What We Lose With Greg Mortenson

by Joshua Foust on 4/19/2011 · 31 comments

I wrote yesterday for PBS what’s really going down with the fallen philanthropist:

Despite the many alleged fabrications in Mortenson’s account — inflating the number of schools he’s built, distorting the “creation myth” of his charity, and so on — his basic message still makes sense. People are going to focus on the ancillary parts of the scandal, like the military’s surprising obsession with it (as if drinking tea would somehow unlock the secrets of counterinsurgency). Or, perhaps the allegations of financial mismanagement, which are both more meaningful (it gets at the behavior of the charity, not just Mortenson) and probably more attributable to incompetence rather than malice, will resonate in the future. But his fundamental message of helping people by working locally is still very much a good one, even if it makes no sense for the military to adopt it as a war-fighting strategy…

Sadly, Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping.

There’s moar, of course.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Senge Sering April 19, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Please visit http://www.gilgitbaltistan.us to learn more about the region where Mortenson started his school projects. We the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan, a region of former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir do have lot of respect for him for providing education to girls in that area. The region has one of the lowest per capita incomes and one of the lowest literacy rates and without support of NGOs like CAI and AKDN, education would be a dream for the majority as more than half of the locals live below the poverty line. Since Pakistan government has failed to provide for the educational needs of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, it is people like Mortenson who became the hope for us

Amy April 20, 2011 at 12:26 am

Mortenson is a hero? Really? Not to this “wide-eyed American”. Seems to me the jury is still out. I’d call that assessment premature speculation.
On the other hand, “hero(ines)” doesn’t even come close to describing Malalai Joya and her RAWA sisters. But in a world where Men With Guns are the arbiters of “serious” opinion, Joya and RAWA must be erased from history.

anan April 20, 2011 at 10:52 am

Amy, Malalai Joya has said the nastiest things about the ANA. The Afghan people consider the ANA to be by far the most popular, respected, credible and competent institution in their country. [In practice the NDS is more competent.]

Malalai Joya’s bright idea is that the entire ANA should be disarmed and practice Sathya Graha nonviolence against the Taliban/AQ over decades, gradually inspiring Taliban/AQ to transform themselves into better people. Malalai Joya naturally knows that large numbers of ANSF officers and NCOs will be killed by the Taliban/AQ under her plan . . . because they pose too much of a threat to the Taliban.

Amy April 20, 2011 at 11:36 pm

ANA Officers and NCO’S? So you’re down with the homicidal gangsters, ruthless drug traffickers, misogynist warlords and fundamentalist butchers who are now part of the Karzai government and who rule large areas of rural Afghanistan. These are the people who the US supports today, people who are or have been on the CIA payroll, brutal kleptomaniacs who orchestrated the mass murders of so many unarmed civilians that, just as the Khmer Rouge rose as a result of the US carpet-bombing of Cambodia, The Taliban formed as a reaction to yet another smorgasbord of US-engineered atrocities. But then, where would the parasitic NGO’s and DynCorp and Triple Canopy crowd be without the Taliban? The Taliban are America’s twisted and misbegotten children, born and bred for the Alpha Predator’s deviant purposes.

No, Malalai Joya is the real enemy of the Men With Guns. In her own words:

“”While the United States bombed from the sky, the CIA and special forces had already arrived in the northern provinces of Afghanistan to hand out millions of dollars in cash and weapons to Northern Alliance commanders. They were the same extremists whose militias had pillaged Afghanistan during the civil war: Dostum, Sayyaf, Khalili, Rhabbani, Fahim, General Arif, Dr. Abdullah, Haji Qadir, Ustad Atta, Mohammad, Daoud, and Hazrat Ali among others. The western media tried at the time to portray these warlords as “anti-Taliban resistance forces and liberators of Afghanistan,” but in fact Afghan people knew they were no better than the Taliban.”
“Most people in the west have been led to believe that intolerance, brutality, and severe oppression of women in Afghanistan began with the Taliban regime. But this is a lie, more dust in the eyes of the world from the warlords who dominate the American-backed, so-called democratic government of Hamid Karzai. In truth, some of the worst atrocities in our recent past were committed during the civil war by the men who are now in power.”
“The people of Afghanistan are fed up with the occupation of their country and with the corrupt, Mafia-state of Hamid Karzai and the warlords and drug lords backed by NATO. It is clear now that the real motive of the U.S. and its allies, hidden behind the so-called “war on terror,” was to convert Afghanistan into a military base in Central Asia and the capital of the world’s opium drug trade. Ordinary Afghan people are being used in this chess game, and western taxpayers’ money and the blood of soldiers is being wasted on this agenda that will only further destabilize the region. Afghan and American lives are being needlessly lost.”
“As I write these words, Afghanistan is getting progressively worse. We are caught between two enemies: the Taliban on one side and US/NATO forces and their warlord hirelings on the other. Obama’s military build up will only bring more suffering and death to innocent civilians”.
“Some people say that when the troops withdraw, a civil war will break out. Often this prospect is raised by people who ignore the vicious conflict and humanitarian disaster that is already occurring in Afghanistan. The longer foreign troops stay in Afghanistan, the worse the eventual civil war will be for the Afghan people. The terrible civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal certainly could never justify the destruction and death caused by that decade-long occupation.”
“Today we live under the shadow of the gun with the most corrupt and unpopular government in the world”

