Readers often ask me if I've read "Three Cups of Tea," the best-seller by Greg Mortenson. The book describes how he came to build girls' schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Often the questioners are quite passionate. This is no surprise, since "Three Cups of Tea" has topped the charts for three years, Mortenson's lectures pack huge halls, and America's top military brass frequently cite the book.
I, too, have felt the book's pull and traveled with Mortenson in late 2007 to visit schools he'd built in Pakistani Kashmir after a devastating earthquake. I have also gotten to know his amazing staff in Islamabad and Kabul.
But it's instructive to explore why Greg's book arouses such strong emotions. Especially now -- as U.S. troops "surge" in Afghanistan and many Americans feel the world is surging out of control, a feeling compounded by the Haiti earthquake and the chaotic response.
"Americans want to hear some good news, to have a little hope," Greg told me by phone, on his way to a book talk in Vancouver, B.C. Readers also want to understand how the United States can do a better job of bringing stability to places such as Afghanistan.
You can find some answers in Greg's new book, "Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan," which is even more fascinating than his first. Its message: Education is the best antidote to the Taliban.
If this sounds mushy, Greg's many meetings with hardened Afghan warriors, as described vividly in his books, show his insights are realistic. What moves his readers, I believe, is the way the books show that positive changes are still possible in the most difficult situations.
The key to such change, says Mortenson, is to listen to what local people tell you. The title for "Stones Into Schools" came from a hardened former mujahedeen commander in the remote Badakshan province of Afghanistan named Sadhar Khan, who talked about how much his country needed rebuilding. Khan told Mortenson, "There has been far too much dying in these hills." He spoke of the Afghans who died fighting the Russians and the Taliban (whom most Afghans came to despise by the late 1990s). "Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile," he said. "We must turn these stones into schools."
"Even warriors want peace," says Mortenson, a lesson he learned by sitting down repeatedly with shuras (representative gatherings) of elders. He says one of the biggest American problems after the 2001 invasion was the lack of such attention paid to what Afghans themselves wanted. "We should have consulted with shuras, and listened to, and respected, elders," he says. "If we had, we definitely would have delivered aid differently."
Mortenson first learned this lesson over the famous three cups of tea, when he was saved by villagers in Korphe, Pakistan, after he got lost trying to summit K-2 mountain. He asked what he could do in return, and they requested a school, which became his first such venture. He learned then how crucial it was to involve locals if a project was to succeed.
Mortenson says that American officials who have most quickly grasped the importance of listening to shuras are military commanders.
He was once a skeptic about the U.S. military presence, because of civilian casualties, but now he says, "I see that in the military there has been a huge learning curve. The military really gets it." The Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, traveled to the opening of one of Greg's Afghan schools, and later told an American Legion convention: "We cannot capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them ..."
U.S. civilian officials have been slower to grasp the need to confer more with locals and find it harder to do because of security considerations. Mortenson says if they did sit down with shuras, they would understand that what Afghans want most is training, whether in regular schools, or vocational or agricultural courses. Rather than use big contractors, he says, we must teach the Afghans themselves to do the job.
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER