19 April 2011

Nine Tea Cups of Wisdom

Bloggers and pundits are buzzing following investigative reports alleging that many events described in Greg Mortenson's best-selling "Three Cups of Tea" books never happened, and that the Central Asia Institute (C.A.I.), a related a non-profit organization, has failed to build, maintain, or staff many of the schools it promised to build in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the CAI best-known fund-raising efforts is "Pennies for Peace," which encourages school-age children to collect and donate spare change toward building schools overseas.

Mortenson was the subject of a CBS "60 Minutes" report on Sun., April 17. Jon Krakauer, best-selling author of such books as "Into Thin Air" and "Where Men Win Glory," subsequently released a 77-page featurette titled "Three Cups of Deceit." The product is available electronically as a free download here. Mortenson, a perennial Nobel Peace Prize nominee, did not participate in the "60 Minutes" report, although he has responded through Outside magazine and the hometown newspaper in Bozeman, Mont.

For years, the book "Three Cups of Tea" and its related products have served as a much-cited supporting narrative for U.S. Army counterinsurgency doctrine (often abbreviated and pronounced "COIN" in military circles). The phrase, which alludes to the gradual relationship-building that takes place during social interactions, is commonly used by U.S. soldiers when talking of meetings with Afghan governmental, tribal, police and military personnel. "Gotta go drink our three cups of tea" is to the Afghan generation what "winning hearts and minds" was to Vietnam's.

Writing for Wired Magazine's "Danger Room" blog, Spencer Ackerman kicks off an analysis this week's news with by revisiting a grassroots technology effort led by Army Capt. Cristian Balan, a Vermont Army National Guard officer, in summer 2010. (Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division replaced Vermont's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in November 2010.)
His impulse was straight out of Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, an account of cross-cultural understanding in Central Asia that’s become faddish in counterinsurgency circles. The core lesson: treat the Afghans with respect; address their concerns; and they’ll scratch your back, too. If you don’t, don’t be surprised when you don’t get their cooperation against the Taliban.

After I accompanied the sunny Balan on his tech support mission, he asked if I’d read Mortenson’s book. When I told him I hadn’t, he fetched his dog-eared copy from his trailer and gave it to me to keep.
Regardless of how the accusations and potential lawsuits sort out, the latest chapter in Mortenson's life story casts unwelcome doubt on counterinsurgency doctrine and methods, and, more generally, philanthropic efforts in a tight economy.

Ackerman writes: "[S]hould [the allegations against Mortenson] discredit the message that the military’s embraced? '60 Minutes‘ main allegations don’t suggest as much. They’re about Mortenson’s integrity, not his thesis."

In the Red Bull Rising blog alone, "Three Cups of Tea" has been reviewed and discussed numerous times (see here and here for examples). Many of Mortenson's lessons are still valid, regardless any failings and frailties on his part. Other lessons can be derived from Mortenson's fall from popular grace.

For example, Gen. David Petraeus distilled these three core lessons from Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea."
1. "We need to listen more."

2. "We need to have respect."

3. "We have to build relationships."
That's all good advice for do-gooders of all types, in uniform, in media, and in the non-profit sector!

Extending upon these was a March 31, 2010 Red Bull Rising post:
4. "Counterinsurgency is a long-term commitment."

5. "Beware the laptop Army." You can't instill change by managing spreadsheets in the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC").
There was also a PBS interview with Mortenson cited in January 2010, from which was derived these observations:
6. "Half of diplomacy is just showing up." You're halfway there if you meet with people, look them in the eyes, and talk to them.

7. "You cannot plug in democracy. You have to build democracy." Whether you live in Washington or Waziristan, you can't be part of the change unless you're engaged on the ground.
Finally, here are two lessons potentially gleaned from this week's news:
8. "Trust, but verify. Only then, should you donate." A Minnesota teacher is using Mortenson's difficulties as a teachable moment in her classroom. Her students had raised $862.02 to help build a school in Pakistan. Next time, she hopes they'll be more successful, in part by investigating their giving options more diligently. Look for ratings, audits, and certifications, before you sign a check--or send in your hard-won pennies.

