Nonprofit activist Greg Mortenson, co-author of the 2006 international best-seller "Three Cups of Tea," knows firsthand about the challenges of nation-building in Afghanistan, and he’s got some advice for the Obama administration: Open your ears more to the locals, or risk shooting yourselves in the boots.
In interviews this week, Mortenson, 51, the former K-2 mountain climber-turned-philanthropist whose nonprofit Central Asia Institute has established 130 schools and promoted girls' education in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, urged the U.S. to include input from Afghani tribal elders in the Pentagon's expanded military effort in the region, or risk failure.
In the deliberations preceding President Barack Obama’s announcement Tuesday that he is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Mortenson said, “there were nine meetings held behind closed doors, in secrecy, between Obama and military leaders but Afghanistan’s provincial elders were not considered in any of those meetings — even though they are the real power in the country.”
Mortenson urged the administration to expand its push to promote education of women and girls in the region. “Ultimately, education should be our top priority, as well as relationship-building with local elders and civilians,” he said in an interview. “We can drop bombs and hand out condoms and build roads or put in electricity but if we don’t educate children, and especially girls, nothing will change in society."
Mortenson is someone the military's top brass listens to — and has often consulted with. "Three Cups of Tea" has become required reading for U.S. commanders and troops deploying to Afghanistan, making Mortenson a valued but unofficial adviser to the Pentagon. Mortenson's follow-up book, "Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs," was released Monday.
'I now think the military gets it'
In an interview, Mortenson, a former U.S. Army medic and mountain climber from Bozeman, Mont., retracted earlier remarks that the U.S. Army were all “laptop warriors … who don’t have a clue what was going on locally, on the ground.” Now, he says, “despite a steep learning curve on the part of the U.S. military, I now think the military gets it.”
Since April, Mortenson has facilitated more than 35 meetings in Afghanistan between local shura, or tribal leaders, and U.S. military commanders, including Gens. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command. In those meetings, he says, more than 200 shura from dozens of provinces in Afghanistan conveyed that they want less military might and more brainpower from Americans in their push to rebuild after years of conflict. “They want us to know that it’s not just about fighting the Taliban but also about relationship-building with Afghan civilians and helping the Afghanis build schools and the infrastructure that they want and need.”
When asked what nonprofits can teach the Pentagon, Mortenson said in the interview that aid groups must do more listening, rather than deciding for people what’s best.
I caught up with Mortenson in New York City on Tuesday, at the start of his U.S. book tour for "Stones into Schools":
Q: Gen. Petraeus is a fan of "Three Cups of Tea" and has had you speak to the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What have you said to them and do you find it odd that you’ve become a kind of unofficial advisor to the U.S. military in the region?
Mortenson: What I tell U.S. troops when I’ve spoken to them is that it’s critical to listen more to the local people, to be respectful of them — that Americans are there to serve the good people of Afghanistan, and that third, we need to build relationships with the people. It’s my contention that if you work with local people, you can go into the most volatile areas and be very successful, but you have to involve the community.
What needs to be done and which still is not being done is that we have to insist, as a nation, there be some kind of reciprocity, some kind of mutual payback from the Afghani communities being helped. So far, [congressional] legislation has contained money to the region but it doesn’t include the input of the local people on the ground and doesn’t insist on reciprocity, that the local people also must contribute and help contribute to the help they are getting from the outside.
Q: Your latest book, "Stones Into Schools," also about Afghanistan, just came out. Why did you write it?
Mortenson: Mainly because of our significant expansion into Afghanistan, and also because I’m in that country for half the year and I wanted my kids to know why their dad has been gone for half their childhood. But there is also a third reason I wrote it. After writing "Three Cups of Tea," I visited 120 cities, and everywhere I went, Americans expressed to me a yearning for global peace. I think it’s really important that we reach out and share that yearning that Americans have with the rest of the world.
Q: Where did the title of your new book come from?
Mortenson: I’ve worked for 17 years in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, and particularly in the tribal areas. In Afghanistan, there is what I call a warrior culture, and one of the things I’ve had the great honor to do is spend a lot of time with the mujahedeen, or the warriors. Some are shady and they have different backgrounds but there is a very common theme to the visits, and that’s where the title to my latest book comes from.
When you are visiting a mujahedeen, they will often invite you to their compound, and then, in the evening, they will sit you on the roof and as the swallows are flying around in the sky and you see the great panorama of the Hindu Kush, the premier mountain range in the region, sweeping before you. They will then serve you green tea and then start telling you war stories. And then they’ll ask, 'Do you see those boulders up there, the stones in the mountains? And then they’ll point out where their different skirmishes took place, and their battles, and then they’ll tell you that every one of those stones is a shahid, or a martyr, who died fighting the Taliban or the Russians or their other nemeses.
