When I first arrived at Bagram Airfield in 2010 to begin my year-long tour in Afghanistan, Army leadership immediately implored me to Read Three Cups of Tea by Craig Mortenson. It was the way forward, some said. But a fellow intelligence analyst whom I trusted had little good to say about the book. He’d been to Afghanistan and Iraq for several combat tours and he told me the book gave the wrong picture of what was really happening on the ground.
People kept talking about the book, so I took it upon myself to at least learn the author’s thesis. I did some digging and didn’t like what I found. I admit to never reading the book, primarily because much of what I read about Mortenson gave me the impression that he is a huckster with a genius for identifying useful idiots. And indeed, I believe his book created a whole host of acolytes in the military, bulwarked by starry-eyed 23 year old State Department employees who truly believe that if only we throw billions of dollars in the general direction of Islamist fanatics, the insurgency will melt away.
Instead, many of those billions have been wasted, and in many cases provided the Taliban with bullets and bombs. And we kept on making the same mistakes for years. Only now are we beginning to come around and remember that not all men want peace; as Vladimir Lenin stated:
“One man with a gun can control 100 without one.”
In many cases, while our military should have been concentrating on the basics of counterinsurgency in underdeveloped nations (building social structures and trust) we were building redundant structures of concrete and stone that often fell into disuse. When we should have been providing the friendly tribes with the ability to fight the insurgents, in many cases we fawningly erected near useless buildings that could not be maintained, hoping that these would act as scarecrows to the Taliban. Instead the development projects acted as a light to a swarm of hornets. The insurgents moved into many areas where development took place without first clearing the land of guerrillas and began a campaign of punishment and retribution amongst local villagers. Because of this, we lost the trust of some tribesmen. We built inanimate objects and ran away, forgetting that in warrior, tribal societies, it is not material goods that are most important, but the display of bravery, loyalty and honor. It was immoral to ask these villagers to reject the insurgency without providing them with the means to fight it because a well will not protect anyone from a Kalashnikov.
If the recent allegations about Mortenson are true, he lied about what he did in the mountains of Pakistan. But that is not where the damage to our efforts was done. The damage is in the implied effects of Mortenson’s possible fictions; that we can fight terrorism merely by engaging local populations and giving them things, that we don’t really need America’s warrior class in Afghanistan. I saw this attitude with my own eyes even amongst our military, where COIN became a euphemism for never firing a rifle.
Mortenson’s good intentions, if he had any, were not enough and they have cost lives. Apologists for Mortenson (and they are legion), say that even if there are some parts of Three Cups of Tea that are not factual, the thesis of the book is true. That thesis, they say, is that we should be respectful of other cultures and treat people decently even while we fight our wars. Is this new American doctrine? Is it not common sense that we should not create any more enemies than is necessary to defeat the insurgency? This way of thinking was expounded by a much more qualified man than Mortenson in David Kilcullen’s, The Accidental Guerrilla. The effects that Three Cups of Tea has had in our war may be quantifiable by looking at the number of reviews written on Amazon—almost 3000. The Accidental Guerrilla is only worthy of approximately 70 reviews, and yet Kilcullen was the personal advisor to David Petraeus in Iraq. And I don’t suspect that many USAID people have read Kilcullen’s seminal work.
I cannot help but make the comparison between A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey and Three Cups of Tea. The writers of both books targeted a very specific audience and told them everything they wanted to hear about humanity. Mortenson has now admitted that parts of his book are “compressed versions” of what really took place. People who wanted pleasing answers were drawn to Frey’s and Mortenson’s stories and in both cases people in very high places were made to eat their share of crow. Fortunately we have moved forward from easy answers in Afghanistan. Since General David Petraeus took over, he has repeatedly communicated that there is a counter-terror aspect to all counterinsurgencies. Money, though still a weapon system, is a precision weapon, not a Rolling Thunder bombing campaign that makes things worse. In the south, the Taliban is on the run not because of tea time so much as the tough fighting of our troopers who treat locals with respect and decency, discover their underlying needs, and yet hunt America’s and Afghanistan’s enemies relentlessly, killing or capturing thousands of hardcore Taliban fighters.
Not exactly the stuff of Oprah’s Book Club.