Solving Afghanistan and Pakistan over a cup of tea

April 20, 2011

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.

During his presidential election campaign, Obama made Afghanistan and Pakistan his foreign policy priority. So you might expect that he would have had foreign policy advisers who would have questioned the wisdom of associating publicly with one man. After all, it was quite clear — whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of Montenson’s philanthropy — that the narrative used to describe his schools in Baltistan as a bulwark against the Taliban and Islamist militants was a bit awry.

I have only been to Baltistan once, on a brief trip organised by the Pakistan Army to visit the Siachen region, the world’s highest battlefield, where Indian and Pakistani troops have faced off against each other since 1984. Yet even under the watchful gaze of my army minder, a group of Balti intellectuals who I met in the regional capital Skardu were able to tell me (over several cups of tea) that they felt neglected by Islamabad and excluded from power in Pakistan. Baltistan is part of the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan, and because of its disputed status, the people there have never been integrated into Pakistan and nor have they been given voting rights.

The political and security issues in Baltistan are related to the rivalry between India and Pakistan, to the dispute over Kashmir, and to the electoral dispossession of a people who have been frozen in time since the partition of the subcontinent since 1947. They are nothing to do with the Taliban, militant Islam, or the war in Afghanistan. That should have been easy enough to find out – have U.S. diplomats never been to Baltistan?  Indeed even without going there, the information was available for free on the Internet. Why did nobody ask any questions?

Yet even without the complexities of Baltistan and Gilgit – both part of what used to be known as Pakistan’s “Northern Areas” - why did Americans ascribe some kind of universalist insight to one man in a region as large and diverse as Afghanistan and Pakistan, with its different cultures, languages, ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations? Am I supposed to understand the Greeks better because I worked in France? Or did my two years living in Luxembourg give me a special understanding of the Danes? And yes, I have drunk tea in many parts of Europe too.

So what happened? Why did the U.S. military latch on so much to Three Cups of Tea without anyone — civilian or military – challenging it? Was it only a question of short attention spans, too much information, too many crises and not enough time? Foreign policy experts and diplomats often complain they have trouble getting funding, particularly compared to the military, not just in the United States but in other countries too.

Or was there more to it? Pakistani historian Manan Ahmed argues that ignorance is an essential part of empire. “The condition of asserting political and military will over a distant population is one that cannot sustain itself in any modern, liberal society. The efforts to understand, will inevitably lead to the understanding that the people of Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq desire the power to make their own decisions – without the imposition of governments or militaries sanctioned and placed from afar.

“The knowledge of languages and expertise will inevitably expose the lie that there is widespread support for unilateral military escalations. The hope of a civilisational mission … does still glimmer in some eyes… This hope, being irrational and racist, actually requires blindness to the immediate and the real.”

There are many in the United States who would strongly reject any suggestion that its campaign in Afghanistan, launched after the Sept. 11 attacks on the New York and Washington, is driven by notions of imperialism rather than self-defence.

That said, the question about why nobody clearly challenged the thinking behind Montenson’s books needs to be answered.


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