Flying Blind, and First Class
The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. Three Cups of Tea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. “Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM.”
The fact is, almost every person Mortenson encountered during his visit to Ladha treated him graciously. Only once was Mortenson made to feel less than completely welcome…When the residents of Ladha bid goodbye to Mortenson, they did so with affection, and they believed the feeling was mutual. “Years later,” says Naimat Gul, “when I scanned through the book Three Cups Of Tea and read that Greg had been abducted and threatened with guns, I was shocked. Instead of telling the world about our frustration, deprivation, illiteracy, and tradition of hospitality, he invented a false story about being abducted by savages. I do not understand why he did this.”
In July 2010, The New York Times reported on the popularity of Greg Mortenson’s 2006 memoir Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace among the US Military high-command. The report described General McChrystal and Admiral McMullen using the text as a guide to their civilian strategy in Pakistan. Mortenson’s book quickly became required reading in military academies (the report hinted at the role played by the wives of senior military brass in promoting the title) and Mortenson has since spoken to the US Congress and testified in front of committees. Mortenson himself, though a selfless worker for the most disenfranchised of Pakistan’s northwestern citizens, possesses no deep knowledge of the region’s past or present and is avowedly “non-political” in his local role. Still, his personal story, his experiences and the work of his charity are now widely considered to be a blueprint for US strategy in the Af-Pak region.
Even a cursory examination of the archive dealing with the American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates that there has been no related growth in specific scholarly knowledge about those sites of conflict. The knowledge of Arabic, Urdu or Pashto remains at extremely low levels in official corridors. There is, one can surmise simply from reading the back and forth sway of military and political policy in Afghanistan, very little advancement in understanding of either the text or context of that nation.
In America’s imperial theatre, Stewart and Mortenson exemplify a singular notion of “expert”. We can build, based on the profiles of other specimens – Robert D Kaplan, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan – a picture of what the ideal type looks like from the official point of view. Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.
To describe the region of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) as one that gave ‘birth to the Taliban’ [as Mortenson does] is incorrect, and embodies a dangerous jump of geographies and logics. The bulk of the KKH lies in the administrative territory of the Northern Areas in Pakistan, and the bulk of the book is focused on the region of Baltistan that lies in the Northern Areas. Baltistan is 95% Shia and, by the book’s own admission, the ﬁrst Wahhabi madrasa was created here in 2001—which, too, is not synonymous with the Taliban. Indeed, the Northern Areas as a whole is 60% Shia. To claim that this Shia-majority region is the birthplace of the Sunni fundamentalist, violently anti-Shia Taliban is simply absurd. The Taliban were predominantly based in the Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan regions of Afghanistan.
Their origins are more properly traced to the CIA and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) production of the mujahideen during the Cold War, through particular kinds of madrassas in some parts of Afghanistan and some parts of western Pakistan that trained and armed Muslim students from around the world in a new, rabidly fundamentalist version of Islam to service the strategic interests of the USA. Indeed, an explicitly violent curriculum that was to be used in these madrassas was produced by the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and published in both Dari and Pashto through a USAID grant. As such, one might more appropriately declare the US as the ‘region that gave birth to the Taliban’.
However, TCT is a text in which such uncomfortable truths are not present, and indeed, details in general do not matter. While we learn about the different places and people that Mortenson encounters on his mission, there is little sense of spatial differentiation in the broad claims of the book—and little desire to make such differentiation. The enormous space of the Northern Areas, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan—incredibly diverse regions even within their own boundaries and stretching from Pakistan’s eastern to its northern and western borders—are lumped together as one ‘region’, and further combined with parts of Afghanistan that have a different historical and cultural context altogether.
In this collapsible ‘region’ the spaces and people appear interchangeable. Because an abstract cultural template of poverty and danger is applied to diverse locations, one gets a sense that there are mobile, multiple enemies all around in Muslim places that are self evidently poor and ignorant, and thus potentially violent and dangerous. The many references to ‘poor Muslims’ makes it seem that the story can be transplanted to any Muslim context. Hence, unsurprisingly, public reviews of the book often mention how the book helps a reader understand not just Pakistan, but Central Asia and the Middle East as a whole.