Caleb Kavon April 21, 2011 at 1:35 pm


I love the hard shot and clear good evil diatribe as much as anyone else. But..

As someone that has been with Afghans since the 1980s the above synopsis has some right and some wrong. Nothing is ever so clear cut. The generalizations without any specifics and case by case are missing when you go all out to blame one side or the other. The whos and whys and whens and hows always get thrown out the door in statements like this.

I know all the people Maya listed in her attack on the US backed leadership. Some I like and some I know are bad. Some have passed away. Some were/are friends and others no. Each case is unique and each case is indeed part of recent Afghan history.

But I also knew many of them when they were fighting the Soviet Union and near starvation back then. When they were eating one piece of bread a day and dodging HIP Gunships none of them were Warlords. Maya was not there then either.

So to blame the US for all evil here is without ground. To implicate some and never state when and where and how is to miss more than is acceptable.

I remember when the Taliban suddenly appeared and no they were not a creation of the American Embassy in Islamabad. That story is far from the truth. Maya is wrong on that. The grand scheme of conquest and enslavement is way off the mark. Maya gives some pretty limited people a lot more credit than they deserve. Even this she would admit if she thought about it.

The Carpet bombing concept is also without logic. Yes, I agree it is a very very ugly war now and things are not getting better. I do agree the sooner ISAF is out the better.

The assassination campaign has been a disaster which is only followed by the Taliban assassination campaign. Petraeus made the wrong choice and much evil will flow from this. His name will forever be remembered with much regret in Afghanistan. The sooner he leaves the better.

Yes, it is often hard at this time to say…one side is better than the other. Afghans have their own opinions on this. And yes, in the end they may well prefer anything but ISAF as they are sick and tired of foreign influence. That much is true.

Afghans need to decide their future. That is clear. We may or may not like the decisions they make. However to generalize what those decisions will be is just as bad as to prejudge what they should be.

Maya does not speak for many Afghans, and that is the truth. Is She right or Wrong on all things? Of course not, but that is true for all sides in the conflict today, which is why it is such a mess.

anan April 23, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The Afghans cannot win the war against the Taliban and their allies on their own as long as the Taliban enjoy substantial international support. The Afghans need international grants to pay for the ANSF, international combat enablers for the ANSF [including advisors, trainers, air, medivac, supply, transportation, maintenance, combined arms], international grants/enablers for the education ministry, and some short term physical capital infrastructure grants.

What Amy advocates would greatly increase Afghan violence and give ISI extremist proxies influence in large swaths of Afghanistan. Influence which the ANA, NDS, Northern Alliance and their international supporters would fight like heck.

Even in 2010, Afghanistan was less violent than any year between 1978 and 2001.

anan April 23, 2011 at 8:35 pm


Disagree with Malalai Joya on some of the people she has criticized.

“Today we live under the shadow of the gun with the most corrupt and unpopular government in the world” Balkh, Herat, Bamiyan, Parwan, Panjir, Nimruz, Kabul, Farah and Daikundi provinces are doing okay, have growing economies and are under de facto ANSF control. Helmand [where internationals have a bigger role] is improving.

The ANA is “FAR” more popular and respected among Afghans than Malalai Joya and and would defeat her hands down in an election. Probably win a majority in all 34 provinces against her.

Many Afghans respect Malalai Joya’s courage in speaking openly about corruption and incompetence among powerful Afghans. But even most of the Afghans who respect her also respect and support the ANA.

