BOZEMAN, MONT. — Greg Mortenson doesn’t need to rely on think tanks or arcane policy documents to find the road to a better Afghanistan.
The mountaineer-turned-school builder from Montana – recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize – depends on what might be called his own show-of-hands index, based on his visits to speak with children in the United States and Afghanistan. In the past few months alone, he’s spoken to tens of thousands of them.
“I always ask American schoolchildren how often they talk with their grandparents about the important events of history in the past. Invariably, maybe 10 percent at most will raise their hands,” says Mortenson, who attended Concordia College in Moorhead.
He poses the same question in the remotest corners of Afghanistan, where he has successfully erected 80 schools, many of them focusing on education for girls. There, the range of responses he receives seems to reflect the social health of a particular community.
In rural villages where the Taliban has not exerted its will on the community, Mr. Mortenson says perhaps 80 percent of kids respond affirmatively. But in areas where home-grown and foreign Taliban fighters have established brutal strongholds, sometimes with connections to Al Qaeda, almost no child raises a hand.
As President Obama pledged another 30,000 US troops Dec. 1 to root out terrorists in Afghanistan, Mortenson is suggesting that effort must go hand in hand with another: grass-roots education.
The cause of religious extremism and distortion of the writings of the Koran is ignorance, illiteracy, and joblessness, he says. They all can be blunted by education. But classrooms can only rise if the local population has a stake in their success.
“The Taliban succeeds because it disrupts social order at the local level by severing the learning relationship kids have with shuras [tribal councils],” he explains. “When you do that, you erase not only the importance of local history and identity, but you destroy the ability of the shuras and mullahs [religious leaders] to have positive influences on young people.”
More important than troop levels or war budgets is winning trust at the local level, he says. How the US conducts the next phase of its operation in Afghanistan will determine whether it will leave the country without having to return.
As the title of Mortenson’s 2006 bestseller “Three Cups of Tea” attests (his new book, “Stones Into Schools,” picks up where the first leaves off), relationships evolve slowly, literally over cups of tea.
It’s a message that has sparked a paradigm shift in the attitude of top US military brass, one that began during the last years of the Bush administration.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”