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Tea diplomacy leaves a lot to be desired

At times, tea can seem a bit like the American military's secret weapon. A young U.S. officer bonds with an Afghan elder over cups of the brew, and soon they are working side by side to win the locals' trust and drive out the insurgents.

Much of the military's belief in tea culture can be traced back to Greg Mortenson and his memoir, Three Cups of Tea, a book touted by top commanders and devoured by younger officers.

Now, Mortenson has had to fend off allegations that big chunks of his memoir, which chronicles his work to build schools in some of the most remote and violent areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are lies. The scandal's most far-reaching impact could be on the U.S. military, which was quick to embrace Mortenson's message. His recipe for winning the war on terror was tantalizingly simple: By building schools — especially girls' schools — in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mortenson and his backers could vanquish Islamic extremism.

"The U.S. military was just dying for his story to be true," said Celeste Ward Gventer, who was a senior civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Baghdad during some of the darkest days of the Iraq War. "They were dying to believe that this one guy learned the culture, earned the Afghans' respect and helped them build a better society."

Mortenson's narratives of wise, patient and kind Afghan and Pakistani elders made it seem as though progress in Afghanistan was achievable. Counterinsurgency — a complex, morally ambiguous and frequently bloody type of war — came to look a bit like social work with guns.

By mid 2009 Mortenson was making the rounds at military bases across the country and meeting with top officers such as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal heralded his work. Mortenson's biggest impact is evident in the writings of Army officers who embraced his call to tea. Last year, Lt. Col Patrick Gaydon and Capt. Jonathan Pan wrote of their alliance with Haji Abdul Jabar, a district governor in Afghanistan's violent Arghandab district.

"Like Greg Mortenson's bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, our relationship with Jabar was forged over chai during the late summer and fall of 2009," the two officers wrote in a piece for Small Wars Journal, a website where military officers debate battlefield strategy.

Jabar was courteous but reserved when he first met the two earnest soldiers. Once he came to know Gaydon and Pan, his reserve melted away, according to the officers, and Jabar treated them as family.

Jabar was killed as he drove home from work last June, a sign that "stabilization was working in Arghandab," according to Gaydon and Pan. (The somewhat tortured thesis is that the Taliban killed him because his work with the Americans was winning the support of previously indifferent locals, thus threatening the Taliban's power base.) The story could have been lifted right from the pages of Mortenson's collected works.

But the reality wasn't quite as cheery. Other U.S. officials working in the area concluded that Jabar was skimming funds earmarked for U.S. reconstruction in his district but not sharing the spoils with others in the area. "It was a mob hit," one U.S. official told the Washington Post. "We were getting played the whole time."

Not everything about the military's embrace of Mortenson's tea philosophy has been counterproductive. "I'd say the biggest value of Mortenson's work was in creating the 'don't be a jerk' school of counterinsurgency," said Joshua Foust, who worked as an Afghan analyst for the Army. "I think it would be a shame to abandon the idea of trying to respect the people you're trying to reform with guns and money just because one of the people promoting the concept is shown to be a fraud."

Still, the controversy is likely to spur more discussion about the limits of American goodwill and influence in a place such as Afghanistan.

"No amount of tea with Afghans will persuade them that we are like them, that our war is their war or that our interests are their interests," said Michael Miklaucic, a longtime official with the U.S. Agency for International Development who is currently serving at the Pentagon's National Defense University. "The war in Afghanistan isn't about persuasion or tea. It is about power."

Greg Jaffe is co-author of "The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army." © 2011 Washington Post

Tea diplomacy leaves a lot to be desired 04/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 4:22pm]
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