Afghanistan suggestion: Make tea, not war

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan 3500ppx

Image via Wikipedia

A glimmer of good news from the endless bad-news war in Afghanistan: the people doing the fighting are in touch with someone who was winning, a long time before they started fighting.

In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.

“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.

Mortenson, of course, hasn’t been winning any battles. What he has been winning are the trust, and occasionally the hearts, of Pakistani tribal leaders in a long-running effort to educate their daughters.

The story of this school-building crusade, which came about as a thank-you gesture after Mortenson received help during a mountaineering mishap, is told in Three Cups of Tea. The story of the book — it went nowhere when published with a warrior subtitle, then caught on like wildfire when Mortenson won a mini-battle to bring it out as his originally intended plea for peace — is told in the talks he has been making around the country for several years.

To hear Mortenson talk, as this writer has happily done several times, is to become a believer in hope. Most of us have been coming home saying, “Gee, could we spend a few billions less on platoons and give a few billions to Greg Mortenson’s schools instead?” Mortenson, a giant of a man who clearly has no personal agenda, is not a motivational speaker. But his tale is compelling.

The title of that first book comes from his discovery, early on, that the first step in building anything — school, relationship, whatever — is to sit down over three cups of tea. Hundreds of cups of tea and a few near-death episodes later, he has quietly managed to forge relationships with isolated tribes and build schools for girls who will grow up — perhaps — to think there’s something good about America. Some schools have been destroyed (and occasionally rebuilt), some relationships have gone sour, but the idea that something good can be developed between the U.S. and that wild land without bombs and guns — or despite guns and bombs — is heart-warming. And more than a little surprising.

Mr. Mortenson, 52, thinks there is no military solution in Afghanistan — he says the education of girls is the real long-term fix — so he has been startled by the Defense Department’s embrace.

“I never, ever expected it,” Mr. Mortenson, a former Army medic, said in a telephone interview last week from Florida, where he had paused between military briefings, book talks for a sequel, “Stones into Schools,” and fund-raising appearances for his institute. (The Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to community-based education, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

But thanks to a few military wives, who read Three Cups of Tea and then insisted their husbands read it too, a connection was made between the warriors and the peacemaker. It is an unlikely, and in many ways perilous, partnership, but if you’ve read the book or heard the talk you probably feel a glimmer of optimism.

The military’s Mortenson-method efforts  in Afghanistan thus far are outlined in Elisabeth Bumiller’s July 18 New York Times report. His own job will now involve convincing the elders that he hasn’t become a tool of the military. It’s a strange world out there. But it seems somehow more hopeful.

Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice – NYTimes.com.

When fear & hatred go viral

Illegal aliens threaten, Muslims are murderers, we should be Very Afraid. Or perhaps, like the author of these points, just Very Tired.

A super-patriot message (re)circulating in cyberspace could serve as a blueprint for how to spread hatred and fear across the land. It purports to spread Republican virtues, having been written (with apologies to someone else’s earlier blog in the same style) by retired military/public servant Robert A. Hall. Originally floated in a blog dated February 19, 2009, it has recently been picked up and dusted off for recycling. This writer has gotten it three times; though I am not on a lot of right wing Favorites lists I try to listen and understand messages received from friends with whom I disagree.

Hall, now a resident of Illinois but not an admirer of its current native son President, apparently served honorably in the U.S. Marines and the Massachusetts state senate. This space hereby commends him for his public service, accepts his right to whatever political beliefs he chooses, and takes very strong exception to his blog. It is the incendiary passage below that needs to be refuted:

I’m  tired of  being told that Islam is a “Religion of Peace,” when every day I can  read dozens of stories of Muslim men killing their sisters,  wives and daughters for their family “honor”; of Muslims  rioting over some slight offense; of Muslims  murdering Christian and Jews because they aren’t  “believers”; of Muslims burning schools for girls; of Muslims stoning  teenage rape victims to death for “adultery”; of Muslims mutilating  the genitals of little girls; all in the name of Allah, because the  Qur’an and Shari’a law tells them  to.

I have not read the Qur’an, though I doubt that’s what it says. Iftekhar Hai has.  Co-founder and director of interfaith relations for United Muslims of America, Hai understands what the Qur’an has to say far better than do Hall or I. Here are a few clarifications — if only they could circulate as widely as is the above screed:

Whatever faith you are born in, you are in God’s image. The message is the same, but people keep adding on and that’s what messes things up. Diversity is part of Islamic belief.”