Ask yourself, does Afghanistan need more partisanship, more divisiveness, more antagonism? Or does Afghanistan need more unity, compassion and peace? Several of Malalai Joya’s words are designed to needle, rile up and provoke other Afghans she disagrees with. Can you understand why other Afghans might not like their character and love of country being impugned simply because they have honest disagreements with Malalai Joya on policy? You cannot always oblige but you can speak obligingly.

Sad mom April 20, 2011 at 2:19 am

This is crushing the hopes of all the children who gave pennies for peace

CE April 20, 2011 at 7:11 am

You can always divert those ‘pennies for peace’ to The Global Medical Relief Fund.

Call it ‘Pennies for Prosthetics’ if you like.

Barbara Whipple April 20, 2011 at 3:46 am

It’s sad that Greg ‘s noble ideas have been preverted by the outpouring of cash and the mismanagement thereof. Better that he had spent more time going back to the people he is trying to help to see what is going on ,and less promoting his books. The organization just got too big ,too many fingers in the pie.

Don Anderson April 20, 2011 at 6:47 am

Mortenson’s program in an of themselves are not the issue here at all.

The problem is he became the patron saint of those who thought Aid could lead the way. The idea of night raiding assassination teams carrying Three Cups in one hand and a large assault weapon in the other is essentially a picture that was presented to all of us. Win them over by killing them all and drinking tea with the rest never made any sense.

Everyone bought the same snake oil.

The fact is you can do one thing or the other. Three Cups has no room in a war where assassination, counter assassination, and maiming and counter maiming rule. What little humanistic “space” that was there is now gone. This is a dirty war, with no chance for heroes and fairy tales of young children going from Gilgit to Wall Street during this epoch.

The falling twilight of this fantasy is no more than the dawn of a terrible new regional war. Eat or be eaten is the new Three Cups phrase and where Mortenson walked will be walked no more by those who aim to save and those who care. That a dream can live no more is the real tragedy that this personal downfall represents.

Perhaps we should have seen this day coming a long time ago.

Sanjuana Gabriela Enriquez Galvan April 22, 2011 at 1:49 am

No, the misreprenting stuff IS also a big issue

People donated to the program thinking that most or all of the overhead was spent on the program when less than half of it was

El Blablazo April 22, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Any recommendations on good sources covering other education projects in the area pre-Mortenson?
(BTW: to Sanjuana-when did they resurrect you? Good to hear from you again.)

anan April 23, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Don Anderson, didn’t Ahmad Shāh Abdālī Durrani simultaneously fight and provide aid?

Why can’t the ANSF simultaneously provide security and facililtate development? That is if they get international funding and international combat enablers.

Sanjuana Gabriela Enriquez Galvan April 24, 2011 at 9:42 pm

The Agha Khan Foundation has http://www.akdn.org/about.asp
The Agha Khan Development Network has http://www.akdn.org/AKF

The latter has been going on since the 1960s.

The book “Modern Muslim Societies” edited by Florian Pohl talks about the AKF on page 140 – It is on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=n4Eye4ilLVkC&pg=PA140&dq=Aga+Khan+Development+Network&hl=en&ei=RtG0Ta6oGMnY0QG1n6XXCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CG0Q6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=Aga%20Khan%20Development%20Network&f=false

(BTW: to El Blablazo: Somebody resurrected me three weeks ago 😉 – I must have magical powers or something, but unfortunately I don’t know how to speak Spanish anymore 😉 )

El Blablazo April 25, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Thanks for the info, Sanjuana. Hey-look me up on facebook. I promise-no more Spanish! :>

Sanjuana Gabriela Enriquez Galvan April 25, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Okay. I’m going to create a Facebook account soon – I’ll link to it when I’m ready 🙂

El Blablazo April 27, 2011 at 12:20 am
Jakob April 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm


Has been in Gilgit since 2003 very succesfully. Run by Americans who live in Gilgit.

El Blablazo April 25, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Thanks Jakob-looks like a wonderful organization.

anan April 25, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Jacob, do you know the Shining Light folks or others in Gilgit]? If so, would like to ask you some questions.

