidan Wardak Province in central Afghanistan. "They are not only the enemy of America; they are our enemy. All of us have to work together to stop them."
Jamal Meer, a shura elder in Paktia Province in the east, says if more US soldiers are assigned, they should be concentrated on the border with Pakistan. But if "the other kind of soldiers are sent," he says, referring to National Guard troops with expertise in civil engineering and farming, their presence as teachers would be welcomed.