The Qur’an does not condone the killing of non-believers. Religious leaders cannot decide who is a non-believer. Islam is not exclusive, and extremists are wrong to judge others.”

As to the status of women in Muslim countries, Hai says inequality for women has no basis in the Qur’an, but is a cultural matter (as in the wearing of the burqa by women in Afghanistan. Only 18% of Muslims, he says, live in Arab countries, with the majority in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; he is quick to point out women leaders in those countries and in Indonesia.

It seems superfluous, but still appropriate, to mention that Christians have done a lot of killing “in God’s name,” as have people of just about every other faith, and that assorted acts of mayhem and violence are caused every day under every conceivable banner.

Iftekhar Hai, like millions of his fellow Muslims here and abroad, is a man of peace. He serves on the board of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and works with other organizations such as United Religions Initiative to promote understanding, cooperation and peace among all faiths. Wouldn’t less fear and hatred, and more peace and understanding be a good idea at this point in world history?

CIA casualties highlight endless wars

While we were watching bejeweled balls drop in Times Square, or fireworks over San Francisco Bay, pyrotechnics of a different sort were going on as usual around the globe, some of them more or less our fault — because people don’t like us or our government policies or our religious persuasions — some of them happening in our name. The news-making American casualties were not military personnel this time, but civilians in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The report of this attack sums up where we are, in the last few words of the first paragraph: America’s far-flung wars.

The deaths of seven Central Intelligence Agency operatives at a remote base in the mountains of Afghanistan are a pointed example of the civilian spy agency’s transformation in recent years into a paramilitary organization at the vanguard of America’s far-flung wars.

Is it possible we are fighting too many wars, too far-flung?

If you Google around a while, you can discover (for instance, on a college librarian’s eponymous and aptly named site, topsy.org) that many of the lists of exactly where and with whom we are fighting battles have been removed — but that there are a lot of them out there. We have “overseas operating sites,” which our thankfully now-former president sought to have “optimally positioned to respond to potential 21st century military threats” all over the globe.

PBS NewsHour on New Year’s Day featured one segment in which Georgetown University professor Christine Fair attempted to articulate the various factors involved in current impossible wars going on in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. The Pakistan Taliban, she explained, are actually “a network of networks;” the insurgents include Afghan soldiers, or perhaps non-soldiers dressed in some of the uniforms acquired by stealing a truckload of them, which happened not long ago. PBS’ Ray Suarez then asked if there were any way of stopping this chaos. “I don’t think so,” was the answer.

Hello? Could we think about our foreign policy a while?

Even without easily accessible lists (it is somewhat comforting to know that amateurs can’t Google up strategic maps of these overseas operating sites,) everybody knows we have personnel, uniformed and otherwise scattered around from Germany to South Korea to Thailand to Honduras to wherever. We don’t know how many of them are fighting little wildfire battles, either in person or through U.S.-trained surrogates. In the recent C.I.A. tragedy, the survivors can be forgiven for anger and grief, but some of the response is still unsettling:

There was an air of defiance among intelligence officials on the day after the attack, and some spoke of their fallen comrades using military language.

“There is no pullout,” the American intelligence official said. “There is no withdrawal or anything like that planned.”

Is anybody, anywhere, considering the fact that we can’t keep fighting everybody everywhere, forever? The pundits (reinforced by Defense Department spokespeople) like to say that if we were to pull out — of Iraq, Afghanistan, Uganda, pick your piece of the globe where we’re actively or just-behind-the-lines at war — there would be chaos. But there’s already chaos.

What if we started taking a few of those trillions currently funding endless wars and diverting them into building schools, hospitals, community centers, friends? After the chaos, could we then emerge with more friends and fewer aspiring-martyr enemies?

Maybe not. But it would be nice, just once, in all the interminable debates about terrorists and security and rooting out the bad guys, to hear someone suggest changing course, waging peace. For now, we seem mired in countless un-winnable wars. It would be heartening to think we could get off the Through the Looking Glass course outlined by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 and quoted by columnist David Sirota today:

As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there’re some things we do not know. But there’re also unknowns unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

We know how many wars we are fighting. We know we’re not winning many of them. We know that peace on earth isn’t getting any closer these days.

C.I.A. Takes On Bigger and Riskier Role on Front Lines – NYTimes.com.