While all the tumult in Afghanistan receives the lion’s share of the scant global attention lavished upon the region, there has been slowly growing an extraordinary, grassroots revolution. Greg Mortenson is a climber who failed to summit K2 in the early 90s, got separated from his climbing group on the descent, and happened upon a village he had never heard of and didn’t appear on any of his maps. Starving and almost dead from fatigue and exposure, the village elder took him in, and in return Mortenson promised to build the village a school, since the Pakistani government had never bothered to provide one. The rest, as they say, is history, and an especially inspiring one at that.
The story here, of a man who could only be described as an aloof, adrift loser until a remote, desperately impoverished village focused his life, is nothing short of astounding: with no qualifications save a knack for languages and an apparent gift for making people feel at ease, Mortenson has been quietly changing the face of Southern-Central Asia. By building schools and vocational centers almost exclusively for poor girls from isolated towns, he is building up the very thing that will ultimately forestall the permanent entrenchment of extremism in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan: literate, self-confident, women.
It is very much a long term goal. In fact, it is doubtful Mortenson will live long enough to see the true extent of the impact he is almost assuredly having. But his mission, which is so damned cool I wish I could drop everything and go help (despite the many barriers in the way, including his own foundation’s polite refusal of stupid white people), is exactly the kind of thing that is missing in the current Western zeitgeist concerning Islamist radicalism: an attempt to get at the root of what causes extremism.
This was not Mortenson’s mission when he set out to build that first school in Baltistan. He was simply following through on a promise, serving a people he saw as forgotten and to a large extent trampled upon. But the way he has proceeded, from gaining the support of prominent Shia clerics in Iran and Sunni warlords in Afghanistan to his respect and deference to local customs and desires—not once do you see or hear of him imposing an “American” solution to anything—is exactly the way I wish my own government would try to go about “helping” the people it claims to help.
There are far too many interesting asides to Mortenson’s story, like when he was abducted in Waziristan and almost executed, to summarize or discuss. Two small anecdotes, however, stick out for me: his visit to the Pentagon, and the simple power of listening.
First, the Pentagon. As anyone who has ever worked in or near it can attest, the DoD is run by what I like to call Powerpoint Rangers: guys like Thomas Barnett, who latch onto a big, simple idea, attach pretty animations and maps, and proclaim themselves Grand Strategists. They’re good at the hard sell, and good at schmoozing the right people to buy into and eventually fund their pet theories (this was a big driver behind the disastrous force transformation under Rumsfeld). Mortenson is none of these things: not a very good salesman, and terrible at Beltway-style schmoozing. A normal person would see this as a virtue: it speaks to a certain kind of fundamental honesty and benevolence. But in DC’s rather toxic social strata, it’s a liability.
“What I remember most is that the people we passed didn’t make eye contact,” Mortenson said of his visit to the Pentagon a few months after the invasion of Afghanistan. “They walked quickly, most of them clutching laptops under their arms, speeding toward their next task like missiles, like there wasn’t time to look at me. And I remember thinking I was in the army once, but this didn’t have anything to do with the military I knew. This was a laptop army.” His message, delivered after a tepid meeting with Rummy to a lecture hall full of bureaucrats and their civilian consultant-leeches, was starkly angry, and devastating.
In short, he laid out the tribal foundations of how conflict is handled, and how the metrics-heavy approach to the war, which included publicly waving off civilian casualties as “collateral damage” (a standard term, to be fair, but Rumsfeld’s use of it was calloused), would eventually bring Afghanistan right back to where it was on September 10, 2001. The message fell on mostly deaf ears: witness the years upon years of consistent (and, I argue, deliberate) underinvestment in the country’s institutions and infrastructure, to say nothing of the pathetic security investment.
I think where Mortenson is coming from is almost as important as what he actually does. He had to come to the hard decision to refuse millions of dollars from a slick-talking man in a shiny suit at that meeting in the Pentagon, because he realized he does what he does as effectively as he does because he has no direct relation to the U.S. government. He is not sponsored or supported by them, they do not approve or sign off on a thing he does. That independence is important, because he is not out trying to achieve American foreign policy. He simply wants to help, to improve the raw deal life dealt a vast, beautiful, desolate section of the planet.
It is that—wanting to help them on their own terms—that is probably the biggest lesson I took from this book. Simply stopping for a moment to listen to what those in need actually need—and they will always know more than you do what they need—can reveal some incredibly dumb assumptions we in the U.S. tend to make. No one is born an extremist, it is a learned behavior. Extremism breed poverty, which breeds yet more extremism. Education breaks that cycle, it prevents a generation from growing up surrounded by crazies who want nothing more than their own eventual destruction.
Greg Mortenson is quite literally a hero. His foundation, the Central Asia Institute, accepts donations here.
Update: In light of recent revelations of Mortenson’s probable fabrications, I removed the link to his charity. I’m reconsidering my assessment of his story.