Empty cups

Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST

A U.S. television programme unravels the fable of bestselling author Greg Mortenson and shocks the endorsers of his Three Cups of Tea into silence.

ON April 17, CBS News' 60 Minutes ran a segment on Greg Mortenson, the author of the global bestseller Three Cups of Tea, and on his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). The report by CBS was scathing. It was largely based on the reporting done by one of Mortenson's early backers, the writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, whose own 75-page investigative report, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost his Way (byliner), was published that week (it is now available as a Kindle book for $2, with all proceeds going to the Himalayan Stop Girl Trafficking Project). Krakauer and CBS found that Mortenson had fabricated large parts of his famous book and that he had misused the millions of dollars donated to his cause (to build schools in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan). In 2002, his board treasurer quit, resigned, along with the board president and two other board members, Krakauer said on the programme. The host, Steve Kroft, asked why, and Krakauer reported, Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine. That there's no accounting. He has no receipts.

The revelations came as a shock. Three Cups of Tea seems to have entered every American home, many Pakistani homes and the lockers of almost all those U.S. military personnel and non-governmental organisation (NGO)-types who find themselves on a plane to Kabul. It is a widely read book, one that inspired President Barack Obama to donate $100,000 of his Nobel Prize earnings to the CAI. Endorsements came from all quarters, including the respected Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who wrote, The work Mortenson is doing, providing the poorest students with a balanced education, is making them much more difficult for the extremist madrassas to recruit. As the allegations about Mortenson appeared, his endorsers were as silent as the ghost schools that the CAI built but now stand empty of the very children that are meant to be protected from extremism.

The Making of Mortenson

Three Cups of Tea was published in 2006. It followed the emblematic feel good book of the Afghan war, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (2003). By late 2002, the U.S.' mission in Afghanistan had run aground. By many indications, the Bush White House had begun to prepare for an assault on Iraq instead of redouble efforts in Afghanistan. The goals of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan remained unrealised: Osama bin Laden remained at large (as he does today); Al Qaeda's capacity to act had been degraded, but its cadre had also slipped the net and vanished into Pakistan and elsewhere; the Taliban had gone into hiatus, waiting for its resurrection. Hosseini, the son of a diplomat who fled Afghanistan in the 1970s for the U.S., provides a rosy-eyed view of pre-Communist Kabul, with an endorsement of the U.S.' Operation Enduring Freedom from 2001. By 2006, Mortenson's book joined Hosseini's in providing the U.S. readership with something positive to read from a battlefield that only had bad news.

As the book hit the stores, the Taliban left its winter shelters and struck the south of the country, including, by May, the streets of Kabul. Taliban fighters' retreat from Afghanistan atop white Toyota pick-up trucks in 2001 had suggested that they would someday return, and indeed five years later, they came back in force. When they did, the mood in some quarters of Europe and the U.S. began to sour. Evidence of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison (Iraq) was revealed by 60 Minutes in 2004, and two years later Michael Winterbottom's docu-drama The Road To Guantanamo traced the arrest, torture and transit to Guantanamo of three British Muslims picked up on the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. Ann Jones, an aid worker who had gone to Kabul with the best of intentions published her memoir that summer, Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (2006), telling readers how the war had devastated the country.

In her opening pages, Ann Jones wrote that high altitude heavy bombing was clearly not the best way to attack specific small bearded men on the ground a practice Colin Powell called bomb and hope' but it shattered the country and made a mess of the roads.

The public wanted Mortenson's book. It cast aside the despondency of torture and war and set aside the failure to capture bin Laden and to defeat the Taliban. All this was irrelevant. A morality tale appeared, with a noble white man as the central figure. Mortenson's book had a simple theme. Great sorrow from the death of his sister drove Mortenson to climb K2 (the second peak of the Karakoram range) in 1993. When he failed, he stumbled into a village in Baltistan, where the residents adopted him and healed him. He was principally taken in not by the adults, who were already corrupted, but by the innocence of the children. They love Dr Greg. He is despondent by the sad conditions of the lives of the children. They went to an open school, but had no way to really learn: Most scratched in the dirt with a stick they'd brought for that purpose. Mortenson recounted how he made a solemn vow to an elder in the village, Haji Ali, to return and build a school. The child of missionaries in East Africa, Mortenson seemed to imbibe their humility and their drive. He returned to the U.S. and, against enormous odds, raised money to build a school in the village.

Not only does Mortenson feel for the appalling deprivation of the children, but he must also save them from the torments of the Taliban. Mortenson wrote that he was kidnapped by jehadis in Waziristan and that his life was threatened. His talk of building a school saved him there, as it does in other stories he tells in Three Cups and its sequel, Stones into Schools (2009). Not only does Dr Greg want to build these schools for the girls, but he wants to do so to save them from the very men who kidnapped him in 1996. In 2003, in an article in Parade that launched his career, Mortenson noted: The West has so far failed to recognise that offering an alternative by building secular schools is the cheapest and most effective way of combating terrorism. Three years later, Mortenson's book came with the subtitle, One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations. It was the liberal view that the war should not only be fought with guns but also with books. It recounts a visit Mortenson makes to the Pentagon, where he tells the officers: I supported the war in Afghanistan. I believed in it because I believed we were serious when we said we planned to rebuild Afghanistan. I'm here because I know that military victory is only the first phase of winning the war on terror and I'm afraid we're not willing to take the next steps, to build the schools.

