Three Cups of Tea co-author comes under fire for allegedly embellishing accounts in the book, and his Central Asia Institute is placed under a microscope due to allegations of misuse of the charity’s funds.
Anyone who has read the books Three Cups of Tea and its sequel, Stones Into Schools by Greg Mortenson (Three Cups is co-authored by David Oliver Relin) will tell you how riveting and engrossing both works are. They have become two of the most important and influential books of our lifetime. They are incredible and inspiring page turning stories about what’s possible in an area of the world that virtually no one understands.
Doubts about the accounts in the books, however, were raised by an investigation aired by the CBS news programThe segment raises concerns voiced primarily by Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and a former contributor to Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute (CAI).
Mortensen established the CAI to raise funds to build, staff, and supply schools throughout Pakistan and later Afghanistan on the condition that all such schools be open to the girls of the communities they serve. The CAI operates on the principle that “if you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
For those who have not read the books (and you really should—they’re both required reading for any commissioned military personnel or diplomatic corps heading into Afghanistan, and should be required reading for everybody), they are the personal story of former mountaineer and Army medic Greg Mortensen; how he stumbled into a remote village in one of the most isolated regions at the foot of the Himalayas in Northern Pakistan; and how his pledge to build a school in this tiny, forgotten village became a life’s mission.
Krakauer and “60 Minutes” examine the accuracy of the story Mortensen tells at the beginning of Three Cups about how he got lost on the descent from a failed attempt to scale K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, and stumbled into the tiny village of Korphe (pronounced kor-FAY) severely dehydrated and weak, his very life in jeopardy. He tells how the villagers took him in and nursed him back to health.
In that village, he found the children studying out in the open, writing their lessons with sticks in the dirt. It was there that he pledged to build the first school.
But Krakauer and “60 Minutes” insist that that story, while incredible and inspiring, was a near complete fabrication. They say that Mortensen never did get lost on that expedition, and that he didn’t hear of Korphe until nearly a year later. True, he built a school there, but it didn’t happen at all like he told it in the book.
They also accuse him of lying about his “kidnapping” by members of the Taliban; how he was detained for eight days while his captors investigated his story. “60 Minutes” found members of the group that Mortensen claimed held him prisoner, who all denied the accusation and adamantly denied being members of the Taliban. They criticize Mortensen for his claims, pointing to a photo he took with the group where he was happily holding an AK-47 assault rifle. (Read the book—the story makes sense, trust me).
They fail to mention, however, another photo featured in the book of Mortensen and his wife, Tara, on her first visit to Pakistan. Mortensen is holding their infant daughter, and both he and Tara have an AK-47 in their grasp. It’s part of the culture there. It’s merely an adornment. A symbol of how the rural Pakistanis and Afghanis live.
Krakauer and “60 Minutes” also allege that by using CAI funds to promote his books, Mortensen has personally benefitted from the charity. They cite nearly $3 million of CAI funds used by Mortensen on travel and other expenses relating to speaking engagements and promotional appearances, while the institute has seen none of the proceeds. Recently two Montana state legislators filed a lawsuit to seize the assets of the CAI (which is based in Bozeman, Montana)—reportedly nearly $14 million—and place them “in a trust for construction of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” They are also critical of the institute’s shoddy accounting standards, particularly regarding expenses in Central Asia.
There are a few things that must be understood about how the CAI does its work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and why Three Cups and Stones are so important particularly to the institute’s work. First, since the inception of the Central Asia Institute, Mortensen has relied on a ragtag assortment characters to run his operation in Pakistan. These are mostly people with little formal education themselves, but who have latched on to the mission with full throated enthusiasm and thrown themselves headfirst into the cause because they believe in it.
Without the backing and devotion of these locals Mortensen would have been stuck in neutral and gone nowhere. And since most of the transactions in-country are conducted in cash without the benefit of computers and accounting software, sometimes accounting records get a bit messy. Such is the price of doing business in some of the most primitive parts of the world.
Unlike other NGO’s and military operations that hire outside contractors and skilled labor to do the work for them, the institute relies almost entirely on local labor to build their schools and other projects (the CAI has conducted several irrigation projects to help revive farmland). Mortensen learned very early on that in order to gain the support of the villagers he’s trying to help, they must be included in the planning process and they must be allowed to take ownership of the job. The CAI provides the funds and the materials, and the locals provide the sweat. This way they are fully invested in the project, which helps to allay suspicions about the outsiders and their motives. It becomes a matter of pride and dignity, which is often overlooked by even the most sincere of do-gooders.
Mortensen and his band have become successful at what they do because they have found a way to get around the natural distrust the locals have for American meddlers. The relationships that he and his crew have formed throughout the years have given them the credibility to venture into even more remote and forlorn places. Word has spread about what they do, and they are typically welcomed because of it.
Back home in the States, Three Cups and Stones have been vital to the promotion of the CAI and its cause. Without them the efforts of the CAI would have gone almost completely unnoticed, and their ability to fundraise would have been a fraction of what it is. But perhaps even more important is that the books and the speaking engagements that have resulted from them have served an even larger and more valuable purpose: Spreading awareness throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
Three Cups almost single handedly changed U.S. policy in Afghanistan and has brought a broader understanding of how their society works. It has changed the way we view the war in Afghanistan and how to go about changing the circumstances on the ground.
Three Cups taught us how to treat the Afghanis as human beings—human beings that are just as much victims of al Qaeda and the Taliban as the victims of terror attacks. It reminded us that by treating the innocent civilians with respect we in turn earn theirs. The experiences of Mortensen and his CAI as described in the book have nudged the powers that be to reconsider their strategy in Afghanistan and helped lead to a shift in the mission from a strictly military operation to more of a public outreach and nation building strategy. This new approach will hopefully empower the Afghan people to stand on their own, and will ultimately allow us to bring our troops home sooner than might otherwise be possible.
The Central Asia Institute and the two books are inextricably intertwined. The institute directly benefits from the promotion of the books through increased awareness and an understanding of its mission, which has served to generate an avalanche of donations. Perhaps Greg Mortensen did embellish some of the stories in the books. If he did, he should own up to it. But that doesn’t diminish the books’ impact and the good works that Mortensen and the CAI have done and continue to do. They have done more than build schools for girls in a part of the world where girls are neglected. They’ve changed the mindset of an entire nation and shown us how to potentially bring a sliver of hope to a region that has for centuries been mired in conflict.