There's an enormous amount to like about this detailed recounting of the Central Asia Institute's efforts to build schools "at the end of the road" that conventional aid agencies never reach. Again, Mortenson shares his simple and sensible prescriptions for Westerners who want to "help": listen to and respect the people who live in remote places; trust that people who survive in these hostile environments have figured out how to live there; and offer educational opportunity so that people can more easily find their own paths toward development. He truly believes in education for girls and explains why:
Moreover, Mortenson's focus on building schools is the opposite of impersonal. In this book, I was especially impressed by his account of trying desperately to reach and assist friends and staff after the terrible 2005 earthquake in northeastern Pakistan which killed hundreds of thousands, a natural disaster little noted in the West. And his account of learning to pass in Afghanistan, to project a "style" that prevented him from being instantly recognized as a wealthy foreign interloper, is funny and charming.
So what's not to like about Stones into Schools? In this book, Mortenson recounts a growing intimacy between his Central Asia Institute (CAI) and the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He certainly has been a critic of his country's war. For example, as early as 2002, he was questioning whether coming in without real conversation with Afghans and with guns blazing might not be a wrong approach.
In fact he's still questioning the U.S. war. In a 2010 interview with Bill Moyers, he critiques the Obama administration for asking neither Afghan elders nor the American people to participate in war-making decisions.
But he has also become a cheerleader of the U.S. military's shiny new counter-insurgency theories, a set of prescriptions for "winning hearts and minds" all too familiar to those of us old enough to have watched a U.S. army lose its last big war in Asia. When the generals discover raw firepower won't eradicate indigenous nationalism, they shift to "more subtle" but still lethal efforts to co-opt and subdue the uppity natives. It seems to me that Mortenson found in the U.S. military something that years of work in Central Asia had not previously given him: peers from his own culture, big tough men like himself who were truly immersed in learning about these remote people and places, men who could appreciate what he was doing in building schools where it seemed impossible to accomplish anything. Here's a sample of Mortenson's conversion:
Actually, I can agree with that. The military is full of smart people who learn from their experiences. But to what end? There's a part of me that has empathy with Mortenson's attraction to the military and military individuals became faithful contributors to CAI. But after ten years of Afghan war, I still encounter reports like this from the Washington Post in late February.
That too -- that mad cultural chauvinism and belief in Western superiority -- is the face of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
I was horrified by the account in Stones into Schools of Mortenson delighting in giving Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S. commander, a photo op at the opening of one the CAI schools.
Yeah, sure. It's awfully hard to square that with another assertion in Stones into Schools:
Somehow I doubt any Afghan who saw the Pushgur event believes that. They may have made the sensible calculation to get whatever they can from these big, dumb, dangerous invaders, but they are not likely to be confused about who is working for who.
I came away from Stones into Schools saddened. A naive generosity is something we could all use more of. Solidarity with the peoples of the world includes taking on crazy projects in crazy places with unforeseeable results. But naive innocence is not enough.
As Mortenson clearly knows, his country cannot bring solutions to the real problems of the Afghans and Pakistanis he has come to love and respect. Yet he has let his project be drawn into the vortex of the United States' war in the western Himalayas. I find it hard to believe that's in the interest of Afghan girls.