9. "People of all types must be held accountable." Investigative journalism is about keeping people accountable, whether in government, business, the military, or non-profit. It's not mean-spirited to hold people accountable, but it is mean-spirited to take pleasure in other people's difficulties. It's notable that so many commenters have rushed to judge Mortenson, citing Krakauer's just-the-facts gumshoe reporting, when many of those same commenters have delighted in the supposed rehabilitation of U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a central character in the alleged high-level cover-up and mis-appropriation of U.S. soldier Pat Tillman's 2004 death by friendly-fire. Krakauer wrote a whole book on Tillman and his death.
In other words: If Krakauer is right about Mortenson, isn't he also right about McChrystal?


  1. Well, journalists are right and wrong and right and wrong. I'd like to say that one journalist has the ability to be 100% correct all the time, but you and I both know it isn't the case.

    People are making it seem like COIN was born out of a chance reading of Three Cups of Tea. But wasn't COIN hatched prior to Mortensen's book, while Petraeus was the big guy at Ft. Leavenworth by a collection of journalists, military honchos,humanitarians, NGO workers, etc? Mortensen's book wasn't the impetus, it was the wonderfully packaged narrative that helped explain in an indirect way --the merits of supporting that kind of work and the challenges in that society. Three Cups of Tea did not, however, give anyone insight as to the dangers. It was a candy coated, beguiling book, that overlooked the realities that were more fully explained by people like Dexter Fillkins. In a review of Mortensen's second book, Stones For School, I encouraged people to get a fuller picture by reading the books of others as well.

    While the Army has put a lot of emphasis on the importance of Greg's book, the landscape is much bigger than that. I think in all of this, we have to look at the ongoing challenge of literacy and education for women and girls as the central mission.

    One of the disadvantages of Mortensen's fame, is he overshadowed the voices of small organizations (NPOs, NGOs) on the ground also doing humanitarian work. He even overshadowed the work done by our own service members, such as the Kunar PRT, the Female Engagement Teams, and countless others. It's time to start paying attention to the broader picture, the efforts, and evaluating the progress using a wider lens._
    I've written 2 posts on my blog.

  2. An interim U.S. Army counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24 was published in 2004. The final draft was published in 2006. It was the subject of much debate and discussion, both in- and outside military circles. Still is, although to a lesser extent, given the continued ascendency of Gen. Petraeus. Good backgrounder by John Nagl here: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/841519foreword.html

    "Three Cups of Tea" was published in 2006. You are correct: FM 3-24 did not beget "Three Cups of Tea, nor did "Three Cups of Tea" beget FM 3-24.

    The "Three Cups of Tea" movement did, however, help distill and wedely popularize COIN principles and/or objectives. The risk here is that old-school military minds will use this news as an opportunity to throw the doctrinal baby out with the tea water.

    I agree the landscape before us is larger than Mortenson's alleged mis-deeds, or even his story. The U.S. military mission, in my understanding, is to help the Afghan national government and its armed forces create sufficient stability and security that more civilian entities--U.S. and international agencies, both public and private--can do more of the work of capacity-building.

    Even given the existence of counterinsurgency doctrine and method, the military remains a national-policy tool best directed toward breaking things and hurting people. The military cannot indefinitely be in the business of building schools, mosques, and clinics, although they current help do all of these things

    Regarding paying attention to a broader picture: It would be interesting to compare what the U.S. taxpayer buys for $250,000 (via the military) per Afghan girls school vs. what Mortenson allegedly got--or didn't get. (One recent example from the Army side of the equation: http://www.cjtf101.com/en/regional-command-east-news-mainmenu-401/4323-new-school-brightens-future-of-kapisa-women.html)

    How long do these facilities last? Who maintains them once constructed? How successful are these projects over time, in creating the conditions of success defined by U.S. national leaders? To achieve such a culture of accountability, we need more writers, reporters, and citizens to engage such questions. People like Jon Krakauer, and Dexter Filkins, and Tom Engelhart, and you.

    Thank for the ongoing conversation!


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