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Transcript:

January 15, 2010


BILL MOYERS:
Beyond his domestic woes, certainly the issue that has preoccupied President Obama the most since he took office is Afghanistan. The war he inherited from George W. Bush is now its ninth year and seems no closer to resolution. Almost daily, it seems, there are more stories of fighting in far off mountains, of suicide bombers killing CIA operatives, of drones raining bombs down on villages and killing innocent people. THE NEW YORK TIMES reports this week that unlike the past, when Afghanistan's brutal winters would slow the violence for awhile, "both sides seem determined to make a larger political point by continuing to fight through the snow season."

Hard sometimes to remember that this whole thing began in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and his accomplices in the attacks of 9/11. 70,000 American troops are already are in Afghanistan and another 30,000 are on the way, the decision to escalate made by the president after weeks of meetings and soul-searching.

Yet, most of us know little about the reality on the ground there. In fact, just last week, America's top military intelligence officer in the field -- Major General Michael Flynn, along with two advisors -- issued a devastating report. They said U.S. troops in Afghanistan are "starved for information" and that our intelligence officers and analysts cannot answer, quote, "fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade." Many say their jobs feel more like "fortune telling."

Which brings me to Greg Mortenson, a modest humanitarian who probably knows more about Afghanistan than any other American. The book he co-authored, THREE CUPS OF TEA, has become required reading for our senior military commanders and Special Forces in Afghanistan. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, now America's top commander in Afghanistan, have read it. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not only read it but enlisted Mortenson as an unofficial advisor.

THREE CUPS OF TEA has sold over 3.5 million copies in 41 countries. And now Greg Mortenson has a new bestseller that continues the saga, STONES INTO SCHOOLS: PROMOTING PEACE WITH BOOKS, NOT BOMBS, IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN.

Both books tell Mortenson's remarkable story: how, after a failed attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, he was befriended by villagers who helped him recuperate. Watching children use sticks to scrawl their lessons in the dirt, he promised to help them build a school. That first project has led to the construction of 131 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, trying to bring knowledge and possibility to more than 58,000 children, both boys and especially girls.

Along the way, Greg Mortenson has learned some invaluable lessons himself -- about patience and compassion and the customs and ways of people about whom the rest of us know too little. When I heard he was in town, I asked him over to explain if he still believes it's possible to promote peace and improve lives for people in a war-ravaged country. I wanted to find out if the bombs aren't winning over books, if the bombs aren't turning his schools back into piles of stone and how war hasn't shattered his faith and peace of mind. Welcome to the JOURNAL.

GREG MORTENSON:
Thank you, Bill. So great to be with you.

BILL MOYERS:
I have to ask you a personal question, all right? You said to a friend of mine that when you're gone, when you die, you want it written on your stone: "He died a happy man." And in a grim world like this, working as you do in grim places, what makes you happy?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, I was very fortunate to grow up in Tanganyika, Tanzania, for 15 years.

BILL MOYERS:
In East Africa.

GREG MORTENSON:
East Africa. My-- it was a very wonderful time. President Julius Nyerere was one of the visionary presidents. My father ended up starting the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, which is on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. My mother started a school. So I have it in my background. And my father always said to practice your faith through action and not through talk. And, it's about what you do. And when I was about nine years old, he brought me this fairly hard reading book called "Reverence for Life" by Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who was a medical missionary in Congo. And he made me read it. And, subsequently--

BILL MOYERS:
At nine?

GREG MORTENSON:
When I was nine. But what it implies is that all of life is sacred, animals, plants, humans. And we're all created and we're sacred. And we must respect life. And so, I don't know, my disposition by nature is happy. And a lot-- my wife even tells me occasionally, you know, "Wipe that smirk off your face." But I also really believe-- maybe later we can talk about it, but, there are a lot of good things happening. And I've had the fortune to meet tens of thousands of kids, good people, in the military and people here in the U.S. And I really think that, you know, fighting terrorism is based in fear. But promoting peace is based in hope. And I actually had to squabble with the publishers a bit because originally "Three Cups of Tea," the subtitle, that they wanted to be "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism One School at a Time," and actually had that subtitle for a year. But I kept persisting that that needs to be changed. Just a subtle change but it-- "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time." And it doesn't mean we just go around the world holding hands and drinking tea and having peace. But I really do believe that there's a lot of power behind love and compassion and respecting and listening to people.

