This (above) is "postcard" from Afghanistan by Paul Avallone, someone who has drunk more than his share of cups of tea there. first as a Green Beret and later as a photojournalist. Readers will recall his pungently evocative writings and photos from his "Flirting with Afghanistan" series published here in 2010.
It is a most fitting image to illustrate my syndicated column this week on "Three Cups of Tea."
"Why Did the Pentagon Listen to Greg Mortenson?"
To say that the memoir "Three Cups of Tea" is the basis of the bitter pill that is American counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan is a falsehood and gross exaggeration -- like much of the book itself, as it turns out. But it is a fact that the 2006 mega-seller, "required" reading for the U.S. military in Afghanistan (not to mention a large chunk of the nation's schoolchildren and college students), has washed that strategy down, swirled it around and given its key tenets a weird charisma in the person of author Greg Mortenson.
What -- since "60 Minutes" unmasked Mortenson and his book as a colossal fraud -- now?
I don't mean what about the Montana Attorney General's office inquiry into Mortenson's Central Asian Institute (CAI), the tax-exempt charity he founded 15 years ago to build schools in AfPak, and which, according to Gordon Wiltsie, a former CAI board member who served as board treasurer, "Greg regards ... as his personal ATM."
Or the thumping, 75-page smackdown "Three Cups of Deceit" (wherein Wiltsie's statement appears) that author-turned-whistleblower Jon Krakauer posted online to elaborate on the fabrications and Mortenson's shocking financial practices.
Or the fact that Viking, publisher of the 5 million copies of "Three Cups of Tea" in print, announced that charges against its golden goose are being "reviewed."
Or even all the schoolchildren across the country who in 2009 donated $1.7 million to Mortenson's program Pennies for Peace (P4P). That same year, Krakauer writes, CAI's outlay for the things P4P is supposed to pay for -- teachers salaries, school supplies, etc. -- came to $612,000. "By comparison," he writes, "CAI spent more than $1 million to promote (Mortenson's books) and another $1.4 million to fly Mortenson around in chartered jets. Donors unknowingly picked up the tab."
In a much larger sense, so did we all. That's because Mortenson is not just another flim-flam artist who turned a good yarn into fool's gold (and no book royalties for CAI, by the way, Krakauer reports). He's also a Gandhi-like guru to the Pentagon who preaches to top brass that "extremism" can be defeated by "education." Mortenson's Big Idea is teaching hearts and minds, and it slides neatly into any Pentagon PowerPoint on "population-centric COIN."
Mortenson's unusual life as counselor to generals started back in September 2007, when then-Lt. Col. Christopher D. Kolenda "reached out" to him. Kolenda's wife had sent "Three Cups" to Kolenda in Afghanistan where, as the New York Times put it, "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."
By the end of 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported, Mortenson was in the Pentagon for a private meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. By the summer of 2009, Mortenson had met with Mullen several times, Mortenson wrote on his blog, "to consult on new approaches to strategic policy in Afghanistan." And "in the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's command in Afghanistan" last year, the Times reported somewhat breathlessly, Mortenson was among those the general "reached out" to via email en route from Kabul to Washington. This, the Times wrote, showed the extent to which military leaders "have increasingly turned to Mortenson ... to help translate the theory of counterinsurgency into tribal realities on the ground."
But what happens now that a bunch of those theory-translating realities turn out to be fake? Ladies and gentlemen, we've been had. But not by Mortenson. The military culture that grabbed Mortenson's "Three Cups" and didn't let go was already lost, already in thrall to the Leftist theories and see-no-Islam strategies that have turned U.S. foreign policy into the Great Society with guns. Independently, Mortenson dressed it all up with a heady mix of popular appeal and ever-so-high purpose. Education, not terrorism; ploughshares, not swords; love, not war. Clear, hold and build, build, build!
From COIN to "Three Cups," it's a perfectly irresistible way to avoid the facts and features of jihad culture where such institutional naivete leads to stratospheric waste, fraud and mounting casualties.
Anything to keep the teacups from getting chipped.
April 28, 2010: Gen. McChrsytal "reaching out" for more.