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Three Cups of Tea author addresses audience at GVSU

April 8, 2010

Yesterday the Grand Rapids Press ran an article in the region section about a talk given at GVSU by “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson. The headline of the story written by reporter Charles Honey was, “The real enemy is ignorance.”

The story states that around 2,000 people came to hear the author who has been working to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years. The story cites Mortenson as saying that education is the key to peace in Afghanistan. “We can drop bombs, we can surge troops, we can put in electricity, we can build roads. But if girls are not educated, a society will never, ever change.

The article also stated that Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea” has been GVSU’s Community Reading Project this year. Part of this project was an interdisciplinary panel discussion two weeks ago on the book and its significance.

On that panel, GVSU Sociology Professor Jennifer Stewart raised concerns about the book, calling it “sincere fiction.” Sincere fiction is literature written by White, privileged people who go somewhere to “help” other people, usually people of color. Stewart thinks that the popularity of Mortenson’s book is in part because it makes Americans feel good. “Americans like to be seen as the ones who save others and this fits into our country’s narrative about being a beacon of light for the rest of the world.”

The Press reporter states that Mortenson was somewhat critical of President Obama’s decision to send more US soldiers to Afghanistan, but the criticism had more to do with the process used for making this decision and not so much about the increase in troops. Reporter Charles Honey does say that the book is required reading by US military leaders, but the reporter never says why the book is required reading. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has an endorsement on the book cover of Mortenson’s most recent book “Stone’s into Schools,” which raises questions about the roll that Mortenson’s schools play in the larger US counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

What is missing from the discussion on Afghanistan as it relates to Mortenson’s book and his visit is the lack of historical context to the current US/NATO occupation of that country.

Afghanistan is a country made up of numerous tribal communities and the borders of that country were arbitrarily created by the British government during their occupation at the end of the 19th century. There is tremendous language diversity in the country, which makes Mortenson’s decision to use English as the language in which his schools operate seem questionable.

Afghanistan is also a country, which has been at war for the past 30 years. The former Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan from 1980 – 1989. During that period the US recruited, financed and trained insurgents from all over the world who identified with a very narrow interpretation of Islam, a group of men known as the Moujahedeen (Holy Warriors). This group of men were the ones who instituted policies and practices that restricted women’s freedom, which was acceptable to US policy makers because it served Cold War objectives.

“What was more important in the worldview of history?  The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War? –President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1996.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan the US paid little attention to the aftermath of the Moujahedeen. This group of radical Jihadists began fighting each other for control of the country and continued to use the weapons provided by the US or left over from the Soviets. Thousands of people were murdered in the first half of the 1990s until another group known as the Taliban came to power in 1996. The Clinton administration initially endorsed the Taliban because they were a “stabilizing force in the country.”

The 1990s were also a period where there was greater interest in the gas & oil resources within Afghanistan and the strategic role the country could play as a trans-shipment point for energy resources in the region. One US-based energy company with close ties to the government was UNOCAL.

Then the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred and Afghanistan became front-page news and on the top of the list of US foreign policy interests. The US began bombing Afghanistan in October of 2001 and has been occupying that country for almost nine years. In those nine years the US military has built numerous bases, detained thousands of Afghanis, systematically tortured them, and killed thousands more.

To not provide this kind of information about what Mortenson has been doing with his school project, not only distorts any discussion about what will ultimately bring peace to that country, it is a disservice to the Afghani people who have suffered as a direct result of US policy for three decades.

Some excellent resources on US policy in Afghanistan in recent decades are the website Rethink Afghanistan and the books Bleeding Afghanistan and Ending the US War in Afghanistan.

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