Now, they say, they must turn those stones into schools and make the sacrifices of their dead warriors worthwhile. You know, Afghanistan, for over two millennia, has been at the crossroads of civilization and has had different invading armies come and go, and the waxing and waning of empires. This is not my interpretation, but it’s how they perceive it — that they are a warrior culture and want now to make their war against ignorance. ...
There’s a saying the elders often repeat, and roughly translated, it’s that God created the world and it was good, and then he took the leftovers and threw them into a pile and cobbled the bits together and that became Afghanistan. When you hear that, it’s very sad, but at the same time, the Afghan people take great pride in knowing that it’s the last best place, the place where the bits and pieces have come together to become these very resilient and beautiful people.
Q: President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops into the region — will this help or hinder your efforts to educate Afghan civilians?
Mortenson: Our work will continue, regardless, because of our nonprofit’s relationships with the Afghani elders. I was quite angry that there were nine meetings held behind closed doors in secrecy between President Obama and several of our commanders and advisers in the run-up to the president’s decision this week to send in more troops; the one thing that was never considered in any of the factoring-in was: What do the Afghan elders, or the shura, want? I feel that they should have had at least 50 percent of the voice in those meetings with the president.
The only place where the shuras were able to have some say, at least a little bit, was in the dozens of meetings our nonprofit helped to organize and facilitate between the shura and Gen. McChrystal since the general was appointed in April. There have been probably 35 or so meetings between him and some 200 shura from many of the different rural areas in Afghanistan. Our nonprofit has done this all on its own; we don’t receive any federal money and we don’t have any agenda. We’ve done this primarily on behalf of the elders who really wanted to meet the generals, and the generals who wanted to meet the shura.
Q: And who are the shura, specifically?
Mortenson: They are not elected. They’re pretty much people who have risen through the ranks of society in Afghanistan and are held in high esteem by the people locally. They’re successful businessmen or warriors or poets, and they are seen as being very wise and the real power in the country. And unfortunately, the Afghani government is fairly fragile and to some degree is also fairly corrupt, and so to the shura, it’s very humiliating and also very angering that nobody ever talked with them and asked them what their consensus is or how they feel about their own country.
I was able to sit in on some of these meetings, which would include Gen. McChrystal. One of the very strong points that came out in these meetings was that elders are very opposed to bombings. That’s their No. 1 complaint. The problem is that if you bomb, you kill civilians and if you do bomb, you need intelligence and the only way you can have good intelligence is to have more boots on the ground.
Q: What other things did the shura say in those meetings?
Mortenson: I think our government has done a poor job telling the public that about a third to half of those troops Obama is sending over are trainer troops. Of the 22,000 troops announced in February, 8,000 of those are trainer troops — from the National Guard and reservists. They’re teachers and engineers, bankers, dentists, horticulturalists, civil engineers and veterans. And roughly about a third or more of the new 30,000 troops he is sending will be trainer troops.
This is in line with what the shura have been saying for years — that they don’t need firepower but brainpower. They say, 'We want you to help us out but we don’t need help to go fight the Taliban or to kill and capture al-Qaida, but we do need some help to get us on our feet again so if you want to send over some of your special soldiers, like veterinarians and doctors and dentists and nurses, we’d love to have those come over. But if you’re just going to send over troops for fighting, then we don’t want those, we don’t really need those troops.' That’s what the shura are telling McChrystal when I’ve heard him talking to them.
In "Three Cups of Tea," I was actually fairly critical of the military. But now I think that, in many ways, they’re ahead of the State Department and our political leaders because they’ve been on the ground numerous times now. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the special forces commander, have — combined — been in Pakistan and Afghanistan 35 times in the last 14 months. Compare that with, for example, Hillary Clinton, who went over to Pakistan for a few hours last week. I’m hoping ultimately that all of the top military and American diplomatic and political leaders of will spend more time and get to know people and talk to them and listen to them more now going forward.
Q: What else do you think Americans should know about Afghanistan?
Mortenson: Some of the things the elders will talk about that you don’t hear about in the public are, for example, that in 2000, there were 800,000 kids in school in Afghanistan, and this was during the height of the Taliban. The kids were nearly all boys. Today, there are 8.4 million children in school in Afghanistan, including 2.5 million females. So it’s the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history and the goal is 13 million. So what I’m saying is that there are some really good things happening in Afghanistan, as well. There’s also a central banking system now in Afghanistan that wasn’t there and which was put in in 2006. That’s had a huge impact on the country. There also is an Eisenhower-era road-building program so the roads are about 60 percent done. ...
You can’t plug in a democracy; you have to build one. The real key is not only education but also land ownership. You go into the district courts now in Afghanistan and it’s mind-boggling how many women are going in and filing their titles for land ownership. I just try to tell people that yes, there are a lot of bad things happening and it’s very frightening but there are also some very amazing things going on and pretty much this all happened at a time when we put Afghanistan on the back seat. Just imagine what could happen if we devoted serious effort over the next two to four years to help the people of Afghanistan.