Krakauer, who had financially supported CAI in its early years, smelled a rat in the tale. Some of the CAI's board members had resigned as a consequence of the mismanagement of its money. That was the first indication. Also, Krakauer heard rumours from Baltistan that the local people were not happy with Mortenson's story and that the CAI schools had not functioned as they ought to. One of Mortenson's early helpers and a key figure in Three Cups, Ghulam Parvi, had begun a dialogue with Mortenson in April 2009 about the inaccuracies in the story. In June 2010, at a community meeting in Skardu, Parvi and various leaders of communities with the CAI ghost schools excoriated Mortenson and the CAI. They knew that the entire tale in Three Cups was a tissue of lies. But no one cared to take the Pakistanis seriously. The myth of Mortenson had already established itself.

Krakauer writes in Three Cups of Deceit: The image of Mortenson that had been created for public consumption is an artefact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. This is a harsh indictment, and it is by and large supported in Krakauer's short book.

Mortenson did not make a promise to Haji Ali because he did not go to Korphe disoriented (he went there much later). He was not kidnapped because the man who took him out of the kindness of his heart into Waziristan told Krakauer how they had made their trip and gave him a picture of Mortenson holding an AK-47 with his unarmed alleged kidnappers (Mansur Khan Mahsud, who hosted him in Kot Langer Khel, told The Guardian: It's lies from A to Z. There's not a word of truth. If there had been a little exaggeration, that could have been forgiven. The way he has portrayed the Mahsuds, as hash-smoking bandits, is wrong. He's defamed me, my family, my tribe. Mahsud is now looking into suing Mortenson).

Krakauer's forensic analysis shows how much of the Mortenson saga is false. The only thing that Mortenson could say in response, in an interview to Alex Heard for Outside, is that his co-author took literary licence with the real stories.

The Aid Machine

At the heart of Mortenson's trials is the larger scandal of the aid machine in places such as Afghanistan. Ann Jones, the aid worker, went to work for an NGO in Kabul and depicted with acidic frankness the ruin of the country by war profiteers and humanitarian organisations. Vast amounts of aid flood the country. In 2010, the Afghan government revoked the licences of 170 NGOs that functioned to fleece the aid money. The 1,500 remaining NGOs, meanwhile, do some work, according to the Afghan government, but with very high overheads. Ann Jones described the mayhem in Kabul's neighbourhoods such as Wazir Akbar Khan and Shahr-e Now (where she lived). The foreigners with the biggest budgets pay unheard of rents for the privilege of occupying the finest houses in Kabul, with the result that more and more landlords evict their Afghan tenants in favour of deep-pocketed outsiders.

High salaries for middlemen drain talented Afghans from the fledgling governmental sectors towards menial jobs for NGOs (as translators and as fixers). The English-speaking husband of one of my students leaves his administrative job in the Ministry of Education, wrote Ann Jones, to work for the United Nations as a driver. The NGO sector and the U.N. ensemble drained the country of real estate and talent and placed their own agenda ahead of that of the people they had come to serve democratically.

Mortenson hired Ted Callahan to do some advance work in the high Pamirs, in the Wakhan Corridor. Callahan goes to ask Abdul Rashid Khan about building the school. Abdul Rashid has other priorities. He says that the first thing his people need is a road that connects the Kyrgyz grounds with the rest of Afghanistan. Then they need a health clinic, and only after that a school. They want clinics before schools because of the infant mortality rate in their community.

A Kyrgyz elder told Callahan: If 50 per cent of the children die before age five, who is there to educate? It is a fair question, but it is one that bewilders NGOs that are poised on the edge of their single issues: if their mandate is to build schools that is what they must do. The entire structure of this kind of centralised NGO planning is utterly undemocratic. Such structural problems do not interrupt the paternalism of charity. Its means are its ends: to donate money to a good cause is all that is required. Democratic matters such as decision-making are secondary. This is precisely why one of the regular offshoots of such NGO structures is endemic corruption.

Krakauer concentrates on the megalomania of Mortenson. He might have widened his lens and looked at the entire industry.


A few days after the 60 Minutes revelations, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq Ryan Crocker gave a speech at the Millwood Community Presbyterian Church. I do know [Mortenson's] work, Crocker said, and it's real. I do know the schools are there. I think he has made a great contribution, and I'm not the only one to think so USAID thinks so; the U.S. military thinks so.

The U.S. military has been reserved in its defence of Mortenson. It has bought all its troops copies of the book since 2006, and the senior generals and chiefs of staff have feted Mortenson. They have travelled together into northern Pakistan, and he has turned his project over, in many ways, to the military for its own ideological project. The CAI has become a PINGO a Pentagon International Non-Governmental Organisation.