BILL MOYERS:
Isn't fighting terrorism also grounded in reality? I mean, this is a cruel world.

GREG MORTENSON:
Obviously there are atrocities happening, and we witness and hear about them daily. One thing that I noticed is having met some former Taliban is even they, as children, grew up being indoctrinated. They grew up in violence. They grew up in war. They were taught to hate. They were, they grew up in very ignorant cultures where they didn't learn about the outside world. And one thing we do is hire former Taliban to teach in our schools, and it might sound a little bit controversial, but what's interesting is most of those men got out of the Taliban because their mothers said, "What you're doing is not a good thing. It's not in the name of Islam." It was their mothers who told them that. And they've become now our greatest advocates for education. They're willing to go out into the most, you know, volatile area and promote education.

BILL MOYERS:
Yeah, I wanted to ask you, I mean, I saw a report from the executive director of a non-government organization in Kabul, operating in Kabul, who said that only 10 to 15 percent of the Taliban are ideologically driven. So who are the Taliban as you experienced them?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, I've worked for now 17 years in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. And originally the Taliban were somewhat, as you mentioned, somewhat more ideological. We saw them as an ideological kind of monolithic entity. But today the Taliban have turned, become more criminal. The Taliban are getting less Saudi funding now, so they're doing more extortion, heroin trafficking, illicit lumber trafficking, kidnapping, crime. What's interesting, too, is having been on the ground for many years, I've seen a shift in where people are starting to turn against the Taliban in the last two years. As a militant entity, they had a lot of support. But they're not able to deliver healthcare, education, roads, and the things that most people want, and peace. And there's been quite a shift in the public sentiment towards the Taliban over the last two, three years.

BILL MOYERS:
You were kidnapped and held for a week, right?

GREG MORTENSON:
In 1996.

BILL MOYERS:
Was that by Taliban?

GREG MORTENSON:
By Taliban. I went into an area without asking for permission to go in the area. And in the Pashtunwali code, which is the tribal ethic, first, I should get permission to visit them. So if I came to see you in New York, I would need to talk to the tribal chief. I couldn't just wander in here and say, "Hey, Bill, I need to talk to you." I need to get permission. You would invite me. But then your obligation is to protect me with your life and give hospitality to me. When I was kidnapped, I wasn't tortured, but I wasn't-they weren't very friendly with me. I started getting really depressed for two, three days-I started envisioning getting hauled outside and, you know, just kneeling down, getting executed. And then I realized my only way to maybe escape was to befriend my captors. So the first thing I did is I asked them to bring a holy Quran to them-- to me to read. And obviously I don't read Arabic at that time. So I said, "Do you need to bring the mullah to explain to me what your faith is about?" And that helped win them over a little bit. And then on the sixth day, I know that in their culture life's greatest event is the birth of a first-born son. So I told them my wife is seven months pregnant. Now, I didn't know, I ended up having a daughter. But that really won them over because I said I need to go home and be with the birth of my son when he's born because that's their life's greatest event. And then on the eighth day, they led me outside, blindfolded me. I thought again this was my day, and instead they took me to a clearing, and they released me and they gave me 10,000 rupees, which is about $300 at the time in '96, to help build the next school because they found out what I was trying to do. And they said, "We're sorry that we, you know, we detained you. And we want to support your work."

BILL MOYERS:
What do you think they would think if they knew they'd let you go to preside over the birth of a girl instead of a son?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, actually what-- I've been back there. When I let them know when my quote, child was born, and they said they fired off a barrage of AK-47s as a tribute when a first son is born. But, so my daughter's probably the first young girl born who's had a barrage of gunfire when she was born. Her name is Amira, which means "loud voice" in Persian.

