Reading the (Three Cups of) Tea Leaves on the Afghan Strategy

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the same day President Obama unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan, Greg Mortenson published his second book, Stones into Schools, which continues the extraordinary tale begun in his best seller Three Cups of Tea of his mission to "promote peace with books, not bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan". The response of the American people to the Afpak strategies presented by the two men has differed dramatically.

President Obama's speech has been analyzed to near death, and after a week to mull it over, it is safe to say that the response has been mixed. Some found it his best speech since he took office (Haynes Johnson), while others found it sorely lacking the inspiration that traditionally attends a call to arms (Joe Klein, Charles Krauthammer). According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, a slim majority of 51% support the President's plan. The most commonly voiced sentiment seems to be a willingness to give the President and his policy a chance - for now - as well as strong support for the troops themselves.

Compare that to the incredible outpouring of support, including monetary, that has greeted Greg Mortenson on his speaking tours throughout the United States. At Northeastern University in Boston, only the hockey stadium was large enough to accommodate the sellout crowd of 5,600 people. Jumbotrons were required in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, when 9,500 people turned up to hear Mortenson speak about his belief in the importance of educating girls in remotest Afghanistan and Pakistan. One evening last fall just after the bad news about the U.S. economy broke, the people of Durango, Colorado (population 16,007) donated $125,000 to Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). (Full disclosure: $50,000 came from George Boedecker, founder of the shoe sensation "Crocs.")

The people turning out in droves all over the country to hear Mortenson's inspirational stories about areas otherwise associated with terrorism defy conventional wisdom. Americans are supposed to be insular and uninterested in the rest of the world, right? But Mortenson's story of falling into his life's mission when he literally fell down a mountain near K2, and was nursed back to health in the remote village of Korphe, Pakistan, has touched a chord with the American public. (When Mortenson discovered that the village children were forced to study outdoors, scratching numbers and letters into the dirt for lack of a school, he vowed to show his gratitude by building one for them.)

Over one thirty schools and innumerable hours of conversation and cups of tea later, Greg Mortenson, through his extraordinary patience and humility, has changed the lives of thousands of young people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of them young women. Along the way, Mortenson has done something that U.S. government leaders have not: he has humanized the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When Mortenson was asked during an NPR interview two days after President Obama's Afghan speech if the President had consulted him, the author, a veteran, enthusiastically discussed his close contacts with the military, including Generals Petraeus and McChrystal and Admiral Mullen. Three Cups of Tea is required reading for all officers and Special Forces going into Afghanistan, and Mortenson conducts scores of training sessions every year for the military. He said nothing about contacts with the White House, the State Department, or US AID.

Too bad President Obama, or his advisors, did not incorporate Greg Mortenson's work as they tried to imagine what "success" in Afghanistan might look like. If they had, maybe they would have been able to close the gap between Americans' enormous support for Mortenson's school building programs and their lukewarm response to the Afghan strategy of increasing troop numbers and defeating the insurgency.

President Obama's speech was surprisingly empty of the quality that infuses Mortenson's work: hope. Although he mentioned civilian efforts, the President offered no specifics, no stories. Do Afghanis such as Mortenson's students figure into the U.S. strategy? How does the President envision the future of the Afghan people, beyond "containing the insurgency"? And what is the roadmap to get there?

In his very thoughtful Nobel address, President Obama tackled the complex philosophical issue of a "just war", and underscored the importance of humanitarian interventions. Perhaps appropriately,though, the President did not use the Nobel speech to justify the Afghanistan war: he did not contrast an Afghanistan under the Taliban with the Afghanistan America hopes to leave behind.

Of course, the President's task is immensely more complicated than Mortenson's, but by focusing so completely on the military strategy in his Afghan strategy speech, and giving the citizens of the United States and Afghanistan so little in the way of hopes and dreams, he made his job even more difficult.