In 2002, Congresswoman Mary Bono invited Mortenson to give a talk in Congress on his work (the visit appears in Three Cups). Terrorism, Mortenson said, happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death. Death comes to them from the education they are given in Pakistan's impoverished public schools, the Wahhabi madrassas sprouting like cancerous cells, and the factories of the jehad.

What Mortenson claims to do is to fight terrorism with books. The anthropologist Nosheen Ali points out that the Shia region of Baltistan with its Tibetan-Buddhist heritage has nothing to do with the war on terror, and it is not the place that Mortensen says gave birth to the Taliban. By making such a rash assertion, Nosheen Ali points out, the subtext of Three Cups is rooted in a narrative of fear and danger.

The Taliban emerged in the southern districts of Afghanistan and in the refugee camps that were funded by the U.S. government, the Saudi monarchy and the Pakistani military. After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, a brutal civil war broke out between the mujahideen [rebel] factions. The U.S. government colluded with the Pakistani military to bring stability in Afghanistan via the Taliban ( talib, students). Stability was needed to finish plans for an oil pipeline to run from the Caspian Sea to Pakistan (in December 1997, the State Department and the oil company UNOCAL feted a Taliban delegation that travelled to Washington and Houston). Mortenson has none of this context. It is not worthy of a PINGO.

Children in parts of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands do find themselves without systematic education. This is not because of tribal reticence or some ancient animosity to learning but because of the long war (since 1979) that has disrupted the region and brought nothing but suffering to the people. In the 1980s, the International Monetary Fund forced Islamabad to end its support of public education, and opened the door to the madrassas, most of which are not factories of jehad but the last resort of children from the lower-middle class and the working class all of whom want an education. The really violent curriculum provided to some of the schools run by the Taliban in the 1990s came from the University of Nebraska, where UNOCAL funded a Centre of Afghanistan Studies. The madrassas in Baltistan are not factories of jehad but rather underfunded local schools (Tariq Andrabi and his colleagues debunk the myth of the madrassa that fuels books like Three Cups).

How to Write About Pakistanis

A curious feature of books such as Mortenson's is the absence of local people in the social development of their own people. It appears as if the girls of Pakistan languished until Mortenson appeared to save them. What is remarkable is what is covered up by such a simple act of racism. There are many other sincere agencies at work in northern Pakistan, such as the Aga Khan Education Services, the Aga Khan Health Services, De Laas Gul Welfare Programme, Shirkat Gah Women's Resource Centre, Khwendo Kor: the Women and Children Development Programme, the National Research and Development Foundation and the Association for the Creation of Employment. None of these comes with the association of the Pentagon, or with a compelling book. Dr Hafiz Muhammad Iqbal, the dean of the faculty of education at the University of Punjab, says of the Aga Khan Education Services' work in particular, It is because of such interventions that education facilities have reached almost each and every corner of the region (he is referring to Baltistan and Gilgit).

The Aga Khan schools have a very fine track record in the Baltistan-Gilgit region, as the area posts the highest literacy rate in all of Pakistan. Rina Saeed Khan notes of these schools: The Aga Khan schools are mostly English medium, where children learn from teachers trained at special centres set up by the Aga Khan Education Services. Nowhere is this covered by the book, which makes it sound like Mortenson had to tackle this problem single-handedly, in the educational wilderness of the Hindu Kush/Karakoram mountain ranges. Krakauer notes that when challenged about the work in the Wakhan Corridor, Mortenson dashed off a sarcastic e-mail in 2007 accusing the Aga Khan Development Network of planting false rumours. The network had been establishing successful development projects in the Wakhan long before the CAI arrived on the scene, and that Mortenson considered a rival.

Pakistanis appear in Mortenson's tales as noble savages (such as Haji Ali) or detractors and foes (such as the Taliban). They are not co-equal in the pursuit of promoting well-being. If that were so, what would make Mortenson so special? Mortenson avoids the entreaties for an interview from 60 Minutes. When Steve Kroft comes to see him at a book signing in Atlanta, Mortenson asks his security to remove Kroft from the room. When he is asked about the incident, Mortenson says that the reporter, Kroft, came to see him on a warm day wearing an overcoat. When I see a big coat on a hot day, I think about Pakistan and I think suicide bomber', Mortenson told Outside. Of such elemental fears is the Pakistani distanced from the pure motives of humanitarianism. Pakistan is dangerous, and it is only the bravery of people like Mortenson who will save it. Pakistanis cannot save themselves; they have to be erased from the narrative.

Indeed, the U.S. drone attacks are doing their best to erase them. Since 2005, the U.S. has conducted nearly 200 drone attacks, killing almost 2,000 people. Most of this is near the area where the CAI claims to build its schools. Mortenson's close association with the Pentagon disturbs people in the region, as the anthropologist Shafqat Hussain found out last year. They are interested in social development but not if it comes embedded as part of the War on Terror, whose other face is the destruction of their life world. The Mortenson effect allows the U.S. public to adulate him for his sacrifices and to reduce the efforts of people in Pakistan who wish to bring dignity to their own lives.

Indeed, their work is often undermined by the very policies Mortenson supports and that he allows the foundation to run alongside. This is colonialism by book, as the bombs fall with apologies.

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