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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.

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"The extremists are small in number," Mr. Ali says. "They can be minimized. If the people have opportunities for jobs, to own land, and go to school, most of the problems with the Taliban will go away."

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If Mortenson has any advice for Mr. Obama, it would be to call together a large gathering of shuras and listen to them.

"It would do more good than spending another $1 billion on combat operations or foreign aid. He would ingratiate himself, help calm down some of the lingering hostilities, and probably save some soldiers' lives," Mortenson says.

Mortenson says his respect for US commanders has grown immeasurably. Half a decade ago, he wrote a scathing op-ed article excoriating the way that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was conducting the war.

"Our military is now actually ahead of the curve, not behind it," he says. "When you hear the expression 'All politics is local' in this country, people get it. Well, in Afghanistan, all politics – as well as culture, cooperation, and the hope of any progress – is local, too."

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R) of California was an early champion of Mortenson's approach, long before he published his first book. "The minute I met him, I knew there was something special about his mission," she says. "Our war effort has been costly on so many different fronts. It's amazing what he's been able to do with so little money."

Ms. Bono Mack has told colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the US House that the answer lies in a nonmilitary solution that disarms the enemy by removing its greatest recruiting tool – hopelessness.

"Mary Bono Mack and a growing number of her colleagues get it," Mortenson said in an interview while on a short visit to his home in Bozeman, Mont. "I'm not suggesting a pajama party between all 535 members of Congress and an equal number of tribal elders. But if they all spent a few days together with our lawmakers learning what the real needs are on the ground in Afghanistan, they would think differently about the challenge being placed at the feet of our military."

In September, Mortenson joined Afghan clerics in building a school in Deh Rawod, in the desolate Oruzgan Province in south-central Afghanistan, a region that has provided a haven for Taliban leader Muhammed Omar. The clerics wanted first to visit another school to get an idea of its possible impact, so they went with Mortenson to an existing school in a neighboring village.

They strolled out into the school playground, which had a swing set, says Mortenson, showing photographs of clerics swinging and their usually stern faces smiling as their robes flapped in the breeze. "In that moment they discovered something else that schools can be, something they didn't have as children," Mortenson says. "It was like a light bulb went on."