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Apr 17

Written by: Diana West
Sunday, April 17, 2011 6:50 AM 

Mullen and Mortenson in happier days

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From the AP, news that 60 Minutes may be about to tell us that Greg Mortenson, guru to military brass, is a phony.

Did I say "phony"? Big fat phony is more like it.

I wrote about Mortenson's status as unofficial Pentagon advisor to Mullen, Petraeus, McChrystal et al after Mortenson's bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea, became a hit with their wives. Not just a hit. Required reading before anyone deploys to Afghanistan.

Here's an excerpt to recap before the show:

THREE CUPS OF TEA IS REQUIRED READING FOR US MILITARY IN AFGHANISTAN.

Or, as MSNBC more calmly reported:  "Mortenson is someone the military's top brass listens to — and has often consulted with. "Three Cups of Tea" has become required reading for U.S. commanders and troops deploying to Afghanistan, making Mortenson a valued but unofficial adviser to the Pentagon."

That was in 2009. More recently, in July 2010, the New York Times reported:

In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general's mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book "Three Cups of Tea," Greg Mortenson.

"Will move through this and if I'm not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future," McChrystal wrote to Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington, D.C.

Wow. I missed that the first time around. The Times story continues:

The e-mail message was in response to a note of support from Mortenson. It reflected his broad and deepening relationship with the U.S. military, whose leaders have increasingly turned to Mortenson, once a shaggy mountaineer, to help translate the theory of counterinsurgency into tribal realities on the ground.

Why am I not surprised? The book, which initially generated little interest, the Times notes:

appealed so much to one military spouse that in the fall of 2007 she sent the book to her husband, Christopher Kolenda, at that time a lieutenant colonel commanding 700 U.S. soldiers on the Pakistan border.

Kolenda knew well the instructions about building relationships with elders that were in the Army and Marine Corps' new counterinsurgency manual, which had been released in late 2006. But "Three Cups of Tea" brought the lessons to life.

"It was practical, and it told real stories of real people," said Kolenda, now a top adviser at the Kabul headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force, in an interview at the Pentagon last week.

Kolenda was among the first in the military to reach out to Mortenson, and by June 2008 the Central Asia Institute had built a school near Kolenda's base. By the summer of 2009, Mortenson was in meetings in Kabul with Kolenda, village elders and at times Obama's new commander, McChrystal. (By then at least two more military wives — Deborah Mullen and Holly Petraeus — had told their husbands to read "Three Cups of Tea.")

As Kolenda tells it, Mortenson and his Afghan partner on the ground, Wakil Karimi, were the U.S. high command's primary conduits for reaching out to elders outside the "Kabul bubble."

As Mortenson tells it, the Afghan elders were often blunt with McChrystal, as in a meeting last October when one of them said that he had traveled all the way from his province because he needed weapons, not conversation.

Weapons not conversation? That doesn't sound very tea-like.

"He said, 'Are you going to give them to me or am I going to sit here and listen to you talk,' " Mortenson recalled. The high command replied, Mortenson said, that they were making an assessment of what he needed. "And he said, 'Well, you've already been here eight years,' " Mortenson recalled.

Despite the rough edges, Kolenda said, the meetings helped the U.S. high command settle on central parts of its strategy — the imperative to avoid civilian casualties, in particular, which the elders consistently and angrily denounced during the sessions — and also smoothed relations between the elders and commanders.

For Mortenson's part, his growing relationship with the military convinced him that it had learned the importance of understanding Afghan culture and of developing ties with elders across the country, and was willing to admit past mistakes.

And the damage is done.

Stan & Greg, Yale, February 2011

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