FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Of Tea and Snow Leopards

by SHAFQAT HUSSAIN

OK, maybe just one cup of tea and not three, and just three schools not eleven. Whatever the truth about numbers, Greg Mortenson did a commendable job of building some schools in the peaceful and never-Talibanised Baltistan, and some in restless and Talibanised Afghanistan and Waziristan. But Mortenson’s story is not really about Greg or the numbers. Rather it is about something else.

The persistent scrutiny of his personal behavior or financial malpractices obfuscates that something else. Even in the failure of Mortenson the person, Mortenson the ‘state project’ continues to succeed. To differentiate between the person and the ‘state project’ his deceit and failures are not significant; what’s important is how he could be successful in the first place, and what his success has to do with the state.

How could Mortenson’s charity get away with the deceit for so long without being noticed? Did it have something to do with intimate usage of Mortenson and his book by the US military as part of its counter-insurgency strategy? The Pentagon made Three Cups of Tea required reading, buying copies in bulk. Mortenson went along with them, playing the game and getting dizzy on the fame, attention, and power that came from this connection. He dined with celebrities and diplomats and flew on a black hawk helicopter with US Generals. Current and former presidents donated money to his charity and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Mortenson became a non-governmental ‘state project.’ He was the soft face of American power, used to win hearts and minds overseas and used to quell domestic anxieties about the fairness of the war.

Greg Mortenson and village children in Baltistan.

Mortenson’s story is certainly about human fallibility and the corrupting influence of adulation from above. But it is also about informal state projects; informal because these projects are not planned, initiated and explicitly funded by the state. Strategic imperatives makes a person’s career anopportunity for the state. Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian and a social development worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan became of strategic importance to the US state in the midst of the Afghan war in which it was losing both the hearts and minds of the Afghan and Pakistani people, and the patience and support of the American people.

But before there was Greg Mortenson, there was Leo the snow leopard. They are two ‘state projects’ that bear comparison.

In 2005 an orphaned snow leopard, later to be named Leo, was found by a villager in northern Pakistan, incidentally the same region where Mortenson works. The local wildlife department took charge of the leopard. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) which runs the Bronx Zoo in New York City found out about the cub and became interested in bringing the cub over to the zoo forbreeding purposes. The zoo sent a request to the local authorities through the US embassy in Islamabad and within a matter of months, the US State Department was involved. Soon afterwards Leo was officially handed over to the Americans in a ceremony in Islamabad in the summer of 2006 in which the US Ambassador to Pakistan was the chief guest. Leo got his visas and came to New York. A second ceremony took place here. The US Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs was a central guest.

In the eyes of the US State, Leo’s story was about the use of international diplomacy to save biodiversity and the environment. In thesame way as Penguin and the Pentagon packaged Mortenson’s story (with a children’s book version of Three Cups), so too did the Bronx Zoo publish Leo the Snow Leopard (2010) to allow children to cultivate their view of the USState as magnanimous and environmentalist. Leo the Snow Leopard was packaged for a domestic audience, with parents soothing their children to sleep with comforting stories of the good, kind US State saving baby snow leopards from dangerous places.

Mortenson’s book is a story of the US bringing social development to the poor and oppressed, rescuing them from dangerous people in dangerous places; Leo’s book is a story of the US saving wildlife from those dangerous places and dangerous people. In both stories, an American hero lies at the heart of the tale. Leo’s story is not as popular as Mortenson’s, but it is along the same grain:

When the Wildlife Conservation Society learned of the Leo’s plight, they knew they had to do something. There was a special place that could save Leo: the world-famous Bronx zoo in New York… After a rescue that involved treacherous, winding treks in the Himalayas, an extra-ordinary partnership between Pakistan and United States, and the help of dozens of dedicated people, Leo is making the Bronx Zoo his new home.

SHAFQAT HUSSAIN and villagers in the same location.

Thankfully the analogy between Leo and Mortenson stops here as there are no financial scams and fudging of numbers involved in Leo’s story; the Bronx Zoo and WCS are respectable and credible institutions. Both Leo’s and Mortensen’s stories, however, present the US State work in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the domestic audience and to some in Pakistan, as being not about war, bombs and imperialism, but rather about heart-warming things such as wildlife, schools, and people doing good. Both saving snow leopards and building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan are noble and worthy causes, but these are not the things that the US and its citizens should be focusing their attention on.

Apart from a few books (Ann Jones’ Winter in Kabul), there are not many popular accounts of the other side of the US State project in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are no children’s books on how the US government, in the 1980s, sponsored the production of bilious textbooks for the jihadis, whose daughters Mortenson is trying to educate. Unless we understand this history, and how that history continues to haunt us today and provide the social and political conditions in which people like Mortenson become heroes, we may bring down Mortenson the person but not Mortenson the project.

SHAFQAT HUSSAIN is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. In 2008, he won the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorer Award for his work, over the last eighteen years on social development and conservation in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, where Mortenson began his project.

 

Shafqat Hussain teaches anthropology at Trinity College. He is the author of Remoteness and Modernity. Transformation and Continuity in Northern Pakistan. Shafqat is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorer Award.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail