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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.

(Page 2 of 5)

Adm. Mike Mullen, President Obama's handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, found a copy of "Three Cups of Tea" awaiting him on his nightstand. It had been placed there by his wife, Deborah. "Three Cups of Tea" also reached the hands of Gen. David Petraeus, leader of the US Central Command, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who recently requested 40,000 additional troops. It is required reading for US officers in the region.

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Mullen and Petraeus summoned Mortenson to meetings at the Pentagon, and he used maps to give them a virtual tour of the country, pointing out some areas that have been virtually impenetrable to US ground forces, telling them the names of shuras and mullahs they needed to contact.

"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."

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."