BILL MOYERS:
But this intrigues me because you've set out over these years to educate young girls primarily. I mean, you do have some boys in your schools, but primarily your goal is to educate young girls. And given the fact that the Afghani and Pakistani societies are so male dominated, that men run the families, they run the government, they run the villages, they run the Taliban, why focus on girls instead of the men who are going to, in that culture, grow up and run things?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, it's obviously the boys need education also. But as a child in Africa, I learned a proverb. And it says, "If we educate a boy, we educate an individual. But if we can educate a girl, we educate a community." And what that means is when girls grow up, become a mother, they are the ones who promote the value of education in the community. The education of girls has very powerful impacts in a society. Number one, the infant mortality's reduced. Number two, the population is reduced. The third thing is the quality of health improves. And, from my own observation, when girls learn how to read and write, they often teach their mother how to read and write. Boys, we don't seem to do that as much. They also, you'll see people, kids coming out for the marketplace, have meat or vegetables wrapped in newspaper. And then you'll see the mother very carefully unfolding a newspaper and ask her daughter to read the news to her. And it's the first time that woman is able to get information of what's going on in the outside world around--very powerful to see that. And another compelling reason is when women are educated, they're not as likely to condone or encourage their son to get into violence or into terrorism. In fact, culturally when someone goes on jihad, they should get permission from their mother first. And if they don't, it's very shameful or disgraceful. So when women are educated, as I mentioned, they are less likely to encourage their son to get into violence. And I've seen that happen, Bill, over the last decade in rural areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan. I mean, I could go on all day about this, but educating girls is very powerful.

One example is Aziza. She's from the tribal areas. She's the first educated female out of 4,000 people in her valley. It wasn't very easy. In elementary school the boys threw stones at her. In high school the teachers refused to teach her. So she graduated in 1998. She went to two years of maternal healthcare training. And in her valley, before she started working there, five to 20 women died in childbirth every single year. So she went to two years of training. It cost $800.

BILL MOYERS:
As a midwife.

GREG MORTENSON:
As a midwife. She came back in 2000, which is nine years ago. Since then, in the last decade, not one single woman has died in childbirth. That's just one example. These are just the first fruits of all the seeds that we planted two decades ago but it's been very inspiring to see that happen.

BILL MOYERS:
You mentioned jihad. What in your experience, what from your experience did you learn about what produces a terrorist?

GREG MORTENSON:
The Taliban, when they recruit, they go into areas that are impoverished. They give people $500 to $1,000. They-- there's a lot of pressure also that if people don't give their son up for the Taliban, the-- there's extortion or they'll start intimidating or harming the people. And the other thing is many of the despot mullahs keep the people illiterate, and they learn, these young boys, learn how to read the Quran, but they don't learn how to understand Arabic. And the key is-one thing we do in our schools is we teach five languages by fifth grade, including Arabic and English. But we teach the kids not only how to read Arabic, but understand Arabic. And when you read the Quran, you learn that nothing in the Quran says that innocent children and women should be killed. Suicide is the worst sin in Islam. The first word of the revelation to Muhammad the prophet is the Arabic word "iqra." And "iqra" means "read." What that means is that it implores all people to have a quest for knowledge. And in the Hadith, which is a part of Islam, the teachings, it says, in Arabic, "the ink of a scholar is greater than the blood of a martyr," which means that the pen is more powerful than the sword.

This is more, a little bit more ideological, but one thing the Taliban are doing very deliberately is driving a wedge through society by destroying the relationship between the elders and the youth. And they're taking the young boys and the men out of the villages, put them in areas where there's no outside influence, and indoctrinate them. They can do it very quickly and effectively.

BILL MOYERS:
Why do they want to drive a wedge between the generations?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, they want to isolate and marginalize people so they can indoctrinate them as very virulent, militant kind of ideology. Many of the suicide bombers are younger. Some of them are mentally handicapped. They've also removed them totally. They've drugged them. They've beaten them. And then they take them, they strap them in with a suicide jacket, which is sewn in. You can't actually take it off your body. And then they're given orders to go out and you know, they're, said they're going to receive a lot of benefits and their families. So--

BILL MOYERS:
You mean in the hereafter. Yeah.

