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.

Don’t judge Pakistan too hastily

Reading a few articles exhorting people to donate to the Pakistan floods, I literally feel sick by the hateful and ignorant comments posted on the articles. A case in point is an article by Ethan Casey that appeared in the Huffington Post. The comments range from paranoid Pakistan-bashing (‘what unites Pakistanis is their hatred of India’) to more widespread concerns about corruption and terrorism.

A few days ago I had read another article in the Telegraph titled ‘Pakistan suffers- but our wallets remain closed‘ and the comments on that one just horrified me because they were so downright racist. In stating their objections to helping out Pakistanis, some people had gone into everything they hate about Pakistanis and Muslims.

I realize that these may be some of the most ignorant and bigoted people out there and perhaps a minority. But when the majority of the comments are so hateful and people are ‘recommending’ (similar to the ‘like’ button on facebook) the nastiest ones, you just stop and wonder: Is this what the majority of the people out there think?

Maybe being surrounded by amazingly tolerant and respectful people at work (and before that at uni), I’ve developed a naive understanding of the world devoid of people’s prejudices.

Of course I also have to face the reality that things don’t grow in a vacuum. People who comment on the corruption or links to terrorism in Pakistan have some basis in reality (albeit exaggerated). I don’t want to get into all the structural arguments for why we are where we are, but it really saddens me to think that this is what my country has been reduced to.

Perhaps people’s short memories would make them believe that Pakistan has always been like this. But that’s not the case. And it doesn’t have to be either.

Yes, we’ve been a politically fragile developing country for most of the 63 years of our short history. But there have also been great moments. We’ve seen periods of remarkable growth and stability. Pakistan has produced some world famous inspirational people and the country has a lot to offer at so many different levels. It’s not all been perfect and I’m not glorifying the ‘past’. I’m just trying to put things into perspective.

Most nations go through periods of ups and downs. Afghanistan was a relatively ‘normal’ country in the 1960s showing similar development levels as its neighbours and look where it stands today. As late as 1990s, Iraq had one of the highest literacy and life expectancy rates in the Middle East along with its rich cultural and civilizational heritage (I’m not brushing under the carpet the abuses of the Saddam regime) and we know what’s become of it today.

On a positive note, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s and today it’s one of the strongest economies in Asia. Not too long ago, Ireland was mired by terrorism, instability and poverty (and some really horrible stereotypes were associated with that nation too) and today it is a respected member of Europe.

So all I’m saying is: let’s not give up on Pakistan so easily.