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.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.
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.
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."That's all good advice for do-gooders of all types, in uniform, in media, and in the non-profit sector!
2. "We need to have respect."
3. "We have to build relationships."
Extending upon these was a March 31, 2010 Red Bull Rising post:
4. "Counterinsurgency is a long-term commitment."There was also a PBS interview with Mortenson cited in January 2010, from which was derived these observations:
5. "Beware the laptop Army." You can't instill change by managing spreadsheets in the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC").
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.Finally, here are two lessons potentially gleaned from this week's news:
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.
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.In other words: If Krakauer is right about Mortenson, isn't he also right about McChrystal?
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.