NGO in Afghanistan: in whose interest?

By Jan Adams
Mar 8, 2011

I was impressed by Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. I am disquieted by Mortenson's sequel volume, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace Through Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There's an enormous amount to like about this detailed recounting of the Central Asia Institute's efforts to build schools "at the end of the road" that conventional aid agencies never reach. Again, Mortenson shares his simple and sensible prescriptions for Westerners who want to "help": listen to and respect the people who live in remote places; trust that people who survive in these hostile environments have figured out how to live there; and offer educational opportunity so that people can more easily find their own paths toward development. He truly believes in education for girls and explains why:

Studies from the World Bank indicate that just one year of primary school can result in an income bump of 10 percent to 20 percent for women later in life. ... In communities where girls have received more education, they marry later and have fewer children than their illiterate counterparts. ...

It is important to be clear about the fact that the aim of the Central Asia Institute is not indoctrination. We have no agenda other than assisting rural women with their two most frequent requests: "We don't want our babies to die, and we want our children to go to school." And in the process of addressing those wishes, it is certainly not our aim to teach the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan to think or to act like Americans. We simply want them to have the chance to attend schools that offer a balanced, nonextremist education. In this respect, we're also extremely sensitive to the difference between literacy and ideology. It is our belief that the first helps to thwart intolerance, challenge dogma, and reinforce our common humanity. The second does the opposite. ...

Education is one of the many basic values that Americans of all faiths share with Muslim people everywhere.

Moreover, Mortenson's focus on building schools is the opposite of impersonal. In this book, I was especially impressed by his account of trying desperately to reach and assist friends and staff after the terrible 2005 earthquake in northeastern Pakistan which killed hundreds of thousands, a natural disaster little noted in the West. And his account of learning to pass in Afghanistan, to project a "style" that prevented him from being instantly recognized as a wealthy foreign interloper, is funny and charming.

So what's not to like about Stones into Schools? In this book, Mortenson recounts a growing intimacy between his Central Asia Institute (CAI) and the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He certainly has been a critic of his country's war. For example, as early as 2002, he was questioning whether coming in without real conversation with Afghans and with guns blazing might not be a wrong approach.

Toward the end of 2002, I was given the opportunity to express these views when a marine general who had donated a thousand dollars to the CAl invited me to the Pentagon to address a small gathering of uniformed officers and civilian officials. In the course of my talk, I devoted a few minutes to explaining the tribal traditions that governed conflict in that part of the world-including the manner in which warring parties hold a jirga before joining a battle in order to discuss how many losses each side is willing to accept in light of the fact that the victors will be obligated to care for the widows and orphans of the rivals they have vanquished. ...

"I'm no military expert, and these figures might not be exactly right," 1 said. "But as best 1 can tell, we've launched 114 'Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles, tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced, nonextremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure'?"

In fact he's still questioning the U.S. war. In a 2010 interview with Bill Moyers, he critiques the Obama administration for asking neither Afghan elders nor the American people to participate in war-making decisions.

But he has also become a cheerleader of the U.S. military's shiny new counter-insurgency theories, a set of prescriptions for "winning hearts and minds" all too familiar to those of us old enough to have watched a U.S. army lose its last big war in Asia. When the generals discover raw firepower won't eradicate indigenous nationalism, they shift to "more subtle" but still lethal efforts to co-opt and subdue the uppity natives.

It seems to me that Mortenson found in the U.S. military something that years of work in Central Asia had not previously given him: peers from his own culture, big tough men like himself who were truly immersed in learning about these remote people and places, men who could appreciate what he was doing in building schools where it seemed impossible to accomplish anything. Here's a sample of Mortenson's conversion:

Eventually, I came to understand that a group of people who wield enormous power happen, oddly enough, to espouse some of the very same ideals imparted to me by people in Africa and central Asia who have no power at all. The reason for this, in my view, is that members of the armed forces have worked on the ground--in many cases, during three or four tours of duty--on a level that very few diplomats, academicians, journalists, or policy makers can match. And among other things, this experience has imbued soldiers with the gift of empathy. ...

... as I experienced the equivalent of sharing three cups of tea with the U.S. military, my perspective began to change. In a way, each side had something to teach the other, and we both wound up emerging wiser and enriched by the encounter. In the end, I also came away with the conclusion that the military is probably doing a better job than any other institution in the United States government -- including the State Department, Congress, and the White House -- of developing a meaningful understanding of the complex dynamics on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Actually, I can agree with that. The military is full of smart people who learn from their experiences. But to what end? There's a part of me that has empathy with Mortenson's attraction to the military and military individuals became faithful contributors to CAI. But after ten years of Afghan war, I still encounter reports like this from the Washington Post in late February.

KABUL - To the shock of President Hamid Karzai's aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday at the presidential palace that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting.

The exact language Petraeus used in the closed-door session is not known, and neither is the precise message he meant to convey. But his remarks about the deadly U.S. military operation in Konar province were deemed deeply offensive by some in the room. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussions.

They said Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, dismissed allegations by Karzai's office and the provincial governor that civilians were killed and said residents had invented stories, or even injured their children, to pin the blame on U.S. forces and force an end to the operation.

"I was dizzy. My head was spinning," said one participant, referring to Petraeus's remarks. "This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd."

That too -- that mad cultural chauvinism and belief in Western superiority -- is the face of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. I was horrified by the account in Stones into Schools of Mortenson delighting in giving Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S. commander, a photo op at the opening of one the CAI schools.

...the Pushgur project--an eight-room structure that would accommodate over two hundred girls--was scheduled to receive its official inauguration at 11:30 on the morning of July 15 with a very special guest. ... Less than an hour after we arrived, two UH -60 Black Hawks and one CH-47 Chinook flew in from the southwest, circled the area, and then landed, creating an explosion of dust that covered everything. The first man to step out of the lead Black Hawk, clad in desert-camouflage fatigues, was Admiral Mike Mullen. "Hey Greg," he shouted over the roar of the engines. "I hope you don't mind that I brought some media with me."

As he spoke, the Chinook disgorged a dozen journalists, including reporters from Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, and ABC-TV, as well as Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial-page columnist for the New York Times. ...

It would be difficult to overstate the symbolic impact of witnessing an eight-room school for girls inaugurated by the admiral who served as the principal military adviser to the president of the United States.

Yeah, sure. It's awfully hard to square that with another assertion in Stones into Schools:

...The Central Asia Institute is not affiliated with the U.S. military, and in order for us to maintain credibility with the communities in which we work, we bend over backward to keep this distinction clear.

Somehow I doubt any Afghan who saw the Pushgur event believes that. They may have made the sensible calculation to get whatever they can from these big, dumb, dangerous invaders, but they are not likely to be confused about who is working for who. I came away from Stones into Schools saddened. A naive generosity is something we could all use more of. Solidarity with the peoples of the world includes taking on crazy projects in crazy places with unforeseeable results. But naive innocence is not enough.

As Mortenson clearly knows, his country cannot bring solutions to the real problems of the Afghans and Pakistanis he has come to love and respect. Yet he has let his project be drawn into the vortex of the United States' war in the western Himalayas. I find it hard to believe that's in the interest of Afghan girls.

Cross posted at Can It Happen Here?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

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