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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 3 of 5)

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."

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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.

Part of McChrystal's request specifically asks for soldiers with skills beyond warfighting.

"Elders understand, better than anyone, what has happened to their society as too many young men and women have grown up without schools over the last 30 years," says Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda, a forward-based operations specialist in Afghanistan who reports directly to McChrystal. "I truly believe that education is the long-term solution to terrorism and violent extremism."

Often, what seems to be the immediately apparent solution from a military point of view – that is, taking out terrorists – might solve one problem but create many others, Kolenda says.

He explains Mortenson's influence by telling a story: When his unit first deployed during the summer of 2007, rocket attacks were launched daily from a valley on the east side of the Kunar River near the Pakistan border, a nettlesome hiding area for Al Qaeda.

Humvees, he says, were unable to cross a narrow bridge that spanned the river because they were constantly shelled. One solution would have been conducting a night search of the village for munitions. Instead, US officers requested a face-to-face meeting with the shuras.

Local elders told them that, earlier, a US platoon had stormed into the same town in the middle of the night and forcefully searched villagers' homes, infuriating them. Soon, in response, shelling began of the US military outpost.