I think Kristof is spot on. Greg Mortenson's 'Three Cups of Tea' is a
wonderful, insightful, challenging and moving book - everyone should
read it and share it with as many people as possible.
July 13, 2008
It Takes a School, Not Missiles
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Since 9/11, Westerners have tried two approaches to fight terrorism
in Pakistan, President Bush's and Greg Mortenson's.
Mr. Bush has focused on military force and provided more than $10
billion an extraordinary sum in the foreign-aid world to the
highly unpopular government of President Pervez Musharraf. This
approach has failed: the backlash has radicalized Pakistan's tribal
areas so that they now nurture terrorists in ways that they never did
Mr. Mortenson, a frumpy, genial man from Montana, takes a
diametrically opposite approach, and he has spent less than one-ten-
thousandth as much as the Bush administration. He builds schools in
isolated parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, working closely with
Muslim clerics and even praying with them at times.
The only thing that Mr. Mortenson blows up are boulders that fall
onto remote roads and block access to his schools.
Mr. Mortenson has become a legend in the region, his picture
sometimes dangling like a talisman from rearview mirrors, and his
work has struck a chord in America as well. His superb book about his
schools, "Three Cups of Tea," came out in 2006 and initially wasn't
reviewed by most major newspapers. Yet propelled by word of mouth,
the book became a publishing sensation: it has spent the last 74
weeks on the paperback best-seller list, regularly in the No. 1 spot.
Now Mr. Mortenson is fending off several dozen film offers. "My
concern is that a movie might endanger the well-being of our
students," he explains.
Mr. Mortenson found his calling in 1993 after he failed in an attempt
to climb K2, a Himalayan peak, and stumbled weakly into a poor Muslim
village. The peasants nursed him back to health, and he promised to
repay them by building the village a school.
Scrounging the money was a nightmare his 580 fund-raising letters
to prominent people generated one check, from Tom Brokaw and Mr.
Mortenson ended up selling his beloved climbing equipment and car.
But when the school was built, he kept going. Now his aid group, the
Central Asia Institute, has 74 schools in operation. His focus is
To get a school, villagers must provide the land and the labor to
assure a local "buy-in," and so far the Taliban have not bothered his
schools. One anti-American mob rampaged through Baharak, Afghanistan,
attacking aid groups but stopped at the school that local people
had just built with Mr. Mortenson. "This is our school," the mob
leaders decided, and they left it intact.
Mr. Mortenson has had setbacks, including being kidnapped for eight
days in Pakistan's wild Waziristan region. It would be naïve to think
that a few dozen schools will turn the tide in Afghanistan or
Still, he notes that the Taliban recruits the poor and illiterate,
and he also argues that when women are educated they are more likely
to restrain their sons. Five of his teachers are former Taliban, and
he says it was their mothers who persuaded them to leave the Taliban;
that is one reason he is passionate about educating girls.
So I have this fantasy: Suppose that the United States focused less
on blowing things up in Pakistan's tribal areas and more on working
through local aid groups to build schools, simultaneously cutting
tariffs on Pakistani and Afghan manufactured exports. There would be
no immediate payback, but a better-educated and more economically
vibrant Pakistan would probably be more resistant to extremism.
"Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or
chasing some Taliban around the country," says Mr. Mortenson, who is
an Army veteran.
Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan
costs at least $500,000. That's enough for local aid groups to build
more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do
more to destroy the Taliban.
The Pentagon, which has a much better appreciation for the limits of
military power than the Bush administration as a whole, placed large
orders for "Three Cups of Tea" and invited Mr. Mortenson to speak.
"I am convinced that the long-term solution to terrorism in general,
and Afghanistan specifically, is education," Lt. Col. Christopher
Kolenda, who works on the Afghan front lines, said in an e-mail in
which he raved about Mr. Mortenson's work. "The conflict here will
not be won with bombs but with books. ... The thirst for education
here is palpable."
Military force is essential in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. But
over time, in Pakistan and Afghanistan alike, the best tonic against
militant fundamentalism will be education and economic opportunity.
So a lone Montanan staying at the cheapest guest houses has done more
to advance U.S. interests in the region than the entire military and
foreign policy apparatus of the Bush administration.
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