Peace in Afghanistan through ‘three cups of tea’

The latest article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times titled ‘Dr. Greg and Afghanistan’ argued in favour of Greg Mortenson’s approach to peace and development. Mortenson is the acclaimed author of the book Three Cups of Tea in which he stated his mission as building peace ‘one school at a time’. His approach is a gradual one based on building trust and relationships with the local community for which having three cups of tea together is a metaphor.

Greg Morteson with school children in Northern Pakistan

While the US administration’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy also talks about ‘winning hearts and minds’, the crucial difference is that the Americans and their allies have been building schools and doing development projects on the back of the military. However these initiatives, referred to as ‘quick impact, quick collapse’ by many aid agencies, are either rejected by the local community or end up being targeted by the Taliban and thus endanger the lives of the very people they seek to help. Examples come to mind of amusement parks that were never used or schools to which no one sent their children for fear they would be attacked.

On the other hand, Mortenson argues that aid work should be done by the local community themselves with very little foreign involvement and must have the support of the local leaders. His schools have not been attacked because the local community takes ownership of them. Kristof’s article gives the example of a school for girls in volatile Kunar province to which the Taliban objected, but when the local community came to its defense the Taliban backed off.

As countless statements and reports by aid organisations have argued, including a recent statement by Oxfam criticizing the UK government’s aid policy, the ‘militarization of aid’, i.e. aid in favour of military and strategic objectives rather than actual development and poverty needs, will only lead to quick fixes that will will be unsustainable in the long run. This is what Afghans themselves are also saying, if only someone will listen to them.

In a survey undertaken by Mercy Corps in Afghanistan (see section 4.2 of survey), when asked if they had to choose one type of  organisation to implement a development project, the majority of respondents picked an international nongovernmental organisation (INGO), whereas their second choice was the shura (local governing/advisory body). While foreign military reconstruction teams were rated very low. Keeping this in mind, Greg Mortenson’s approach, bringing together international funding and local leaders, makes a lot of sense.

Mortenson has been widely consulted by US policy makers and military officials, including Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraus, the two architects of the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. While this perhaps may have contributed to a shift from a purely military strategy to the current COIN strategy, given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan it seems Mortenson’s advice and services have been used more for opportunistic information gathering and deal brokering with local leaders than a fundamental shift in policy and tactics.

Whereas everything else is so complex in Afghanistan, this is quite simple really: the military has no business doing development work. Let the soldiers fight the war and the aid workers build the dams, bridges and schools.

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