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Greg Mortenson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Three Cups of Tea (TCT) is a liar. Readers all over the world unknowingly drank three cups of pee, not green tea. Greg got the green, you know what I mean? Mortenson is accused of using his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute, as his “personal ATM.”
Dr. Greg (an affectionate nickname) pissed on the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan for his own profit, prestige, and power. He wanted to be the next Mother Teresa, his Nobel Peace Prize winning heroine, but he is a motherfucking liar whose lies are so pathological he even lied about her in TCT. In 2000, he was in the Calcutta International Airport and heard Mother Teresa died. He went to pay his respects and writes a solemn passage about viewing her dead body. Problem. Mother Teresa died in 1997.
I loathe Mortenson’s book and the genre it represents: white, wealthy individual has a near-death epiphany (mountains are a favorite location; it’s the lack of air, they get hypoxic and lost) or an “Aha moment,” followed by a spiritual awakening in a foreign countrya poor, war-ravaged one full of simple, humble black or brown peoplewho they’re now charged with helping or “giving back to.” It’s a modern marriage between Oprah Winfrey’s “Live Your Best Life Now!” and Rudyard Kipling’s “civilize the savages with capitalism.” White man’s burden meets microcredit, meets Starbucks fair trade, dark roast, and Eat Pray Love. To enhance his cultural cred, Mortenson often dresses in kameez partoog with a pakol perched on his big head. He went native, but not too native. Natives don’t have access to ATM machines.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that people genuinely want to help those suffering in underdeveloped countries. Seeing images of starving children or babies born with cleft palate move people to tears and action. That is a beautiful thing and gives lie to the idea that people in advanced countries are selfish and don’t care about the rest of the world. But that desire to help those living in other continents always engenders unequal power relations between the people giving and the people receiving and is channeled through market mechanisms controlled by powerful groups and individuals committed to capitalism. It is an economic system that puts profits before the lives of human beings and is the root cause of a grinding poverty that results in the staggeringly high rates of death by starvation and death from preventable and treatable diseases in the developing world. It’s going on still, in 2011, in a world well stocked with medicine and food despite all the good intentions of Mortenson and the thousands of volunteers and aid workers employed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs.)
There is a profound elitism and paternalism in Mortenson’s education mission. His schools say to the people of those countries, “I know how to open and run schools and you don’t,” and “I represent a culture that values education and literacy for girls and yours doesn’t.”
The people of Pakistan and Afghanistan have always believed education is important for their children. Education is embedded in the fabric of these societies, even under Taliban rule. Prior to the Taliban taking power, women were the majority of teachers in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, women and male supporters of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) organized hundreds of underground classrooms and taught thousands of students. The risks were enormous: If caught, they were imprisoned or executed.
Malalai Joya’s book, A Woman Among Warlords, is a fascinating account of her work as an outlaw teacher. Joya’s book, through numerous and harrowing examples, shows the extraordinary lengths the Afghan people went to in order to educate their children. Grassroots neighborhood education networks were created.
In Zoya’s Story: An Afghan Woman’s Story of Struggle,” the author was educated in a RAWA-run girls’ school in Pakistan and as an adult, along with many other women, became a teacher in a refugee camp.
The people of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the gurus and guardians of girls’ education and are leading the struggle for female literacy, not Greg Mortenson, the man who lives a lavish life in Montana. Dr. Greg spends more time and money flying around the U.S. in a Learjet promoting his books than he does on his “charity” work abroad.
Some of Mortenson’s schools have been criticized as easy targets for the Taliban. New, shiny buildings embossed with white stars in poor villages stand out among mud huts. A safer approach educators believe is to integrate schools into existing mosques and community centers. But that wouldn’t benefit the Mortenson money making machine or boost his mythical status. And building the schools makes the simple, humble peoples of Central Asia eternally grateful for Dr. Greg’s help and he can write another book, tour the book, receive all the humanitarian awards and honorary doctorates and then deposit all the donations, royalty checks, and public appearance fees into his bank account. It’s a cha-ching moment!
TCT has been translated (or will be) into nineteen languages but apparently not into Dari or Pashto, the two languages most widely spoken Afghanistan, nor Urdu, the official language in Pakistan.
