Rick Holmes: The keys to success in Afghanistan

Rick Holmes

Millions of people have read "Three Cups of Tea," Greg Mortenson's account of his efforts to make Afghanistan a better place, one new school at a time.

In a speech in February 2009, Mortenson explained what he had learned about bringing constructive change to a troubled land. You have to start by listening -- through at least three cups of tea -- and empowering the village elders so it is the Afghans' enterprise, not something foisted on them by outsiders.

I asked Mortenson what advice he would offer the Obama administration, just taking office and weighing strategy options for a war that had already gone on seven years and wasn't going well.

To get it right, he said, the leaders of the new administration "have to drink a lot of tea."

Official Washington was slow to notice Mortenson's ideas. In September 2007, I recommended the book to Andrew Natsios, former director of USAID and then George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan. He'd been to Afghanistan several times, but he had never heard of "Three Cups of Tea."

Eventually, America's top military brass heard about the book -- from their wives. As The New York Times recently reported, under the headline, "Unlikely tutor giving military Afghan advice," Deborah Mullen, wife of Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Holly Petraeus, wife of Gen. David Petraeus, now top commander in Afghanistan, got their husbands to read Mortenson's book.

Since then, Mortenson, a former Army medic, mountain-climber and former emergency room nurse who fell into international development work after being rescued by villagers after a failed Himalayan climb, has had the generals' ears. He's not on any government payroll, he is quick to say, and he's still pursuing his own Afghanistan strategy. His Central Asia Institute has built 145 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he is on his way back to Afghanistan to build more.

But Mortenson's book is now required reading in the Pentagon, and he's spoken at dozens of military bases. Last summer, Mullen went with Mortenson to cut the ribbon on the Pushgar Village Girls School in a remote Afghanistan valley.

The Pentagon's embrace of Mortenson underlines the difference between old-fashioned war and the counterinsurgency theories the American military has been working on since Vietnam. War is about killing enemy soldiers and controlling territory. Counterinsurgency is about winning hearts and minds, about nation-building, about economic development, about building credible institutions that provide people with a secure alternative to rule by, in this case, the Taliban.

President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to "use every tool" to bring stability to Afghanistan: military might, diplomatic efforts, economic development and humanitarian assistance. He has added 33,000 troops, added funding -- Congress voted another $33 billion to the effort last week -- and he has a military command so invested in counterinsurgency that it risks the safety of American troops and the protest of hawks in Congress in order to minimize civilian casualties.

If anyone can make counterinsurgency theory work in reality, it should be this gang. But can they?

Probably not. Consider what they have working against them:

- The Taliban are exceptionally brutal. Cooperate with the Americans, and they'll kill you, and all Afghans know the Taliban will still be there when the Americans leave.

- The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is incompetent and corrupt. The Afghan security forces have shown little improvement despite years of training by NATO forces.

- Every civilian casualty at the hands of foreign troops is a setback.

- The massive amounts of cash -- we're spending $5.5 billion a month in a dirt-poor country -- feeds corruption and undermines the traditional power structure, built on respected tribal leaders and village elders whose confidence the U.S. must win.

- The foreign troops will leave, some sooner and some later. Mortenson had helped build relationships, for instance, between village elders and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander fired for saying stupid things to a reporter. McChrystal's exit, like those of lower-ranking troops routinely rotated out, caused a break the next officer rotated in must rebuild from scratch.

For all its well-thought-through theories, an army is still better at blowing up nations than building them. "A soldier in Afghanistan today has to be a warrior, diplomat and humanitarian at the same time," Mortenson told NPR last week. "That's a lot to ask."

In Washington, debate breaks out regularly over Obama's plan to start withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan in August 2011. "You can't fight a war on a timetable," critics say, ignoring the reality that the military can't do anything without timetables.

Obama doesn't want an all-out, fight-until-the-last-man-falls war in Afghanistan, and neither do the American people. Yes, it's a real war, with American troops giving their lives every day. But it's also a program, with discrete tasks like training the Afghan army and establishing civilian courts that ought to be put on a timetable.

Obama's deadlines aren't for the Taliban; they are for Karzai and other Afghan partners. Ultimately, winning the war is in the hands of the Afghans, not the Americans. If Karzai and company can't step up, the U.S. must eventually step back.

Mortenson says it was a mistake from the beginning to funnel international aid through the Afghan government, rather than decentralizing it, which worked better under the Marshall Plan. He doesn't just build schools in Afghan villages, he puts decisions in the hands of the village elders. He requires the villagers to donate supplies and labor.

It becomes their school, not his. As a result, the villagers protect the school they've invested so much in. That's why, he says, only one of his 145 CAI schools has been attacked by the Taliban.

Mortenson says change will come to Afghanistan through schools, especially schools for girls, not through weaponry. And while nine years of fighting have left NATO forces with little to show in the way of progress, a recent Twitter tweet from Mortenson announced, "Afghanistan good news: From 2000 to 2010, school enrollment went from 800,000 to 7 million, including 2.5 million girls."

Unlike wars, programs should have both deadlines and constant evaluations. If a military-heavy Plan A isn't working, Obama should be looking at a Plan B. I can't help wondering if we'd be closer to success if we had sent in a lot fewer soldiers and a lot more school-builders.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.