Say it ain’t so, Dr. Greg

Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

The most influential book on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan may well be three cups of tea co-authored by Greg Mortenson. The story is by now familiar to even those of us who haven’t read it. A sick climber retreats off of K2 and is nursed back to health by villagers in a remote region of Pakistan; touched by their kindness, he resolves to return to village and set up schools for girls.

When the book was first published, Mortenson was virtually unknown, but three cups of tea soon became a mainstay for book clubs around the country. When senior military officers’ spouses told their husbands about the book, Mortenson’s project to build schools began to be seen as a useful extension of the military counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine predicated on winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea quickly became “required reading” for senior commanders in Afghanistan trying to win over the Afghans.

But the book played perhaps an even greater role influencing hearts and minds here in the U.S. For an American public increasingly skeptical about the war, the book was a reminder of the morality of the mission. As Afghanistan Study Group Director Matthew Hoh points out, this phenomenon was deeply troubling. It helped “put blinders on our troops, political officers and development advisers by providing a motif of US forces and government personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq wearing “white hats” and doing “good”, while ignoring the complex and deep political causes and realities of the conflict.”

Yesterday, a segment on CBS’s 60 minutes may have begun to remove these blinders. The report examined crucial aspects of Mortenson’s story, including whether he actually visited Korphe, a small village where much of the drama takes place; whether he was kidnapped by the Taliban as his subsequent book claimed, and most damaging whether Central Asia Institute (CAI) is fulfilling its mandate. The report suggested that instead of building schools, the CAI was being used as a personal ATM for Mortenson; almost half the schools the CAI claimed to have were “empty, built by someone else or not receiving help at all.”

No one knows how this saga will play out, and Mr. Mortenson certainly deserves to defend himself, but bigger issues are at stake than one man’s reputation. Over the long-run, improving access to education—particularly girls’ education—is probably the single most important tool to develop Afghanistan and combat extremism. It would be a shame if the 60 Minutes piece undermines some of the good work that is being done to help the Afghan people. But it is also high time Americans confronted some uncomfortable facts about development work.

When money and prestige are on the line, there will be always be an incentive to paint a rosy picture in order to keep the gravy train rolling. Inflating the number of projects and beneficiaries a program supports is just one example of how these perverse incentives can play out. Aid and development can also exacerbate existing local rivalries. My own personal foray into development in Nicaragua ended when two leading village families’ fight over development money became increasingly violent. In Afghanistan, the process has been somewhat different. Development money has increasingly found its way into corrupt public officials, who in turn pay off the insurgents. The end result is the same: Instead of lessening the conflict, aid and development has exacerbated it.

Ideally, the Mortenson saga will drive development organizations and governments to think harder about how aid can be delivered more effectively. If this happens, some good may yet come out of this scandal, but don’t bet on it. More likely the story will blow over, and the same detrimental practices will continue as before. After all, the mission in Afghanistan depends on selling the notion that the military can effectively provide development assistance. A real re-examining of development might well lead to opposite conclusion.

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