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.

A ray of hope!

“When it’s dark enough, you can see the stars” – Persian proverb

Finally… got some time to write a blog and a chance to share my experience of the ‘Three Cups of Tea Project’. I finished reading book #31 a couple of weeks ago and its now on its way to its next reader in The Netherlands (follow the progress of the books on the map). Tamreez just finished book #27 and will be sending her copy to the next reader in the next couple of days too.

I must say, the project is an excellent idea to share such an inspirational story. ‘Three Cups of Tea’ is a story of Greg Mortenson, an ex-mountaineer, a humanitarian, an extremely courageous, patient and determined human being who built schools in the remote villages of Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan under the toughest and most dangerous conditions.


Greg made a summit attempt to conquer K2, the second highest mountain in the world, to pay tribute to his late sister Christa. In trying to rescue a fellow climber, he himself got lost. He fought death for a couple of days in the worst possible conditions and finally stumbled across a village, unknown to the modern world, called ‘Korphe’. Impressed by the hospitality of the villagers, he promised the chief, Haji Ali, that he would build a school for them. For hundreds of years, the village never had a formal school.

Mortenson learnt his first and the most important lesson from Haji Ali that it’s all about relationships. “It takes three cups of tea,” he said. “The first cup you’re a stranger. The second up a friend. And the third cup you become family. And for family we’re prepared to do anything, even die”. But the process may take several years and you have to have that patience. Mortenson mastered the technique. He kept his promise and with the generosity of one of his donors, Jean Hoerni, the idea gave birth to the Central Asia Institute which has now built more than 130 schools.

On his quest he faced umpteen challenges, demoralising and sometimes even death-defying, including fatwas and death threats from crazy mullahs and even being kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers. His perseverance was the most impressive feature of his mission. It all failed to deter him from fulfilling his aim. He even sacrificed his family life making extended trips to these far far away lands.

The man believes in education being the only cure of extremism. He strongly advocates educating the girls. Contrary to boys who move out of the villages once educated, Mortenson believes that the educated girls tend to stay in their villages and pass on their knowledge to the next generations.

The story has many twists and turns and shows how his determination opened up avenues for him. Some might call it his luck but I think anyone else would have called it a day within the first few blows. From fundraising for the first school, to getting major donors on board, to getting paid staff for the institute and establishing key contacts all across the region Greg’s hard work is extremely laudable.

I highly recommend reading this book. There still are people among us who want to make this world a better place. I saw a ray of hope for Pakistan, and surprisingly the source was a ‘foreigner’ and shockingly an ‘American’. Greg was even awarded the highest civilian award Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan) by the Government of Pakistan and I would not hesitate to even nominate Greg Mortenson for the Nobel Peace Prize.


So Asim and I have both started reading our copies of Three Cups of Tea and the most random coincidences have happened in just the last few days. When we were coming back from our dinner two nights ago with our Kili trekkers, one of the girls from our group saw the book in Asim’s hand and took out her own copy which she had just begun to read as well. We decided to discuss the book during the trek.

Today we were coming back home on the tube both reading our own copies and there was a lady sitting just two seats ahead of us who was reading the book as well! I really wanted to catch her attention and flash my book at her in solidarity but alas she didn’t look up, the tube was packed with people so I didn’t want to move around…plus this is London- people aren’t always appreciative of strangers approaching them, even if those strangers are kindred spirits (reading the same book makes us kindred spirits right?).

I’m particularly enjoying reading the book as we’re approaching our Trek. The fact that we’re reading it right now was pure coincidence as well and not a conscious decision on our part. But reading about Greg Mortenson’s childhood in Tanzania, his incredible parents who were not scared to set out into the world and make a difference and of course his mountaineering expeditions that led him to Pakistan and his resolve to improve children’s education in the remotest parts of the country resonate with us even more deeply as we embark upon this adventure of ours. Compared to all that he went through, being stranded for days in the freezing harsh Karakoram mountains, in no way compares to a 7 day trek up Kilimanjaro (Mortenson climbed Kili when he was only 11 years old!). I’m much inspired and don’t think we could’ve read a more appropriate book before leaving if we had consciously set out to do so!

Three Cups of Tea

A few weeks ago we were contacted by Edgar (aka “The Kettle Rumbles”) telling us he was inspired by our Kilimanjaro Trek  and introduced to us his Three Cups of Tea Book Project. The idea was that we would read Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea and then hand it on to someone else. It was simple and inspiring and Tamreez had been wanting to read the book anyway, so we thought why not?

This morning our individual packs arrived in the mail: a copy of the book with an assigned book number (27 and 31 respectively); a reader’s log at the back for up to a 100 people; a beautiful bookmark promoting Arghand’s handmade Afghani soaps; a postcard and a copy of CAI’s magazine Journey of HOPE. As we excitedly took out all the contents of our packs and leafed through the book and magazine, we could not wait to get started. It is also quite exciting that instead of having to take turns to read a book, we can now read one together and then pass it on to someone!

– Publishers Weekly

“Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.”

Watch this space for our views on the book!

Thank you very much Edgar and we look forward to being a part of this project! It’s a wonderful idea and we’re sure it will inspire hundreds of people and will inshallah improve the lives of children in CAI’s schools! Good luck–we’re with you!