The Great Debate UK

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Solving Afghanistan and Pakistan over a cup of tea

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cups of teaI have never read "Three Cups of Tea", Greg Mortenson's book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to read the sequel, "Stones into Schools" and gave up not too long after the point where he said that, "the solution to every problem ... begins with drinking tea." Having drunk tea in many parts of South Asia - sweet tea, salt tea, butter tea, tea that comes with the impossible-to-remove-with-dignity thick skin of milk tea - I can confidently say that statement does not reflect reality.

So I have always been a bit puzzled that the Americans took Mortenson's books so much to heart. Yes, I knew he boasted that his books had become required reading for American officers posted to Afghanistan; and yes, there is the glowing praise from Admiral Mike Mullen on the cover of  "Stones into Schools", where he wrote that "he's shaping the very future of a region". But I had always believed, or wanted to believe, that at the back of everyone's minds they realised that saccharine sentimentality was no substitute for serious analysis. Just as hope is not a strategy, drinking tea is not a policy.  (To be fair to the Americans, I have also overheard a British officer extolling the virtues of drinking tea in Afghanistan.)

As a result of my scepticism on the miracle powers of tea-drinking, I find I am learning an awful lot more about the thinking of the U.S. administration than I ever did from Mortenson from the fall-out from the allegations of inaccuracies in his books. (Mortenson rejects these allegations in a statement on the website of his Central Asia Institute charity.)

Take for example the detailed account by Jon Krakauer (pdf) charting not only inaccuracies but also alleged irregularities in the finances of the Central Asia Institute. In his opening paragraph, Krakauer notes that President Barack Obama donated $100,000 of the award money from his own Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 2009, to the Central Asia Institute. I had not known about the Obama connection until I read advance stories on Krakauer's piece.

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