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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 4 of 5)

As Kolenda listened, the topic turned to the value of education. Not long afterward, Kolenda's unit returned – not with loaded weapons, but bearing truckloads of school supplies.

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The dynamic changed instantly. The formerly hostile elders made their own trip to the US base.

"They brought with them about 100 thank-you notes written in Pashtun from children," Kolenda says, noting that he had contacted Mortenson and inquired about setting up a school in the village. It became the first one built in Kunar Province. Once the classrooms opened, the shelling magically stopped.

"Despite our differences, caring for children and our families and communities are examples of things we truly hold dear to our hearts and in common" with Afghans, Kolenda says. "Doing our best to see the world through their eyes and working together with them to meet their core needs often forms a very important foundation to a relationship based on mutual trust and respect."

This is not a war that will be won with superior firepower, Kolenda says. "You must work on the smaller issues first to build mutual respect and credibility," he says. "Once you reach that point and all parties are confident in the relationship, then you can move on to more sensitive issues. Insurgents tend to prey on disaffected groups and communities."

Decentralized power structures, in which decisionmaking happens at the tribal level, are part of the culture. It has withstood invasions launched by Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the colonial British, and the Soviet Union, Mortenson says.

"Community, community, community. It is the social nexus rather than the individual," Kolenda says. "The shura and jirga [circle of elders] are examples par excellence of Afghan community decisionmaking at work."

"If you sweat for it, you protect it," is a saying of local tribal leaders. The schools Mortenson has helped bring are not merely new buildings, they act like old-fashioned community barn raisings.

"This is a critical reason why his schools are not attacked more often or vandalized," Kolenda says. "The better we model our development practices on this simple principle, the more effective and more stabilizing our aid efforts will become."

Two summers ago, a girls' school in the village of Lalander, Afghanistan, received written warnings from the Taliban. Then came death threats. They culminated in a dozen men ransacking the school and warning that if any girl or family member returned, they would face severe consequences.

Angered, the schoolmaster rode his bicycle 20 miles to alert the presiding tribal elder, who had a daughter attending a similar school. The elder responded, Mortenson says, by having the equivalent of "a local posse" round up the offenders. A few were killed. Armed guards were then assigned to protect the school around the clock. Not only did the threats disappear, but support for the school grew stronger.

"There are many different kinds of Talibans, some extremist, some not," says Shoukat Ali, a former Taliban who teaches at one of Mortenson's schools in Pakistan. He joined the Taliban as a teenager to fight against the Indian Army in the disputed region of Kashmir. He was enticed because he had no job.