Greg goes to Afghanistan – Kashmir

Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson, 2009

Update June 21, 2013. In 2011 allegations of fabrication and misconduct were made against Mortenson and CAI. For a comprehensive summary of his book “Three Cups of Tea”, the 60 minutes expose, and Jon Krakauer’s findings see Wikipedia‘s entry.
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Here is an update on the activities of Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and his self selecting “Dirty Dozen” following up on his previous Three Cups of Tea. Greg begins with an event from 1999 while he was visiting the Charpurson Valley. He had just met Sarfraz Khan, former mujahedin fighter with a disfigured hand who is making his living trading across the mountains into the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan (“no much success”) when they spot a group of 14 Kirghiz (nomadic Afghan) horsemen straight out of the 13th Century riding toward them. Their leader is the young son of the Kirghiz headman and he has heard that Mortenson is in the area and has ridden across the mountains to meet him and see if he would be willing to build a school for their children. Greg is so moved that he impulsively promises their school knowing full well he can’t go into Taliban controlled Afghanistan. It takes him ten years to keep his promise.


Video by Sarfraz Khan

Greg is so impressed with Sarfraz, who speaks seven languages and whose ancestors are Waki from the Corridor, that he hires him as his remote areas project manager. Thus begins what Greg calls the closest friendship of his life.

The promise of the school and the hiring of Sarfraz are the sort of impulsive decision making that make the CAI unique among NGOs. The other unique feature is their “last place first” philosophy, probably owing its origin to the first school Greg built in Korphe Pakistan a village so remote he first had to raise more money so he could build a bridge across a river in order to transport building materials to the village. Korphe was the village that rescued and nursed Greg after his failed attempt to climb nearby K2 and its headman Haji Ali is credited with Greg’s first and best education in the area (“After 3 cups of tea you will be friends forever.”). Haji Ali wanted a school for his grandaughter Jahan Ali, who became CAIs first high school graduate. The emphasis on girl’s education Greg acquired while growing up in Africa (where his father ran a hospital near Mount Kilimanjaro) and where he learned the expression “educate a boy and you educate an individual, educate a girl and you educate a community”. Greg has observed his girl students teaching their mothers to read and write proving to him the truth of this saying.

CAI offers scholarships to the smartest girls to continue their eduction. Once offered, these scholarships can be accepted at any time in the future. One girl was unable to accept a scholarship to become a health worker because of the opposition of the local headman. She married, raised children, and ten years later, the new headman asked her to accept her scholarship. She did, received her education, and returned to her village to help pregnant woman and their babies. Childbirth and infant mortality rates in her village fell to zero. She thinks that her own experiences as a wife and mother have helped her become a better trained health worker and she is grateful for the delay. This type of patience both by CAI and the students is one of the important lessons Greg has learned from his experience.

wakhan corridor
Wakhan Corridor

After 9/11 and the US displacement of the Taliban, Greg and Safran entered the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and Safran began his education of Greg into Afghan “style“. Safran not only speaks the various languages of the area, but he adapts his accent to the specific region, speaking a fast, clipped Dari in Kabul, and slowing, softening, and rounding the language as he travels further into the Corridor until he morphs seamlessly into the next language of the region. He also adjusts his dress according to region and teaches Greg to follow him. Greg must have felt a little like Sir Richard Burton, the master of disguises. Safran also taught Greg about identifying the real decision makers during a Jirga (meeting of elders) just from their subtle gestures and body language. They develop close friendships with the leaders of the Waki and Tajik groups of the Corridor as well as the border security commander, Wohid Khan, who comes to their aid time after time. They build a series of more than 20 schools in the area. Safran also taught Greg the skills of avoiding kidnapping by never revealing your destination and changing transport frequently. This also assures that the driver is familiar with local conditions. They are constantly moving large sums of money from the Kabul bank to their remote schools to pay teachers, buy supplies and pay for construction. They are never robbed.

In 2005 the report that Americans had put a Koran down the toilet in an Iraqi prison set off riots throughout the Islamic world. NGO workers fled to Kabul and their offices and abandoned vehicles were destroyed. Greg stayed put as a guest in a house where he met for the first time the headman of the Kirghiz, Abdul Rashid Khan the father of horseman Greg and Safran had met in 1999. Abdul Rashid is returning empty handed from several months in Kabul where he had hoped to get help for his isolated people. Hamid Karzi made some half hearted promises which he had no intention of keeping. Abdul Radhid had spent much of his remaining capital to finance the trip. The government eventually sent one rusted out van to the Kirghiz who have no roads. Greg is able to again promise that CAI will build a school in Kirghiz so the old man can return home with some hope. The next day Greg traveled through scenes of destruction (the NGO offices) on his way to determine the fate of his nearby school. The school stood untouched because the village elders had stood in front of it explaining that the school belongs to the village. The rioters departed elsewhere. Greg credits the CAI strategy of making sure the local community takes full pride and ownership of their own schools with saving this school in the riots. The school was not viewed as international by the elders. Again on the NGOs, Greg comments that they insist on dressing in western clothes, drive the latest SUVs complete with nine foot satellite antennas, and generally just scream rich foreigners to the impoverished Afghanis. No wonder they find themselves targets of violence and resentment.

