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Mortenson gives us a better idea than more troops

Sam Bauman
For the Nevada Appeal

Sometimes you come across a book that explains all the things we are doing wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq and you wonder why all those brain trusts in the White House and Pentagon haven’t picked up on it. (Now they have: U.S. officers going to Afghanistan have to read the book.)

Such is “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mortenson is the action figure. Relin the journalist who did the actual writing.

Mortenson will speak in Carson City in March, thanks to the Carson Library and Nevada Appeal.

Mortenson was raised in Africa by missionary parents. He got to college by an athletic scholarship and became a dedicated mountain climber as well as a trained medic (via the Army).

He was invited to join an expedition aimed at climbing K2 in Pakistan. He didn’t make it to peak and almost died getting down off the mountain, saved by a porter who protected him and led him to the tiny mountain village of Korphe, where he was taken in, fed and healed. The porter became a lifelong friend.

Korphe is a mountain village where the people lived for centuries in crude huts, freezing in the winter and growing crops and raising goats in the summer. Mortenson learned much about Mideast life there, including the book’s title.

Seems that in Pakistan, one drinks a cup of tea as a welcomed stranger, two as a guest and finally three as a member of the family.

And this is part of the lesson our military (and civilian) leaders should learn and practice. Bombs won’t do it in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it has to be a rewrite of the old “people to people” idea.

It has to become person to person, an intimacy that must be worked at to make sense.

Anyhow, Mortenson decided that he would come back to Pakistan and build a school for the village. Never mind that he didn’t have any money or wealthy backers. He would do it. He saved enough money for the construction materials and was prepared to bring them to the village.

But he had forgotten about the river that separated the village from the surrounding countryside. So first a bridge had to be built. Eventually, he built the bridge and the school, despite harassment from the growing Taliban, which didn’t think girls should go to school.

The idea expanded until Mortenson was building schools all over Pakistan and eventually in Afghanistan. He founded the Central Asian Institute with the aim of building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He met and married a wonderful woman named Tara, who didn’t try to stop him from returning time and again to the Mideast. They have two children and live in Montana where he put the CAI headquarters as he roamed the country giving speeches and begging for donations, some coming from the wealthy and much from fellow climbers.

Ordinary folks also reacted to his message – that only through education could much of the hardships of the Pakistanis and Afghans be endured. Not that he wanted to bring them into the Western world, just that they could continue to enjoy their lives as they were accustomed to in their own culture but expand their lives.

Mortenson’s epic battle with everything from a shortage of money to the Taliban (he was held prisoner for seven days by the Taliban until word of his good deeds filtered in). But he made many friends in Pakistan and Afghanistan, from the Pakistani army to countless mountain people.

Details of the book are fascinating, much more so than the phony thrillers about the Mideast and terrorists. It would be a triumph for Mortenson if every American read this book. It would be a triumph if every GI going to Pakistan and Afghanistan read this book and got his message – some now do. It would be a victory of all of us if our president and all the generals read this book.

They won’t. Modern technology is the answer, they are confident. More boots on the ground, more civilians killed by drone missiles, more children orphaned. More hatred of the United States, which so thoughtlessly tries to rule where ruling isn’t needed.

I spent a lot of time living around the world in Asia, Europe and Africa. Never did I see the vaunted “people to people” truly instituted. Except maybe once in Ethiopia, where a 10-year-old stopped me in the bazaar and proudly showed me his coloring book. My guide translated: “I thank the big man who gave me this book.” By big man he meant a U.S. Army corpsman who worked with the natives.

Come to think of it, it wasn’t people to people, it was one person to another.