Afghanistan's future

There’s been a barrage of bad news lately from Afghanistan.

So I was glad for the chance to discuss “what should be done?” with Greg Mortenson, the author of the bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, who has built more than 130 schools, mostly for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I’ve traveled with him to some of his schools in Pakistan, and he stopped off in Philadelphia between interviews in NYC and Washington.

Mortenson, a large bear of a man, travels to the most remote rural areas of Afghanistan, including those where Taliban are active. His views are shaped over endless cups of tea with village elders. Only one of his schools has ever been attacked by Taliban, and local tribesmen quickly pushed them out.

How is he able to succeed in Afghanistan when so many have failed?

“Success in Afghanistan,” Mortenson says, will come “when the people themselves can determine their own destiny.
“We need to put more emphasis on empowering Afghans, which means involving them in the process. You have to get buy-in from the people themselves.”

He learned that philosophy from his father, who started a hospital in Tanzania and ultimately got fired for insisting that all departments should be run by Tanzanians. Today that is the case.

Mortenson puts that philosophy to work in Afghanistan, working with shuras (groups of elders). Their deepest wish is to be free from coercion, by Taliban or corrupt central government officials, and to be able to improve their lives.

Prime among their concerns is educating their children. If local mullahs are resistant to approve girls’ education, they can usually be convinced over more cups of tea.

“We put our schools in areas where there are no schools at all,” Mortenson told me. As we talked in my office, he took a cell phone call from an intrepid Afghan staffer, Shafraz Khan, who was checking in from Badakshan province, high in the Hindu Kush mountains.

“When we build our schools,” he continued, “the community has to provide free land, free labor, sweat equity, and the elders are in charge.” Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute (CAI, pays for most of the building materials, and often for teachers.

Once a school is built, the community protects it, and neighboring villages seek their own schools. The institute also helps villagers start income-generating projects to pay teachers’ salaries if the government won’t.

His staff then tells local government officials they will do more projects in the area, provided the officials also commit to constructing schools.

Mortenson believes education can change Afghan society. “Why do we ignore what does work?” he asks passionately. “Education is Afghanistan’s greatest success story, but the education ministries are probably its least funded.” Indeed, since the Taliban were defeated, the number of Afghan schoolkids had risen from 800,000 to 8 million, including 2.8 million girls.

“If something is so successful, why aren’t we putting more money into it?” he asks. He points out we spend $1 million per year per soldier in Afghanistan. Their higher education ministry needs $247 million to refurbish a struggling system, but the ministry will only get about $50 million. “For the cost of 247 U.S. soldiers,” he says, “we could pay for the whole thing.”

Mortenson would especially like to see the United States set up a College of Mines, so Afghans could train engineers to develop the country’s vast stores of precious minerals and ore, it’s best hope for prosperity. China is eager to develop those sites on its own terms; it is already mapping roads from its border into regions rich with mineral wealth.

Mortenson’s larger point: Americans need to think local when trying to stabilize the country. The current Afghan constitution, drafted with U.S. help, set up a government that is too centralized and at odds with most of Afghan history. Village elders echo America’s frustration with the corruption in Kabul.

Today’s U.S. military understands the need to listen to Afghan elders. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command in 2009, he asked Mortenson to facilitate meetings between his senior staff and shuras from around the country — on a voluntary basis. These discussions will continue under the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus.

But empowering elders — with education, development aid, and the means to defend themselves against Taliban pressure — takes time. This is why Mortenson believes “it’s premature to begin pulling troops.” He’s certain a Taliban return would sharply reverse gains in women’s education, rights and health care.

Americans are understandably weary of the Afghan war, but Mortenson has seen how village elders stand up against Taliban coercion once they are given something concrete to fight for — including girls’ schools.

E-mail Trudy Rubin at