Greg is constantly approached by people wanting schools for their villages. Among those was the desk clerk at the Kabul guest house where Safran and Greg stay when in town. The clerk is a young Pashtun, Wakil Karimi, who grew up in Pakistani refugee camps and speaks several languages including English which is how he got the guest house job. Wakil persists about his school in visit after visit and Safran and Greg get to like him for his intelligence, energy, and persistence. They offer him a job as Afghan project manager and Safran begins Wakil’s boot camp training in Afghan “style“. Wakil’s village is in Taliban country but they visit and decide to let Wakil build his school once they see that the village elders really want it.

azad kashmir
Azad Kashmir

Then, in 2005, a massive earthquake devastates much of Pakistani controlled Kashmir. The CAI rushes to the area to see what they can do. Most schools in the area have collapsed and many students have died. The CAI manage to get some tents for temporary schools and start traveling among their tent schools to give aid and pay the teachers. They can’t rebuild schools because people are on the move, farming terraces and drinking water springs have disappeared, the students are afraid to be inside buildings, and their usual stone construction would just collapse in the next earthquake. The CAI scrounged some PVC piping and found itself restoring water supplies so the girls could stop carrying water and return to school. This infuriated some NGOs who had lucrative contracts to restore water but CAI could care less. They just wanted to get their schools functioning again and the NGOs would probably never get the job done.

Greg is always emphasizing the importance of listening. His daughter asked him one day how the earthquake victim children played. Greg thought maybe they didn’t play at all so his young daughter launched a personal effort to round up jump ropes. Mothers joined in and soon he returned to Pakistan carrying hundreds of jump ropes. They were a big success in Kashmir and soon CAI is buying jump ropes locally. Greg starts thinking that while a couple of school have play fields (for soccer), none have a playground with slides, swings, and see-saws. CAI starts adding these to their schools. He relates a story on Bill Moyer’s Journal and in this book about a group of pro Taliban elders who come to see one of CAIs schools. They spend 30 minutes playing on the playground equipment and then started to leave. Greg asked them if they don’t want to see the school. They say no, they already decided they want CAI to build them a school like this one but they insist it must have a playground.

In another instance of listening carefully, Greg finally got one traumatized girl to relate the experience of the earthquake in her tent class. When Greg asked her why so few students had returned to class she said it was because there were no desks and it didn’t seem like a school. The students somehow associated having a desk with the learning and security of school. Greg immediately set villagers to work finding salvageable desks in the school’s rubble and building new ones. The students returned to school, some even without tents sitting under a tree once the desks were available.

Greg returned home to Montana to raise more money but Safran meanwhile uncovered some Chinese engineers in Pakistan who have experience building earthquake resistant structures in Xinjiang Province China. He arranges for the Chinese to design and fabricate three schools in Xinjiang, arranges transport for the materials from Xinjiang, and sets the logistics in place to compete the schools on site in Kashmir in only one month. Lastly, (after already committing CAI to the schools without authorization) he faxes Greg in Montana for the $54k needed for the schools catching Greg by total surprise. Greg takes the schematics for the buildings which are prefabricated from wood and designed to move in a quake to a civil engineering professor in Bozeman. they are to be assembled on a floating concrete pad which can also move in the quake. They are designed to withstand a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. The professor declares the designs sound and Greg gets CAI board approval, as always, to proceed. The schools are ready for occupation in 19 days. Just another typical CAI project.

The following link shows a video with one of these earthquake resistant schools, the Balseri Girls School, Patika, Azad Kashmir, Pakistan in the background.

Greg comments that they encountered very few NGOs in remote Kashmir but the extremists groups including the one that later bombed Mumbai were very effective at reaching the remotest villages and setting up madrasas, extremist Islamic schools often led by illiterate teachers who have memorized a little of the Koran. They feed most effectively on remote and ignorant villagers.

Greg and Safran are terrible at dealing with bureaucracies and are busy building schools throughout the outer regions of Afghanistan without any license or sanction from the central government. They initially tried to register CAI as a NGO with the government but quickly gave up. One official contradictorily claimed 1) there are already hundreds of schools in the Wakhan (there were none); 2) the Corridor is actually a part of China (never); and 3) no one lives in the Wakhan (there are three distinct ethnic groups in the Corridor, each with several thousand members).

Wakil took upon himself the task of getting CAI an NGO license. He spent a full month in the process, finally yelling and shaming the bureaucrats into stamping his final document. Unstated but implied is the refusal of CAI ever to pay a bribe to a government official even when it is clear all other NGOs have paid bribes to get their paperwork approved. CAI stretches their dollars and can construct a typical school and fund it for five years for about $40k. In this context, the cost of even a modest bribe would be intolerable to them.

Greg knows that some of the elders that support his schools make much of their income from poppies and the drug trade. He acknowledges that there are few other opportunities to make money in Afghanistan and praises those that give most of the proceeds back to the people in the form of low cost loans, seed, and other assistance. He regrets the some Afghanis become opium addicts, the cost of which further impoverishes them.