Q: Gen. Petraeus is a huge fan of yours and "Three Cups of Tea" and has invited you to speak to troops. What do you say to them?
Mortenson: I visit about two dozen military bases a year and I also visit many of the senior commanders, and the first thing I tell the troops is, it’s imperative you put the elders in charge. The elders need to be affirmed that they are in charge. The second is, I say we need to spend more time listening and the third is we need to build relationships. I guess Gen. Petraeus could sum it up better than me, but he sent me an e-mail last year and he had read "Three Cups of Tea," and he said there were three lessons from the book that he wanted to impart to his troops. No. 1, he said, we need to listen more; No. 2, we need to have respect, meaning we are there to serve the good people of Afghanistan; and No. 3, we need to build relationships. "Three Cups of Tea" now is mandatory reading for all senior U.S military commanders, and all special forces deploying to Afghanistan are required to read it.
Q: How do you feel about that?
Mortenson: It’s pretty humbling, but having spent a lot of time now with the troops, I feel the troops are just like our brothers and sisters, just like us, nothing different. I also feel there’s tremendous dedication in the military. I can’t speak for Iraq, but I know Afghanistan. Many of the troops have volunteered to keep going back three or four times. I think that perhaps some of our best ambassadors, and those who ultimately will help bring the road for peace over there, will be our veterans who fought and served in Afghanistan. I also have tremendous admiration for the troops, soldiers who have this almost impossible task of trying to be warriors and diplomats and humanitarians simultaneously, and they’re trying the best they can to really do their job. It’s not easy.
I also think it’s a little hard sometimes because you hear the Western aid groups complaining, saying it’s not fair now how DOD is getting all the money and USAID and the other aid groups aren’t getting money. But you know, the aid groups refuse to go work in areas where they feel it isn’t secure, and my contention is if you work with local people, you can even go into the most volatile area where the Taliban are and be very successful with school projects but you have to involve the local community. And we can’t just be handing out money over there with no reciprocity or some type of input from the government or the provinces or the districts. These are cultures over there that expect to negotiate and barter. If you just go over there and start throwing money at people without asking anything of them in return, they think you’re kind of nuts.
I know it can be done, whether it’s at the micro or macro scale. It’s something we still have a hard time learning as Americans. It’s like tough love with your kids. You can tell them they can stay out late but you also have to tell them they need to clean their room first.
Q: What more can you say about President Obama’s decision this week?
Mortenson: I’m glad there’s been a decision made. I still think it’s very unfortunate that the shura were never consulted and I do hope that as we move forward that they will be brought to the table and that their voices will be heard. I’m going to keep insisting on that. And I also feel that it’s been a great blessing to be able to help the shura meet with some of the U.S. military generals so that their voice is at least being heard by somebody.
But I also really admire the fact that President Obama says he’s open to dialogue with Iran and other countries, because I really think that the real road to peace is regional and involves Iran and Russia and the whole region. I’m also a ferocious believer that ultimately, education should be our top priority, especially girls’ education. We can drop bombs and hand out condoms and build roads or put in electricity but if we don’t educate girls, nothing will change in society.
Q: What is your message to other philanthropists and social entrepreneurs in the region?
Mortenson: Listen, listen and listen even more. Often, when we Americans or Westerners have an idea and we want to go try to do something in other regions, I’ve found that in so many cases, people don’t listen to the people they’re serving. During the massive earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, for example, Americans sent tons of clothing over but most of the women burned it, using it instead for fuel. Most women simply wanted kerosene; I saw $200 tweed jackets from Manhattan being burned. Also, tens of thousands of tents were sent over to Pakistan and most of the tents were very expensive and highly implosive. Most people huddled together, five to 20 in a tent, and they had candles and kerosene lanterns and they burned outside the tents and hundreds of the tents imploded and hundreds of people died, and thousands were burned. But had anybody from the West asked them what they wanted, they would have said they could make their own tents out of canvas, and to send them canvas and sewing machines to make them.
I believe in putting local people in charge of things. Our staff at Pennies for Peace is a group I call the Dirty Dozen. A third of them are illiterate, most have very little educational background but they are willing to risk their lives, do anything, to promote education in the region. Three of our teachers are former Taliban. People in the United States gasp when I tell them this but these ex-Taliban are our biggest advocates, and we’ve learned from them how young men and boys can easily be turned around. The Taliban want these former members dead because they advocate education, but again, it always comes back that educated people are more independent.
I find it somewhat amazing how very nimble and small, poor organizations are able to exploit the lack of education very quickly and use ignorance to feed their own agenda. I think that’s why I feel that educating girls is so important. If you educate a boy, you educate an individual but if you educate a girl, you educate a whole community. There is a proverb in Afghanistan that, roughly translated, says that the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr. And I believe that. Education is our greatest weapon.