Jakob April 26, 2011 at 3:32 am

sure. you can email me at jff.steiner [at] gmail

Connie Davis April 20, 2011 at 11:41 am

I am amazed that so few people commenting “get it” that Three cups of Tea meant that you don’t just go into a culture and tell them they need to do it your way…that one needs to understand and respect the culture and then perhaps help them to institute change that they want…not what we want for them, and..the whole point that even my fourth graders got when we read the book…that change comes thru mutual respect and education and NOT to leave the girls out! Some tho, willingly throw the baby out with the bathwater!

karen April 20, 2011 at 11:47 am


A big AMEN! And “Thank You!”

jackie April 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Mortenson obviously painted a picture of himself as trying to understand and appreciate the culture, but then he did the worst thing possible: just to sell more books, he portrayed his hosts as terrorists and kidnappers. Talk about playing on the American public’s reconceived ideas of Islamic cultures. I have zero respect for him now, and I was probably one of his biggest fans.

Jules April 21, 2011 at 12:00 am


This Pakistani thanks you. I felt very suspicious reading the book because, to me, it had many Orientalist undertones, which is what I think you’re touching at when you speak of his portrayals reinforcing preconceived notions of Islamic cultures.

jennifer April 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm

really? i did not get the impression that those he helped were terrorists or kidnappers.

greg mortenson in my eyes is still a hero. i have not seen the full 60 minutes about mortenson, but so far from what i have read of the transcript does nothing to change my opinion of him.

one of the issues he was criticized on was about the notion of time. for most americans the year runs from january 1st to december 31st. for people like my parents (not from the united states) who follow a lunisolar calendar, the beginning of this year started on february 3rd this year, and next year, it starts january 23rd. even in terms of age, although i am now 22 years old, for them, i am 23 years old, because you count the year before you are born as well.

another point they criticized him on is spending more money in the united states on his tours, than on the schools. my econometrics professor would shun you all for blindly believing this. the standard of living in the united states is DRAMATICALLY higher than the standard of living in pakistan, afghanistan etc.

you know all those commercials that say “five dollars a month can help fund a child’s education for five months” or something like that? they sound ridiculous right? well, it’s not. why? because the standard of living is so much lower. the purchasing power is different in different countries!! with less money, you can buy SO MUCH MORE. thus, it is no surprise at ALL that mortenson has spent more money on book tours here.

that’s it for now.

Victoria April 20, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Jennifer, those charities where you send $5 to feed a child for a month were investigated an lo and behold, not a lot of money was actually going to those kids. 90 percent of the money was going for advertising and administrative costs. Some of the kids you could adopt had died and/or never existed.

You’re obviously missing the point on spending money as I don’t think you understand how nonprofit agencies work. When you go out and solicit donations for your cause and say you are going to go build a school with the Pennies for Peace money, THAT IS WHAT THE MONEY SHOULD BE USED ON….not him chartering private jets to attend speaking engagements. If he were as charitable as he says he is, he’d fly coach like the rest of us!

Bryant Laney April 20, 2011 at 5:26 pm

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer In Zambia in 2004-5. Greg Mortenson’s situation reminds me of the corruption I saw in that part of the world during my service. I continue to read people say things like, “I don’t care that he lied about a few things, he is doing a lot of good in the world.” People in Zambia seemed to think that the good things they were doing made the wrongs they were doing insignificant. It is why corruption will always exist. None of Greg Mortenson’s responses to recent questions have been acceptable. The ends do not justify the means. Interested parties should read Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit http://www.byliner.com before they decide to comment.

nilufar April 21, 2011 at 10:02 am

One of the key issues being debated here is whether or not he was actually “working locally” as Joshua Foust attests. Given the fact that CAI is primarily concerned with building physical structures- schools- but not all of the other things that rural education requires- teachers, curriculum, books- it is worth questioning how attuned to the “local” it ever was….

M Shannon April 22, 2011 at 11:00 am

The problem is that the US military- typically- adopted this as “the answer”. We’ll drink tea. We’ll sit on rugs! We’ll have shuras! We’ll provide workfare and cash to the locals and their young troublemakers will go on the reservation. Except that’s not how the world works. Mortenson’s ‘Three Cups of Tea” is just one more example of an idea that may work in one spot but can’t be expanded on a national level.

Things are going south and sitting around for hours with the “elders” is a waste of time and resources and inhibits the formation of local government. The notion that “development” is a way to defeat the insurgency is wrong headed. Pouring billions into Afghanistan has made things worse. Check out any US gang neighborhood and ask yourself if providing $ 1000 to each hoodlum would make things better or worse….and that’s before religion and xenophobia are added.

It will take years for ISAF to realize this (to get most career officers on the bandwagon all you had to do is have Petraeus put it on a reading list…to kill the idea is more difficult because it would require the incumbent to publicly disagree with him) and in the mean time they’ll keep getting played.

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