Greg discusses his strange relationship with the US military. He was initially opposed to the US military actions in Afghanistan while welcoming the removal of the Taliban from power, allowing CAI to operate to build schools in the country. As he saw it, a single US missile costing $850k could be used instead to build 20 schools which is a far more productive use of resources.

Then the earthquake struck in Kashmir and the US military loaned a number of Chinook helicopters from Afghanistan to transport supplies in and wounded earthquake victims out and Greg came to see the now popular crews in a new humanitarian light. The crews themselves, after Iraq and Afghanistan also came to see themselves in this new popular humanitarian light and liked it.

The other strange thing that happened was that military wives came across the Parade magazine article about the CAI and started reading “Three Cups of Tea” and discussing the book at their women’s clubs. Their enthusiasm spilled over and soon their husbands, serving or having served in Afghanistan started reading the book, particularly, counter insurgence soldiers. Pretty soon, “Three Cups of Tea” was required reading in counter insurgence academies. Greg discovered all this when forward base commander Christopher Kolenda asked if CAI could build a school near his base in Kunar Province. Kunar Province certainly fits the description of an “end place” but it is also Taliban country. Nevertheless, Wakil and Safran visit Kolenda then sat down with the village elders and decided to build the school.

kunar province
Soldier Invites CAI to build school in Kunar Province

Thus began a major effort by CAI to build schools across the heart of Taliban country including Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province, the location of several Al Qaeda camps that includes the now famous Tora Bora caves where Bin Laden was thought to have hidden before slipping across the border into Pakistan. For one particularly vulnerable school they convinced a respected local Mullah to be headmaster. When warnings started appearing on the school, the Mullah went directly to Taliban leaders and convinced them to leave the school alone. They did. While CAI has had a little violence and threats at their schools, none have been damaged or closed unlike many other new schools that have been closed, students and teachers killed, and girls attacked with acid. Greg attributes the difference to the strong support the schools have had from the local elders and leaders. Even though CAIs schools are secular, they receive strong support from the local Mullahs.

CAI has by now received widespread recognition. Great Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, visited one of the Kashmir earthquake resistant schools; Greg became the recipient of the Star of Pakistan the highest civilian award in Pakistan; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opened one of the Panjshir Valley schools; and Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McCrystal are both Mortenson fans.

mullen mortenson
Admiral Mullen with Mortenson

Greg quotes Mike Mullen to show how far the military has come:

The Muslim community is a subtle world we don’t fully – and don’t always – attempt to understand. Only through a shared appreciation of the people’s culture, needs, and hopes for the future can we hope to supplant the extremist narrative. We cannot capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them, one heart, and one mind at a time.

Quite a contrast to the usual nightly news Neanderthal general spouting nonsense about getting the bad guys like he’s playing some kind of video game, which incidentally, is how young military minds are recruited these days – through video games.

porting school
Kirghiz porting their school

In late 2009 the nomadic Kirghiz finally got their school built on the very roof of the world at 12,500 feet. The logistics of getting materials and workers to the site required some miracle planning and an approach from three sides. Money and lighter materials like the door and window frames traveled across the Wakhan Corridor to the end of road where they were loaded onto Yaks for the three day journey to the site. Trained masons hiked over the mountain passes from the Charpurson Valley in Pakistan. A truck laden with cement, roof beams and other heavy construction material drove across Tajikistan to an old Soviet tank trail leading south toward a lake in Kirghiz. To get permission for the truck to cross Tajikistan, border commander Wohid Khan agreed to personally accompany the truck. From the lake, more Yaks and men transported the heavy materials the final 15 miles to the building site. Greg considers this his last best school even though illness has prevented him from seeing it. In fact fate has twice prevented Greg from entering Kirghiz. But after 10 long years, he has finally kept his promise.

For those wanting a good introduction of this region this book is one of the best. Greg furnishes a series of maps but it is hard to grasp the impact of all those massive mountain ranges. For a while Safran shuttled overland between Kashmir and the Wakhan Corridor to supervise his various building projects. Although the bird flight distance is only 200 miles. Safran needed to cross three different mountain ranges. For two he could drive CAIs 28 year old Land Cruiser across but for the third, into the Wakhan, he used his horse. His first horse died of exhaustion in 2006 and he acquired a new horse which is pictured in the book (They mistakenly identify the horse in the picture as the one who died, probably in the rush to publish. There are a few nonsense sentences in the book as well.). The most startling of the maps shows the ethnic distribution of the area (Pakistan and Afghanistan). There are 18 distinct ethnic groups shown here, one of which is “other” which implies there are even more groups. With the mountains and the ethnic diversity no wonder everyone is confused.

For an account of how the boundaries defining the various countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan came to be and why Kashmir ended up in India (none of which has very much to do with ethnic boundaries) read the untold story of India’s Partition the tragedy that set off the chain of events leading to our current state. The “Great Game” between Russia and England, which contributed to the partition and boundaries predates the Cold War by a hundred years.

For a recent history of Afghanistan, the Soviet occupation, the CIA (Charlie Wilson’s War) and Pakistani intelligence backing of the Afghan mujahedin, followed by the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout giving rise to the Taliban read Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars.

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