Pakistan: Send thousands more tea drinkers to “AfPak”

Cream and sugar?

US President Barack Obama’s recently revealed counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to precede a more aggressive campaign in northwest Pakistan, as illustrated by the decision to send thousands of additional troops to the “AfPak” region by the end of the year.

In a different area of US-South Asian engagement, American Greg Mortenson recently received Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan), for his efforts in promoting peace in its rural regions. Mortenson’s approach, however, doesn’t involve counter-terrorism operations or robust troop numbers.

His “weapon” for curbing extremism? Educating girls. His modus operandi: drinking lots of tea.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Pakistan to see him in action.

Mortenson is the founder of the non-profit organisation Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has built nearly 80 schools in the most remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and provides education to more than 33,000 children, including 18,000 girls. For over a decade, Mortenson has had tea with the Taliban, religious clerics, tribal chiefs, village elders, heads of government, militia leaders, conservative fathers, intimidated teachers and nervous children, which inspired the title of his best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea.

“The first cup, you’re a stranger; the second cup you become a friend; the third cup, you’re family”, says Mortenson.

Mortenson has spent more than 70 months in Pakistan and Afghanistan, walking for miles on treacherous roads and sitting in the dirt for hours talking to villagers. “Whoever he sits with, he gives them so much respect”, says Mohammad Nazir, one of Mortenson’s Pakistani colleagues at CAI. “People want to be with him, have tea with him.”

Language doesn’t seem to be a barrier. He speaks some Urdu, Balti and Farsi but, in the end, Mortenson does more listening than talking. In each village, Mortenson asks the mothers how he can help them. “Greg always asks, ‘What can I do for you?’” says Saidullah Baig, another team member. They all respond, “We want our children to go to school.”

His story is where the real lessons lie for winning “hearts and minds” in the region. And while this process can take several years, Mortenson is in no hurry. In one village, it took eight years to convince the local council to allow girls to attend school. By the time the school opened in 2007, there were 74 girls enrolled. One year later, the number had tripled.

Mortenson involves everyone in the community. They contribute meals, labour, land or cement to help build the schools. In his model, there is transparency in how funds are used. Every family is assigned a role, so the entire community has a vested interest. No wonder only one CAI school has been attacked by the Taliban. Even then, the local militia leader fought back and the school reopened two days later.

US foreign policy-makers and military leaders have something to learn from the results Mortenson has achieved. Long-term success in the region takes patience, resilience and the ability to listen. It takes understanding people’s culture and faith and involving them in shaping their own futures. This approach is the best defence against the advancement of extremism.

Ultimately, it takes building relationships – perhaps one cup of tea at a time. Obama would be well-advised to consider a new surge strategy that sends thousands more tea drinkers to the AfPak region.

(Photo courtesy Greg Mortenson, Central Asia Institute)

Salma Hasan Ali is a freelance writer and recently wrote an essay, “Pakistan on the Potomac”, which appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. This article first appeared in The Atlanta Journal Constitution and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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