Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Army's 'tea' strategy in Afghanistan is by the book

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan includes meetings such as this, in which Army Capt. Michael Thurman, center, listens as Kokaran village elder Haji Fadi Mohammed complains about a raid.

Los Angeles Times

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan includes meetings such as this, in which Army Capt. Michael Thurman, center, listens as Kokaran village elder Haji Fadi Mohammed complains about a raid.

PUL-E-KHESHTI, Afghanistan — "So, did you have your three cups of tea?" a U.S. infantryman, bulky in body armor, asked another soldier as he emerged from the mud-brick home of an Afghan village elder.

In this case, it wasn't tea but slices of cool melon, served to the sweating troops who spent an hour crouched on a plastic tarp covering the dirt floor of the house in northern Afghanistan.

But the phrase "three cups of tea" has entered the American troop lexicon as shorthand for any leisurely, trust-building chat with locals. It is drawn, as legions of readers can attest, from the bestselling book by former mountaineer Greg Mortenson, who has devoted himself to establishing schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With its inspirational tone and idealistic world view, Three Cups of Tea would seem an unlikely primer of military counterinsurgency.

Its message, however, has become entwined with U.S. strategic thinking in Afghanistan during the past year, roughly coinciding with the tenure of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who reached out to Mortenson and sought his advice on overcoming the mistrust of Afghan villagers.

Mortenson helped broker a series of meetings between the general and tribal elders.

Befriending the locals in the service of ambitious goals in a strange land is hardly a new idea. But Mortenson's vivid, often poignant stories of his own struggles to connect with standoffish or hostile elders in communities where he wanted to provide girls with schooling struck a chord with several senior officers.

The book's rise in influence coincided with a growing belief that the war effort was faltering, in part because force alone was not working. Protecting civilians took center stage in the strategy McChrystal put together soon after arriving last summer.

Although the general was forced to relinquish his command over intemperate comments to a Rolling Stone reporter by McChrystal and senior aides, troops were already well steeped in the Tea phenomenon by the time of his departure this June.

Many deploying soldiers had the book pressed on them by wives or girlfriends. At bases around Afghanistan, tents and barracks often contain a dusty, dog-eared copy. Over the last year, Mortenson has made appearances to talk to troops.

The new commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David Petraeus, whose wife urged him to read the book, has reaffirmed McChrystal's counterinsurgency doctrine, which he had helped craft. This month, he issued guidelines instructing troops to mingle with locals whenever possible.

"Take off your sunglasses" was one of Petraeus' admonitions. Another: "Drink lots of tea."

In Afghan villages, troops in full battle gear making their way through narrow lanes remain an incongruous sight. Sometimes they are trailed by children, laughing and unafraid, but they can also be the recipients of studied silence or hard-eyed stares. Even a courteous reception is often tinged with wariness.

Abdul Shah Qul, the ranking elder of Pul-e-Kheshti, heard out the American troops who visited him last month, nodding assent as they told him of their wish to keep his community safe and help with local development.

"If we see anything bad or strange, we will let you know," he told the newcomers.

But later, contacted by telephone, he expressed doubts that an occasional visit by the American forces could keep the insurgents at bay.

"Seventy percent of the people here," he said, "believe the Taliban will be back."

15 killed as Taliban targets Afghan police

, with five incidents reported Saturday in which at 15 officers were killed. The casualties were in addition to a Taliban massacre of security guards in Helmand province on Friday, in which 25 were killed. Ten other officers also were killed last week.

U.S. military and not previously published:

MarineCpl. Christopher J. Boyd,

MarineLance Cpl. Cody S. Childers,

Army Pfc. Benjamen G. Chisholm, explosion Tuesday; Kunar province.

Army Staff Sgt. Derek J. Farley,

Marine Cpl. Kristopher D. Greer, in combat Aug. 6; Helmand province.

Army Pvt. Charles M. High IV, explosion Tuesday; Kunar province.

Army Sgt. Christopher N. Karch,

Army Sgt. Martin A. Lugo,

Marine Lance Cpl. Kevin E. Oratowski,

Army Sgt. 1st Class Edgar N. Roberts, died Tuesday of wounds sustained June 26; Sayed Abad.

Navy Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Collin Thomas, eastern Afghanistan.

Army's 'tea' strategy in Afghanistan is by the book 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 9:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. A long-awaited vision for Tampa's Westshore Marina District

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — More than a decade after plans to develop a vacant waterfront tract were first announced, a new rendering finally gives a hint of what Westshore Marina District will ultimately look like.

    Rendering of Marina Pointe, a condo project overlooking Tampa Bay as part of the Westshore Marina District. [Courtesy of Masterfile Corp.}
  2. Buddy Brew Coffee to open downtown Tampa location


    TAMPA — Buddy Brew Coffee plans to open a new location in downtown Tampa at Park Tower. The specialty coffee craft roaster, which was founded in 2010, has five other locations throughout Tampa including the Oxford Exchange, Sarasota, Hyde Park Village and Terminal F inside the Tampa International Airport.

    A cappuccino is displayed at Buddy Brew in Tampa in January 2017. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
  3. What you might have missed in the second episode of the Bucs on 'Hard Knocks'


    We're back for another episode of The Annotated Hard Knocks, trying to find behind-the-scenes insights and things you might have missed in Tuesday's second episode of "Hard Knocks," following the Bucs in …

    As the crowd recognized him and got loud, Jameis Winston jumped up and down in celebration. [GREG AUMAN | Times]
  4. Review: 'The Defenders' brings out the best in Marvel's unlikeliest heroes


    The ties that bind Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist run deep. But they're just starting to figure all that out in The Defenders.

    Mike Colter, Scott Glenn, Finn Jones, Krysten Ritter and Charlie Cox in The Defenders.
  5. Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson can't keep 'The Hitman's Bodyguard' on-target


    The Hitman's Bodyguard is an assault tank on semi-automatic pilot, spraying jokes and bullets with only the ammo consistently hitting its targets. The irresistible teaming of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson might be even funnier if they missed once in a while.

    Samuel L. Jackson, left, and Ryan Reynolds star in "The Hitman's Bodyguard." (Lionsgate)