Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Greg Mortenson Brings Education to Afghanistan

If we really want to win the falsely named "war on terror," the real task is to win the hearts and minds of the people, especially the minds. The majority of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan are uneducated -- at least in the tribal areas where the Taliban reigns.


Greg Mortenson is doing just that. He is the author of Three Cups of Tea, a book that is now required reading in graduate level education for military counter-intelligence students.
In Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time , Greg Mortenson, and journalist David Oliver Relin, recount the journey that led Mortenson from a failed 1993 attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, to successfully establish schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson combines his unique background with his intimate knowledge of the third-world to promote peace with books, not bombs, and successfully bring education and hope to remote communities in central Asia. Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.
Outside Magazine followed Mortenson into one of the roughest regions -- the Wakhan Corridor.

If any region of the country stands apart, it's the remote, sparsely populated Wakhan Corridor, which has been spared much of the recent bloodletting. Carved by the Wakhan and Panj rivers, the 200-mile-long valley, much of it above 10,000 feet, separates the Pamir mountains to the north from the Hindu Kush to the south. For centuries it has been a natural conduit between Central Asia and China, and one of the most forbidding sections of the Silk Road, the 4,000-mile trade route linking Europe to the Far East.

The borders of the Wakhan were set in an 1895 treaty between Russia and Britain, which had been wrestling over the control of Central Asia for nearly a century. In what was dubbed the "Great Game" (a term coined by British Army spy Arthur Conolly of the 6th Bengal Native Light Cavalry), both countries had sent intrepid spies into the region, not a few of whom had been caught and beheaded. (Conolly was killed in Bokhara in 1842.) Eventually Britain and Russia agreed to use the entire country as a buffer zone, with the Wakhan extension ensuring that the borders of the Russian empire would never touch the borders of the British Raj.

Wakhi women and children in the settlement of Sarhad in the Wakhan corridor. Badakhshan province, Afghanistan, April/May 2005

Only a handful of Westerners are known to have traveled through the Wakhan Corridor since Marco Polo did it, in 1271. There had been sporadic European expeditions throughout the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In 1949, when Mao Zedong completed the Communist takeover of China, the borders were permanently closed, sealing off the 2,000-year-old caravan route and turning the corridor into a cul-de-sac. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, they occupied the Wakhan and plowed a tank track halfway into the corridor. Today, the Wakhan has reverted to what it's been for much of its history: a primitive pastoral hinterland, home to about 7,000 Wakhi and Kirghiz people, scattered throughout some 40 small villages and camps. Opium smugglers sometimes use the Wakhan, traveling at night.

Among the diverse people Mortenson has befriended, the idea of Three Cups of Tea is crucial. With the first cup of tea you are a visitor, with the second you are a friend, and with the third you are family. Once you are family, these people will die for you.

Mortenson's strategy is working so well that American military leaders are asking his input on how to work with the locals in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a way that will foster alliance and support for the effort to depose the Taliban once and for all from this part of the world. It may never totally squash the Taliban, but with education comes a wider view of the world.

There are about 550 Wakhi families in the western Wakhan, and he and Sarfraz had identified 21 villages that needed schools. "Educating girls, in particular, is critical," he continued. "If you can educate a girl to the fifth-grade level, three things happen: Infant mortality goes down, birthrates go down, and the quality of life for the whole village, from health to happiness, goes up. Something else also happens. Before a young man goes on jihad, holy war, he must first ask for his mother's permission. Educated mothers say no."

I asked him how the villages paid for their half of building and supporting a school.

"Often they provide labor in lieu of money," Greg replied, "but most of the money in many Afghan villages outside the Wakhan comes from growing poppies."


"Opium," said Greg. "It can't be eliminated. These villages are desperately poor. They're utterly dependent on this income. Eliminating opium farming will only cause more poverty and more hopelessness, which will cause more killing and more wars."

I let it rest.

In 2004, Afghanistan produced 4,200 tons of opium, 87 percent of the world's total supply. The revenue from the illegal trade was estimated at $2.8 billion, roughly two-thirds the amount Afghanistan receives in foreign aid. In 2005, the U.S. allocated about $774 million to the effort to eradicate poppy farming in Afghanistan. Is there a better way? The Senlis Council, an international drug-policy think tank, recently proposed a radical alternative: Legalize opium for medicinal purposes.

India is already licensed by the International Narcotics Control Board, an independent watchdog group that monitors the trade of illicit and medicinal drugs, to grow opium and produce generic pain medication for developing nations. Afghanistan could do the same. The cost of creating such a program has been estimated at only $600 million. Ideally, the farmers would get cash, the drug lords would get cut out, the developing world would get more pain-relief medicine, and the major demand for the global traffic in heroin could be drastically reduced.

It's a compelling strategy—accepting the reality on the ground rather than fighting it—and it's exactly how Greg operates. He doesn't get caught up in moral abstractions; he focuses on what works, no matter how tortured or contradictory.

The December issue of Outside features "No Bachcheh (child) Left Behind," the article that got me interested in doing this post (the article will not be online until January, 2009).

It's a compelling piece. Education - to me - is the bottom line for any attempt to improve the lives of others. That this man who had nothing -- he sold all his possessions in order to keep his promise to those who nursed him back to health after his failed attempt on K2 -- was able to turn his promise into reality with dozens of schools built serving thousands of children should be an inspiration to all of us.

Part of what makes Mortenson's project work is that is funded by individual Americans -- which demonstrates to the Pakistani and Afgani people that American's do care about their well-being (contrary to the bombings by the US Military). We all can help with this project:

Central Asia Institute
Pennies for Peace

Here is Mortenson speaking at UC Santa Barbara.

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