GREG MORTENSON:
Hereafter. And it's pretty easy for, somebody--

BILL MOYERS:
Well, what does the Taliban want? What is their goal?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, the Taliban want-- it's a little different than Al Qaeda. The Taliban want the imposition of Sharia law, in their version, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The trouble is, though--

BILL MOYERS:
And that is religious law.

GREG MORTENSON:
Islamic law. But having spoken to some of the actual Sharia experts, Sharia law actually doesn't say that women should be hurt and harmed and marginalized. It doesn't say they should commit suicide. It doesn't, in fact-- there's very implicit laws in Sharia about the right of land ownership for women. There's implicit laws about treating children, women, with respect. So they've again used illiteracy as a way to impose their own virulent, you know, militant kind of ideology. And most people are really getting sick and tired of the Taliban.

BILL MOYERS:
You really believe that? Among the people you deal with, right?

GREG MORTENSON:
These are the people we deal with. And we're working in Afghanistan in quite heavily, say, Taliban areas now. We've started schools this year in five new provinces, which include Urozgan, Nuristan, and Kunar, which have a lot of Taliban. And the reason we're able to work with them is because we work so closely with the elders. And one thing we do, Bill, when we set up a school that's fairly unique is we provide the teacher training, materials, and skill labor. But the community has to provide free land, free resources, and then free manual labor--2,000 to 5,000 days of free manual labor. So--

BILL MOYERS:
And why do you do that?

GREG MORTENSON:
So that we get the local buy-in--

BILL MOYERS:
Local buy-in?

GREG MORTENSON:
Local support. I'm going to tell them you need to put in 3,000 days of free manual labor from the community and you'll see the community, if they're willing to do it, they become very invested in the school. And that's one of the reasons I think the Taliban are not, they haven't destroyed or bombed or shut down any of our schools. They have attacked just one school.

BILL MOYERS:
Tell me about the men who showed up in black.

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, one of our goals, Bill, was to put a girls' high school in Urozgan province in Afghanistan, which is in the south. It's the home of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban-it's probably one of the last bastions who are completely opposed to girls going to school. And so last year we kind of set a rough goal that would take us two decades, or 20 years, to set up a girls' school there. So this spring, a year later, we got contacted by the men in black, as you mentioned, these are the elders of Urozgan province. They wanted to visit one of our schools. And we said sure. And so this summer they came to Char Asiab, where we have a girls' school. And these are about 14 men. When they got to the school, these are, you know, some of them are, you know, kind of shady guys, black turbans. They're armed to the teeth, have, you know, big, long beards. And when they got there, they saw the giant playground. So they threw down their weapons. For the next hour and a half, they went on the swings and slides and had a glorious time playing. And I finally kind of had to stop them and say, "You know, let's get serious. We need to-- this is the headmaster. We need to talk to the principal." And he said, "No, no. We're totally satisfied. We want a girls' high school in Urozgan Province. But it has to have a playground. And you have to come and have tea with us." So I got up the nerve in September to visit Urozgan. And this is an area, there's no U.S. troops there. I mean, there's no nothing there. There's a lot of Taliban. We had a giant jirga. And I was pretty, you know, pale faced and kind of fearful. But it was a beautiful meeting. When they got done, they said, "We want to start this school. Of course we want the playground built first." And so in October 2009 we started breaking ground on the school, and this year, in 2010, the school will be finished this summer. And so I'm, as you mentioned at the beginning that I hope to die, or I will die a happy man, but part of it is because I'm glad that those men in black were able to discover a glorious playground and have a wonderful time and decide they want a girls' school in Urozgan Province.

BILL MOYERS:
How is your work going to be impacted by the fact that it's going on in a society where the war is being escalated?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, our work will go on whether or not the U.S. has military there or not in that we work so closely with the elders. With the deployment of troops there, I, I've got a lot of mixed feelings on it. The first thing is that when President Obama had nine meetings to ascertain or decide whether or not to deploy troops to Afghanistan, those meetings were held in secrecy, behind closed doors. There was no public debate. There was no congressional hearings. There was no media involved.

