Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three Cups of Tea... and a Coffee Cake of Lies (Why the Book Does Not Make Sense)

During my individual preparation and general training for Afghanistan I read many books.  Some like Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia were excellent while others like The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban were the so-so products of American war tourists who realized too little too late that their personal golden cows were not divine. However, the one book that everyone recommend, and biggest golden cow of all, was Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson.  Despite being given copies I refused to read it.  Why?  Because it did not make sense to me.  I knew building schools would work in some areas and not others.  And now we know the book is full of lies and the charity appears to be a personal money making machine from Greg Mortenson.

Foreign Policy has a good article on why "we all wanted to believe the book" so I will skip commenting too much on wishy washy nature of the group think (Hat tip: TDAXP).

What I will comment on is why I felt Three Cups of Tea had a bogus message.  

First, let me qualify that statement by saying that some Afghans are more than willing to have their daughters educated.  At the risk of doing generalizations, Hazaras are widely known for giving their women more freedoms than what one thinks of when they think Afghanistan.  The schools I visited that had girls were Hazaran.  These girls were bright and willing to learn.  Tajiks and urban Uzbeks also tended to support or at the very least not be opposed to girls education.  One can easily build schools among these groups.  However, with the exception of the Taliban-aligned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), these groups are not the problem and live in areas where the war will not be decided.

Hazaran school girls.  Photo by Catholicgauze
The problem lies with the prominently Pashtun Taliban movement.  While there are pro-girls' education Pashtuns, once one leaves the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Ghazni one will be hard pressed to find a vocal supporter.  The truth is the vast majority of Pashtuns do not care about girls education because it is an issue outsiders push at the expense of more locally pressing issues.  A school is built by Coalition Forces when locals want a well or a clinic.  The school is then officially administered directly from Kabul by the Karzai government which will not provide funding for supplies or even the teacher.  The NGOs which support the creation of schools are also too afraid to send workers and supplies into these schools because of the lack of security.  Meanwhile agricultural, medical, and security problems remain unaddressed.  So when the Taliban come to burn the school no one stops them because they are indifferent/happy to see it gone.  In rural Ghazni district I had to be part of a shura where an elder asked the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) why the PRT was coming with school supplies when their PRT-built clinic was empty and his daughter and grandson died the past night as the daughter was trying to give birth.

Boys schools are not safe either.  The Kabul-based government does not care too much about the schools in the conflict zone and has pretty much ignored them.  The Taliban do not ignore them, though.  They have shadow secretaries of education who ensure western-built schools teach from pro-Taliban curriculum.  The shadow education system is more than willing to kill any teacher who stands in their way.  Donations to schools in southern Afghanistan come with the very real possibility that the funds will be used to support the Taliban's goal of rebuilding their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Women's education in Afghanistan is a real goal for good.  However, it is being easily reached in the parts of Afghanistan that will not sway the war.  The south, where the Taliban and the war are being fought, will decide if Coalition Forces stay and go and if the Taliban return.  It is there in the south where the women's education is needed... but it is there where people have real concerns and girls' education can wait.


Legal Beagle said...

Very interesting post! I have not read the book, but everything you said about the disconnect between Kabul and other regions of the country resonates with what I heard from Drew when he returned from Afghanistan.

Also, you point out a very significative mistake that foreign aid organizations make: we decide what is best for the country and we prioritize their needs. This attitude takes away the ownwership and pride that people need to have when it comes to building their own future.

I am very curious to see things first hand over there. Thanks for sharing!

Kay said...

This was very interesting. It's also very sad. I believed in Greg Mortenson after reading his book. How are people to know what charities are real and which are bogus? I checked on Charity Navigator and looked up his name online. There was nothing to indicate then that there was a problem. What a shame!