Forget the Tea Cups, Think About the Women

Just when you thought there could be no more bad PR for the war in Afghanistan, a crippling 60 Minutes investigation about celebrated author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s best-selling works, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, has cast doubts not only on the books themselves but on aid organizations in the region.

Author and adventurist Jon Krakauer, who once funded Mortenson’s nonprofit Central Asia Institute with thousands of dollars of his own money, added fuel to 60 Minutes’ fire by releasing the longform article “Three Cups of Deceit” [PDF] on Byliner. He had already alleged on the TV program that Mortenson “has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built.”

The worse thing about the Three Cups of Tea scandal is the possible damage it could do to legitimate fundraising efforts to help the Afghan people, especially since Mortenson is now being accused of using donations for his nonprofit to fund expensive marketing of his books. His books have made people feel empowered and hopeful about giving to the cause of Afghan education, especially for girls. The Daily Beast’s Michele Goldberg worries about the backlash:

If this were just about one author’s reputation, the story would have few repercussions outside the publishing world. But Mortenson is not just a memoirist—he’s also the single most famous champion of the transformative power of education for girls in poor countries. If his downfall leads to skepticism about his cause, it would be not just a scandal, but a tragedy.

We can’t let that happen; we need to stay focused on the very real needs of Afghan girls and women. It was partially in their name that the war was fought in the first place, the plight of Afghan women serving as an emotional tool to garner support for the U.S. invasion back in 2001.

Regardless of how that war was marketed, Afghan women and girls still face tremendous insecurity and require consistent attention and commitment from the international community. More than 70 percent of Afghan women and girls are victims of violence, girls’ schools are regularly bombed, one in eight Afghan women die in childbirth, and there are widespread campaigns to make vocal women’s rights voices vanish.

Since Afghan women and girls have borne the brunt of more than 30 years of war, U.S. policy in the region can never be successful until women’s needs–for safety, education, health care and increased political presence–are addressed. A society that has experienced so much war cannot heal by excluding 50 percent of its population. It’s vital to invest in women and girls, not only because that’s what the U.S. said it would do, but because it is the winning strategy.

As the media and public gasp over Mortenson’s alleged deceit, the spotlight must be turned back to where it belongs: on Afghan women and girls. We should not be deterred from helping to improve their present situation and ensure a brighter future.

Cross-posted, in somewhat different form, from Forbes Woman.


  1. Greg Mortensen’s self-serving and lie-filled book not only enriched him, it was required reading for the U.S. High Command in Afghanistan. In fact, in an article in the New York Times about the controversy earlier this week, U.S. Col. Christopher D. Kolenda, said that “Mr. Mortenson’s work had been vital to the American war effort in Afghanistan.” ( While the plight of Afghan women was and continues to be used as justification for the war in and occupation of that country, how exactly are we supposed to be “helping” these women while increasing numbers of civilians—including women and children—are suffering from the occupation’s dire consequences? If even charitable organizations—such as Mr. Mortensen’s—are perceived as, if they are not in fact, part of the U.S. war effort, what good are we actually doing? The Afghan people are suffering from a triple oppression of a NATO occupation, a corrupt and criminal puppet regime, and the repressive Taliban. NATO-led night raids, U.S. drone attacks, and the recently exposed Kill Team ( are doing nothing to make women and children safer or more secure. In her response to the Kill Team, Malalai Joya, Afghan feminist activist and former parliamentarian said,
    “Successive US officials have said that they will safeguard civilians and that they will be more careful, but in fact they are only more careful in their efforts to cover up their crimes and suppress reporting of them. The US and Nato, along with the office of the UN's assistance mission in Afghanistan, usually give statistics about civilian deaths that underestimate the numbers. The reality is that President Obama's so-called surge has only led to a surge of violence from all sides, and civilian deaths have increased.”

  2. I agree—but perhaps it would be helpful to include resources for individuals reading this article who would like to support girls' education and women's empowerment projects in Afghanistan. The first group that comes to mind the Revolutionary Afghans Women's Association, which has been running schools and income generation programs since before the Taliban took power, and continues to do so now.

  3. I don't think we need to continue covering up Mortenson's lies in order to further the cause. I do think the girls receiving (or not receiving) an education are the most important part of this scandal, and the fact that Mortenson wasn't providing any teachers or supplies for the schools, which quickly became abandoned buildings, is really upsetting. I think we need to redirect readers from "Three Cups of Tea" to "Half the Sky," which I think is a much better book anyway, and support some of the organizations recommended by Nicholas Kristof (none of which are owned or operated by Kristof himself).

  4. Julia Bergman says:

    Within the next day or two a special edition of Journey of Hope will be mailed to Central Asia Institute donors, and to schools and organizations that have participated in the Pennies for Peace program. It will refute all of the allegations and accusations made by Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes.

  5. Susan Hale Whitmore says:

    This is a request to the author to post an UPDATE on Central Asia Institute for all of the folks out there who think that Mr. Krakauer’s ALLEGATIONS were TRUTHS.

    A great deal has occurred since your original post, and I’d love to see Ms. be the ones to put out an overall piece on the facts!

    Again, not to save Mr. Mortenson’s reputation per se (‘tho he is in fact NOT a liar, fraud, or thief) but to let EVERYONE KNOW that Central Asia Institute continued its incredible work for girls’ education right through all of the brouhaha of CBS News and Jon Krakauer ~ and is doing so well that it now has a multi-million dollar endowment to ensure its viability for decades to come AND it has branched into a 3rd country, Tajikistan!

    Do, please do such an update ~ thousands will read it!!

    Susan Hale Whitmore
    Silver Spring, Maryland

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