We can't run democracy in secrecy. And it doesn't matter whether it's George Bush or Obama. That was one of my main concerns is-it's a big decision. The other thing is that there was no consultation with the elders or the shura in Afghanistan. Every province has three to five dozen shura. And these are elders. They're poets. They're warriors. They're businessmen, a few women. And they're not elected, but they've kind of risen up through the ranks. And these to me are the real people with integrity and power in Afghanistan. So when this decision was made to deploy troops, none, there was no consultation with the troo-- with the elders. And they felt very marginalized by it because, you know, want to go into another country, we want to be able to at least have a part and a say in it. And it's not that difficult. You can do it at a district level, or local level, or at a national level. It's, you know, I think half of diplomacy is just showing up. You know, we've got to actually just show up and start to talk and then maybe we could get somewhere.

BILL MOYERS:
Clearly the militarily knows you know something they don't know. And why can't they know it?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well…good question, Bill. In "Three Cups of Tea" I was fairly critical of the military. And I mentioned that they're laptop warriors and there's no boots on the ground. But I can say now that they've gone through a tremendous learning curve. And I think in many ways the military really gets it. They, Admiral Mike Mullen, who's become a friend of mine, I've met him several times and we've spent time together. He says that the three most important things that our troops have to do is, number one, listen more. Number two, they have to have respect, meaning they're there to serve the good people. And, number three, that they have to build relationships. And that's built from the top-down now.

BILL MOYERS:
But does it compromise your work on the ground in Afghanistan, for them to know that Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus and General McChrystal have read your books and they're asking you for insight?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, it's a good point. We make it very clear in Afghanistan that we've never received any funding, never received a dollar of federal money. And all my talks in the military, I'm not a consultant. I refuse to accept any honorarium or-I do this voluntarily. But, you know, I'm happy to meet with anybody, whether it's the Taliban or U.S. military. In tribal culture, the-- Afghanistan is different from Pakistan in that I see it somewhat as a warrior culture. And I'm not saying that--

BILL MOYERS:
Afghanistan?

GREG MORTENSON:
Afghanistan. For 2,000 years they've been through war. The Ottomans, Genghis Khan, the Mongols, the Greeks, the Russians, the British, and now the Americans.

BILL MOYERS:
Yeah, exactly.

GREG MORTENSON:
Afghans have always won every battle. I was talking to Commandant Conway, who's a Marine Corps commander. And he very strongly, emphatically mentioned at the end of a talk that no military has ever won a battle here. And he said, "We are not going to win a battle here either. So we've got to be much more broader in our solution." I can also say, having spent quite a bit of time with Admiral Mullen and Petraeus and McChrystal, they will all tell you to your face there is no military solution in this country. And the solution has got to be a much broader solution.

BILL MOYERS:
So what are our soldiers dying for there if there's not going to be a victory?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, whether we like it or not, we're there. And I think we made somewhat of a promise to the Afghan people. The first was after the Soviets withdrew and we totally abandoned them. And what happened is Osama Bin Laden came around. And then there was 9/11 and, the tragic thing that happened here in New York. And then we went into Afghanistan. But then a year and a half later, the media, the military, we all ran off to Iraq. And, again, we abandoned the Afghan people. And now we're kind of around to the third time. You know, three strikes and you're out. But I really think-the military has-it's very difficult to be in the military now because they've had to have the role of being humanitarian, diplomat, and warriors. And they have to wear three caps. And there's, there is criticism because the DOD is getting a lot more funding now. And the second-

BILL MOYERS:
The Pentagon, the Department of Defense, right, yes.

GREG MORTENSON:
The Pentagon. And their funding is--

BILL MOYERS:
It costs us a million dollars a year to keep one soldier there. That's $30 billion for the new 30,000 troops.

