Why Three Cups of Tea Won't Save Afghanistan

This past week on 60 Minutes, allegations emerged that Greg Mortenson, the philanthropist mountain climber and author of Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, may have been less than truthful in his memoir. Author Jon Krakauer asserted that Mortenson's story of the hospitality of villagers who cared for Mortenson after he became disoriented while climbing K2 in Pakistan, is false, as are other anecdotes from the book, including his story of a 1996 kidnapping at the hands of the Taliban. More damaging are allegations that Mortenson mismanaged funds from the school-building charity he founded, Central Asia Institute.

Rumors of falsehoods in heroic memoirs set in Afghanistan are actually nothing new. In 2007, Michigan beautician Deborah Rodriguez, bestselling author of The Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil, faced similar accusations. In this case, Rodriguez was accused of lying about being the sole founder of a beauty school, one that would empower long-oppressed Afghan women to discard their burkas and liberate themselves through knowledge of cosmetology and haircare. The veracity of this book's colorful anecdotes also came under scrutiny, including one tale in which Rodriguez saves the honor of a new bride by helping her disguise the fact that she's not a virgin on her wedding night. Some of the Afghan women Rodriguez worked with claimed that she did not make good on her financial promises to them, and that she exploited their stories while putting their personal safety in jeopardy. The school itself is no longer open, and Rodriguez has long since fled Afghanistan and split up with the warlord husband she married after a twenty-day courtship.

In another sensational but related story, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad was successfully sued in 2010 for libel by Shah Muhammad Rais, the bookseller whom she depicted as a tyrant and a misogynist in her bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul. Unlike Mortenson and Rodriguez, however, Seierstad made no claims of philanthropy.

These literary controversies point to a problem in our collective American psyches: our attraction to narratives in which Western do-gooders jet off to exotic countries to singlehandedly "save" the less fortunate. Conveniently, these types of stories ignore the roles that the West has played in creating those war-torn places to begin with. And while we find ourselves getting riled up over literary half-truths, the budget to foreign aid, particularly of the type that might contribute to a deeper understanding of places like Afghanistan, is under threat.

Public opinion polls reveal that Americans wrongly believe that 25% of our budget is dedicated to foreign aid, when in actuality the figure is closer to 1%. Republican Paul Ryan's proposal to balance the budget would have reduced foreign aid by 44% over the next four years. The most recent House resolution, passed last Friday, represents a cut of about a half a billion to last year's programs. American contributions to the UN will be trimmed by a dramatic 23%, while aid to development programs such as the Millenium Challenge Corp and Economic Support Fund has also been slashed. As it stands, the foreign aid budget for 2011 will be $48 billion. The defense budget, by contrast, represents $531 billion.

In particular, we should be concerned about possible cuts to funds for language study and scholarly research, such as Title VI, which supports university programs that offer training in lesser-known languages, like Pashto. The Fulbright Scholars program, designed to encourage research and exchange among American and foreign scholars, will likely also be reduced. These cuts are potentially devastating when you consider that language training and research go a long way toward contributing to accurate knowledge about parts of the world where America maintains an active military presence.

It seems that the lesson behind this most recent literary scandal is that we should take our three cups of tea with a grain of salt. For the short term, American military intervention will continue, and no doubt we'll export other heroic tales of Americans saving the people of Afghanistan, even if the reality is often much more ambivalent. Yet our national budget must also contain support for language training, scholarly research, and development initiatives rooted in a profound engagement with the host population. Otherwise, we will be likely to find ourselves living the words of the Greek historian Thucydides: that "the society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools."