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Greg Mortenson: U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Mountaineer-turned humanitarian Greg Mortenson joined us today to give his take on President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan. His perspective has been built brick by brick, over the course of raising 130 schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here's an excerpt from the conversation:

TOM ASHBROOK: What if you wore a U.S. military uniform? Would you have that same support?  Can a soldier do the same thing that you have done?

GREG MORTENSON: Well, Tom, it’s difficult.  We don’t take any armed guards with us. That’s one of the things that the shura, the elders, are saying, that the U.S. has to take off their armor and their weapons if they really want to interact.  U.S. military, actually, when they do have meetings in many areas, they take their weapons and armor off and then go into the compound and have a jurga.  It’s like a tribal meeting, and that’s done quite a bit.  It does win a lot of respect.  On the other hand, there is some exposure. But that’s one of the main complaints.

The other complaint of the shura, the number one complaint, is please do not bomb and kill civilians.  What Vice President Joe Biden is recommending along with conservative columnist George Will, is to pull out troops and do more selective bombings.  But the problem with bombings is you kill civilians.  And if there’s anything that can antagonize people it’s bombings and killings of civilians.

TOM ASHBROOK: So it sounds as if you’re favoring this surge, and yet your title [says] “Books Not Bombs,” and bombs are part of the military package.  Though I guess you’d say, “No, thank you.  Leave it to on-the-ground work.”

GREG MORTENSON: What I really favor are, whoever it is -- whether it’s the military or the State Department or political leaders -- going over and sitting down and listening to the shura.  The Afghan government is very corrupt, it’s very fickle.  And the shura -- when the reconstruction policy was set up in Afghanistan at the Bonn Conference in December of 2001 -- 18 nations got together, and decided how to rebuild the country. But they set up a centralized, de-provincialized process which was exactly the opposite of the Marshall Plan after World War II.  That was a provincialized, decentralized process, and only recently, in the last couple of years, has that started to change.

General Petraeus was interviewed on NPR after an international strategic military summit in Berlin -- this was in March, I think -- and a serious NPR correspondent asked him, “What should be our top priority in Afghanistan?” And he answered: “We need to go and drink more tea with the locals.” General Petraeus, who has read "Three Cups of Tea," said he had gleaned three important points from the book, and he said, “Number one, that we need to listen more.  Number two, that we need to build respect.  And number three, that we have to build relationships.”

Also, Admiral Mullen, at the beginning of his speech at the American Legion national convention in August, he said we -- meaning the U.S. — have been far too arrogant in the world, and we need to go out and serve with humility.

So, what I’m seeing is these military leaders showing some visionary leadership, trying to build relationships with the locals.  I haven’t yet seen that from the State Department and our political leaders, so hopefully that will start.  Hillary Clinton did come to Afghanistan and Pakistan recently, and I give her great credit.  Just her showing up, having a cup of tea, it’s worth a billion dollars of military aid, so I hope they do it more. 

This program aired on December 8, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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