GREG MORTENSON:
And ultimately--

BILL MOYERS:
How many schools could you build with that?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, $1 million we could build 30 or 40 schools. And in one generation we could have over 20,000, 30,000 kids educated. But I do think, the worst thing we can do is do nothing. And, like Vice President Joe Biden and columnist George Will, the conservative columnist, have both recommended pulling out the troops but doing more selected targeted bombings. And I can tell you, of all things that the elders say is, please, do not bomb and kill civilians. That is the number one way to antagonize people. And the other thing is, I've seen in the military a huge effort to spend time with the elders. I've helped facilitate several dozen meetings now between the elders and General McChrystal's team and many other commanders. And I got very excited to see that because finally people are starting to listen to the people who I think really understand their country and can be part of the solution.

BILL MOYERS:
But then how do you explain the phenomenon of a CIA station in Afghanistan being infiltrated by a suicide bomber? What is it we don't know about Afghanistan after eight years that makes that makes that happen?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, war is, it's a horrific thing. It's something that none of us want. In order to get information or work with the people, the military has to be exposed. And the guy, this actual incident, the suicide bomber happened to be an informant. And so they were working with the people. And in the forward operating bases, which are remote bases that started two or three years ago, the U.S. military, their primary mandate now is to build relationships with the people, embed, kind of walk the beat with the cops. And the problem with that, though, is our casualties are going to go way up. There's no way around it. One thing that the military has done under pressure from our political leaders is start to pull our forward operating bases because-

BILL MOYERS:
Pull them, you mean bring them back?

GREG MORTENSON:
Bring them back.

BILL MOYERS:
From the mountainous regions and--

GREG MORTENSON:
And garrison them in compounds with big walls. But that doesn't do any good because you're just holing up troops. They're not interacting with the people. Maybe reduce the casualties a bit, but-- so if we are going to deploy more troops, I really think they're going to have to put them out there, expose them, get them in with the people and help them out. Or otherwise, it doesn't make any sense to just put troops in a big walled castle and tell them, you know, you need to set up a McDonald's and Starbucks and, okay, so they go out and do some raids and come back. It's just, that's not a way to bring peace or anything.

BILL MOYERS:
So help me get my bearings here, Greg. On the one hand, the news out of Afghanistan is consistently grim. The CIA blown up, the U.S. soldiers under attack, civilians being killed. But then I read about you, opening one school after another, some of them smack in the middle of the most lawless and dangerous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I mean, should we think there's progress or should we think of things going to hell there?

GREG MORTENSON:
I tend to be an optimist. So here's the good news, Bill. The first thing is the number of kids in school has gone up ten times in the last decade to 8.5 million children. There's a central banking system in Afghanistan since 2006, which has been huge. There's a road building program, about 80 percent of the roads have been built now from north to south and east to west. It's like building a road from Minneapolis to Dallas and D.C. to-- or New York to LA. Now, that's maybe 70 percent of the way done. There are 80,000 troops trained now, the Afghan Army. The goal is 180,000. And some more interesting things are if you go into the district courts, you'll see the number of women filing titles and deeds for land ownership is skyrocketing. And I think that's a real important thing to note. I think the U.S., we're-- we've been far too busy in the last two decades trying to plug in democracy in the world. And you cannot plug in democracy. We have to build democracy.

BILL MOYERS:
So last question. What keeps you going back? And when you go back, what keeps you going?

GREG MORTENSON:
Well, I think the real reason that drives me is I've learned from Haji Ali, who was a tribal chief. And I mentioned "Three Cups of Tea," or my father, and they all say that we need to listen more. And so I try to listen. And I ask widows and women in rural areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan what do you want? I want to help you, but what do you want? And you'd think most women would say, "I want a good husband. I want a big house. I want prosperity." But what most women tell me are just two simple things. They say, "We don't want our babies to die, and we want our children to go to school." And of anything that really drives me, those are the two things that really keep me on because I think we need to listen to those women. What they want most of all is, you know, what any mother around the world wants. And you don't want your baby to die or your child and you want your children to go to school. So that's pretty much what drives me on.

BILL MOYERS:
The book is STONES INTO SCHOOLS, another one by Greg Mortenson, "Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan." Greg, thank you for being with me on the Journal.

GREG MORTENSON:
Thanks, Bill.


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