Jon Krakauer has written a brilliant account of the financial malfeasance of Mortenson titled, Three Cups of Deceit. It is essential reading to understand how the epiphany led to the profits, and ultimately, to the pitfall. But Dr. Greg is so wily he could have another epiphany, apologize profusely, and start giving back again. The title of the new book: Three Cups of Forgive Me: One Man’s Mission for Redemption?One Day At A Time. C’mon, it could be another #1 New York Times bestseller! In America there is reality TV and then there’s reality publishing. In Afghanistan there is a snarky saying, ‘T.I.A.’This is Afghanistan, but it could easily stand for This is America.
What Krakauer didn’t address in his meticulous expose was Mortenson’s cozy relationship with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Mortenson loves the U.S. military and they love him. How can that be? The full title of TCT is “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace?One School At A time,” and the title of his second is, Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And Mortenson has a project called “Pennies for Peace.” Schools, children, books, peace, drones, night raids, smart bombs, helicopter gunships, and war. It’s a confusing mix. But here’s the thing about white man’s burden do-gooders, they’re ardent supporters of imperialism and capitalism. Dr. Greg backs the war in Afghanistan and touted his schools as a way to take on the Taliban and terrorism. A passage in TCT explains, “Taking great personal risks to seed the region that gave birth to the Taliban with schools, Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.” Most of his schools weren’t built in areas the Taliban controlled. But the fable, embedded in mendacity and anti-Muslim bigotry, was created: Mortenson vs. the madrassas. Admiral Mullen loved it. Mullen cut the ribbon at the opening of one of Mortenson’s schools and handed out notebooks to simple, humble children.
Another whopper of a lie detected in TCT by Krakauer: Mortenson wrote effusively about being kidnapped by the Taliban but he was never kidnapped by Talibs. He dumbed the narrative down: Greg good, Taliban bad. Greg Saint, Taliban Satan. General McChrystal and Robert Gates loved it.
The imperialist and for-profit missionary wars of the U.S. military and Mortenson match-up. He provides the ideological cover: TCT is required reading for all U.S Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan, U.S. Marines training at MARSOC Camp Lejeune, and officers enrolled in counterinsurgency courses at the Pentagon. Dr. Greg takes home the cash, (book royalties, cha-ching!)
Mortenson advises top U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan so what does he advise them on? Tribal warfare, tribal etiquette, empowering elders, and building genial relationships with Afghan villagers. This is the other half of Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy; winning the “hearts and minds” of civilians.
Mortenson teaches Pentagon brass the finer points of Pashtunwali to more effectively dominant and destroy the culture and the people of Afghanistan.
COIN is distilled to its essence in the phrase “tea as a weapon.” Female marines drink tea with Pashtun women to gather intelligence.
Unfortunately, Mortenson influences the way millions view the war and woos them into tacit support. One reader concluded, “Greg Mortenson’s second book Stones Into Schools is published on the heels of an additional deployment of 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. It is heartening to know that US military commanders are listening to and respect Greg Mortenson’s approach.”
Originally, Mortenson was critical of the war in Afghanistan but changed his position: “The U.S. military has gone through a huge learning curve. They really get it. It’s all about building relationships from the ground up, listening more and serving the people of Afghanistan.”
So what did Mortenson feel when the U.S. military killed nine boys? Did he read these words in the New York Times, “Some of the dead bodies were badly chopped up by the rockets. The head of a child was missing. Others were missing limbs?We tried to find the body pieces and put them together.” What did Mortenson think when U.S. Special Forces soldiers killed two pregnant women and a teenage girl and dug the bullets out of the bodies to cover up the crime? How about the US ‘kill team’ that shot a boy in cold blood, cut off his pinky finger, and then took “trophy” photos?
Did Dr. Greg think the soldiers just hadn’t read his books? Or did they veer off the cultural competency learning curve just before they fired their weapons?
Fabricating passages in books, ripping off donors and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan is disgraceful. But the more despicable crime is Mortenson’s cover for and unwavering support for U.S. imperialism and all its bloody atrocities.
Don’t give one penny to Mortenson to provide cover for the war and occupation of Afghanistan. Donate money to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) at the Afghan Women’s Mission website at www.afghanwomensmission.org. RAWA projects include: schools, literacy courses, orphanages, food distribution, and working with prostitutes. Their website is: www.rawa.org
Helen Redmond is a licensed clinical social worker and a freelance writer. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org