FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Of Tea and Snow Leopards

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.

 

More articles by:

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.

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail