We can learn an important lesson about ourselves from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part one)

Summary:  Like all cons, the “Three Cups of Tea” affair reveals more about us than its author.  Like all marks, we seek simple sure-fire solutions, no matter how implausible.  And we prefer the fables of conmen than the complex and often discouraging advice from experts.  As any cop on the bunko squad knows, no matter if or how we punish the author, we’ll be just as eager for the next fraud.  Unless we learn from our mistakes.  Part one of two; see part two here.


  1. The three problems posed by the 3 Cups Affair.  One is serious, the others get the attention.
  2. Why we wanted to believe these myths
  3. For more information

(1)  The three problems posed by the 3 Cups Affair.  One is serious, the others get the attention.

Here are the three levels of the problem posed by 3 Cups Affair, from minor to serious.  “Three Cups of BS – Greg Mortenson’s school-building plan was never a good idea“, Alanna Shaikh, Foreign Policy, 19 April 2011 — Excerpt:

Mountaineers, it turns out, have also known all along that the origin story of Three Cups of Tea was a myth. When Jon Krakauer was reporting the April Byliner.com article that thoroughly debunks Mortenson’s travels and his book, he seems to have simply asked Scott Darsney, one of Mortenson’s companions, for the truth. He got it. Mortenson had three companions walk down K2 with him when he gave up his attempt, and he didn’t wander alone into the village of Korphe, as he claims.

The nonprofit community in the United States also knew that there was something tricky with CAI’s management. Some of Mortenson’s donors saw red flags, wondering how he could possibly run an NGO while also conducting his whirlwind speaking tour. The current board has only three members, one of whom is Mortenson himself: a risky structure with very little accountability built into it. Krakauer reports that three board members quit in frustration over poor management in 2002. Yet none of them spoke out. And CAI wasn’t rated by the Better Business Bureau, as most charities are, because of a failure to disclose accountability information.

Finally, Pakistan scholars knew there was something wrong with Three Cups of Tea because the descriptions of Pakistan were so inaccurate. Throughout the book, the authors get religious divides, tribal affiliations, and political alliances wrong. A scathing 2010 review of the book by the website Islamic Insights complains that the book relies gross generalizations and only a superficial knowledge of the region. And it’s just plain wrong: “Apart from problems with normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations which require thorough scrutiny. For example, as one commentator pointed out elsewhere, ‘Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 … because she died in Autumn 1997.'”

Most commentary focuses on the first two levels, which are trivia compared with the third.  This book was published in 2006, and has been widely cited as authoritative by government and non-government experts in the war.  Why did nobody mention that much of it was bogus?

For more about this see:

(2)  Why we wanted to believe these myths

Something is seriously wrong when an obvious fraud (quickly recognized as such by area experts) is so widely believed by US officers in a decade-long war. It suggests that many other things our leaders (civilian and military) believe, perhaps foundational for our strategy, are also wrong. It suggests the people running the war — and the experts on whom they rely — have little knowledge about Afghanistan — or what we’re doing there.

My guess: We need to believe we understand Afghanistan, and so want simple optimistic solutions. It’s the foundational hubris of our foreign wars, that draws us in and leads us to defeat.  As Peter J. Munson (Major, USMC; bio) says in this comment at the Small Wars Journal:

That the military felt like it needed to go to an outside “expert” dressed up like Owen Wilson in Little Fockers this far into its COIN adventure in order to learn how to win hearts and minds is a pretty blaring statement. The combination of arrogance, insecurity, and lack of true professional study on the part of some senior leaders results in this sort of adventure. They look for some faddish self-styled expert bold and delusional enough to preach confident solutions, while often refusing to give audience to the expertise and hard-won experience in their own ranks.

For a journalist’s perspective on this see “How the U.S. military fell in love with ‘Three Cups of Tea’“, Washington Post, 21 April 2011 — “How a dubious book won the hearts and minds of U.S. forces.”  Opening:

Spend some time with U.S. Army officers, and this much is clear: They are obsessed with drinking tea.  At times, tea can seem a bit like the military’s secret weapon. A young U.S. officer bonds with an Afghan elder over cups of the brew, and soon they are working side by side to win the locals’ trust and drive out the insurgents.  Much of the military’s belief in tea culture can be traced back to Greg Mortenson and his memoir, “Three Cups of Tea,” a book touted by top commanders and devoured by younger officers.

… Mortenson’s military celebrity took off about the same time that the Afghanistan war started to founder. Officers who had done multiple tours in Iraq but had little experience in Afghanistan went searching for someone who could explain a deeply alien culture to them. “Three Cups of Tea” and the follow-up “Stones Into Schools” were much more fun to read than the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine and carried a far more uplifting message. Never mind that the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai sometimes seemed like a poorly managed kleptocracy, his books seemed to say. Pay no attention to the fact that Afghanistan often could be a brutish and inhospitable place.

Mortenson’s narratives of wise, patient and kind Afghan and Pakistani elders made it seem as though progress in Afghanistan was achievable. All U.S. troops had to do was learn the Afghan culture, show some patience and deliver a little bit of progress, and the Afghans would see the U.S. military’s good intentions and turn against the Taliban. In this formulation, counterinsurgency — a complex, morally ambiguous and frequently bloody type of war — came to look a bit like social work with guns.

(3)  For more information

(a)  Other articles about the 3 cups of tea affair:

  1. Questions over Greg Mortenson’s stories“, 60 Minutes, CBS, 15 April 2011 — “He has written inspiring best sellers, including “Three Cups of Tea,” but are the stories all true?”
  2. Three-cup Monte“, Carl Prine (USMC, retired; now an investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Line of Departure, 17 April 2011
  3. Three Cups of Deceit – How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way“, by Jon Krakauer, By-liner, undated — Pay per view only

(b)  See these two articles for effective examples of how to reshape the world. Mortenson had the right idea, but was an amateur. Recommended!

  1. Inside Jihad U. – The Education of a Holy Warrior“, Jeffrey Goldberg (writer), New York Times Magazine, 25 June 2000 — “In a Pakistani religious school called the Haqqania madrasa, Osama bin Laden is a hero, the Taliban’s leaders are famous alums and the next generation of mujahedeen is being militantly groomed.”
  2. Inside the Madrasas“, William Dalrymple, New York Review of Books, 1 December 2005

(c)  Click here to see articles about the issues created when anthropologists go to war (and the Revolt of the Anthropologists).

(d)  Other posts describing misinformation about Afghanistan and the war:

  1. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  2. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  3. DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken, 8 October 2009
  4. A clear view of our Afghanistan War strategy (unfortunately, it’s mad), 16 April 2010
  5. A powerful story from Afghanistan, an illustration of our un-strategy at work, 18 April 2010
  6. Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”, 5 October 2010

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