“Three Cups of Tea” co-author Greg Mortenson shows the locations of future village schools to U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in July 2009. (U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/AP)
April 21, 2011

Spend some time with U.S. Army officers, and this much is clear: They are obsessed with drinking tea.

At times, tea can seem a bit like the 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.

But Mortenson has recently 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. Both “60 Minutes” and writer Jon Krakauer have alleged that Mortenson has misused money donated to the charity he formed. Mortenson has defended his memoir as largely true and denied any financial impropriety.

The allegations are rippling through the publishing industry, which has seen this sort of scandal before, and through high schools and universities across the country that placed the bestseller on their required reading lists.

But the scandal’s most far-reaching impact could be on the U.S. military, which was quick to embrace Mortenson’s message that one American could help change the lives of Afghans and bring light and learning to a troubled part of the world. 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 military celebrity took off about the same time that the Afghanistan war started to founder. Officers who had done multiple tours in Iraq but had little experience in Afghanistan went searching for someone who could explain a deeply alien culture to them. “Three Cups of Tea” and the follow-up “Stones Into Schools” were much more fun to read than the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine and carried a far more uplifting message. Never mind that the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai sometimes seemed like a poorly managed kleptocracy, his books seemed to say. Pay no attention to the fact that Afghanistan often could be a brutish and inhospitable place.

Mortenson’s narratives of wise, patient and kind Afghan and Pakistani elders made it seem as though progress in Afghanistan was achievable. All U.S. troops had to do was learn the Afghan culture, show some patience and deliver a little bit of progress, and the Afghans would see the U.S. military’s good intentions and turn against the Taliban. In this formulation, 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 H. Petraeus and Stanley A. McChrystal heralded his work. The mountain-climber-turned-philanthropist visits about two dozen posts each year to lecture troops deploying to Afghanistan on “the nuances of tribal warfare,” according to a U.S. Army Web site. Dog-eared and dirt-encrusted copies of his memoir can be found at the most remote Afghan outposts. In April, he was the keynote speaker at a major U.S. Army strategy conference on the future of the Army officer corps and officer ethics.

Pentagon officials have declined to comment on Mortenson’s predicament.

Mortenson’s biggest impact, however, 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 best seller, 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 Web site 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 Afghanistan 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.”

In the near term, Mortenson’s stumble will almost certainly lead to greater soul-searching among officers who have been questioning not only Mortenson but also the broader hearts-and-minds approach of this war. And 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 a military correspondent for The Washington Post and co-author of “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army.”

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