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12.11.09

Venturing Into Afghanistan

Greg Mortenson, co-author of the do-gooding sensation Three Cups of Tea, speaks to Liz Goodwin about building schools for girls in Afghanistan in the shadow of the Taliban, and his new memoir.

Greg Mortenson, the mountaineer-turned-philanthropist who co-wrote the mega bestseller Three Cups of Tea, is a self-described conflict-averse introvert, which might explain why he sounded uncomfortable when asked about President Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, where Mortenson is building schools in his quest to boost literacy and promote peace through education.

“I hate to be critical of somebody I really admire, but I feel that there should have been some weight and consultation from the shura [community elders], the people we’re trying to serve and help,” Mortenson said. “In the tribal society, it’s just so important that—even if you don’t agree with each other—you actually meet and discuss and dialogue and debate issues.”

Despite Taliban resistance, school enrollment has jumped from 800,000 in 2000 to 8.4 million today in Afghanistan, “one of the greatest increases in school enrollment in any country in modern history,” according to Mortenson.

Mortenson, who is embarking on a 16-city book tour to promote his newest book, Stones Into Schools, is one of those rare people whom everyone seems to like, despite the occasional fatwa lobbed his way for educating girls. The acknowledgements section of his latest book reads like a bipartisan wish list—John Kerry, George Bush Sr., General David Petraeus, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell all get nods. Mortenson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by members of Congress last October. After almost 20 years working to build more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a task he stumbled into after getting lost on his way down from K-2 and finding a village that needed a school, he’s become something of a spokesman for the region. He acts as a go-between for the military and Afghan leaders, arranging “about two dozen” meetings between Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the local shura, who he says are more respected than elected officials.

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Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By Greg Mortenson. 448 pages. Viking. $26.95. ()

His first book, which stressed the importance of building relationships and listening to people in communities before trying to help them, has sold more than 3 million copies and is required reading for U.S. Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan. Though at heart a book about the power of education, Three Cups of Tea has its fair share of adventure and personal drama. Mortenson gets lost wandering down one of the most treacherous peaks in the world, is kidnapped by the Taliban, meets and marries the woman of his dreams within six days, and convinces a crotchety old Silicon Valley tycoon to endow his fledgling school-building project with $1 million on his deathbed. It’s a lot of action for 338 pages, and the book is written at a breathless pace that no doubt fueled its popularity.

Mortenson’s latest book is different. Instead of kidnapping scenes, there are long conferences on satellite phones, detailed decision-making processes, and logistical nightmares and triumphs. It is the story of running an NGO in impossibly hard-to-reach locations, rather than a tale of personal discovery. Stones Into Schools is written in the first-person (through a team of ghost writers), but feels, oddly, less personal than the third-person account penned by David Oliver Relin in Three Cups of Tea.

One gets the impression that Mortenson is a tad embarrassed the first book was so personal—it included Mortenson’s emotional state post-breakup, and an intimate description of the night he met his wife—and he stressed that Stones Into Schools is about the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not him. Mortenson said he integrated thousands of reader suggestions in a meticulous effort to improve his second book. He worked to emphasize the stories of individual women who have benefited from the schools and are now becoming the first female nurses and teachers and doctors in their villages.

But Mortenson underestimates his own appeal. The most compelling parts of his new book are the more personal moments—a panic attack he suffered before an appearance in Pennsylvania, his mounting frustration over becoming the fundraising mouthpiece of the organization instead of the man on the ground, and the time he became seriously ill in Afghanistan while trying to make it to a remote village he had been journeying toward, off-and-on, for 10 years. Mortenson is still suffering from a heart condition he picked up that night, and is on oxygen for part of each day.

Though the book is less conflict-ridden than the first, Mortenson still runs into resistance while building schools. Since 2007, 850 schools have been bombed, burned, or destroyed in Afghanistan and 600 in Pakistan, according to UNICEF. All of the schools Mortenson funds must be at least 40 percent female, because he says he believes educating girls and women is the best way to improve communities. The Taliban, as you might imagine, disagrees.

“We had one school attacked for two days in the summer of 2007,” Mortenson says. “Fourteen Taliban came in the middle of the night, they attacked our school…they beat up the night watchmen and then the next day, they said ‘If any girl or teacher comes to school, we’re going to kill you.’ But the local militia leader, you know he’s kind of a shady guy, but he has two daughters in school. He rounded up 120 men, and he killed two of the Taliban.” Now, the school is surrounded by 12 guards, round the clock, who are under orders to shoot anyone who tries to hurt a student. “That’s not how we run a school but, that’s how the community is undertaking that,” Mortenson says.

The community feels ownership over the schools that Mortenson’s organization funds because they must provide the land and labor, which makes them safer from sabotage and fiercely defended by their communities. And despite Taliban resistance, school enrollment has jumped from 800,000 in 2000 to 8.4 million today in Afghanistan, “one of the greatest increases in school enrollment in any country in modern history,” according to Mortenson.

As the national spotlight turns to Afghanistan, Mortenson—an Army veteran—remains unconvinced that an increased U.S. military presence will help his cause.

“I don’t really think it will change too much. It’s going to escalate violence, there’s going to be more attacks, and more U.S. troops are going to get killed,” he says. If the U.S. wants peace, Mortenson says, they should educate Afghanistan's children, and especially their girls.

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Liz Goodwin is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast. She has written for the New York Sun, GothamSchools, the Tico Times, and Fodor's Travel Guides.