By James Turitto Editor-in-Chief February 15, 2010

Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools (New York: Viking, 2009)

Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools (New York: Viking, 2009)

After eight long years in Afghanistan, the success of the United States’ war and reconstruction efforts is subject to much debate. Most accounts are highly pessimistic. Large swaths of the countryside remain ungoverned and uncontrolled. The Taliban, who were quickly defeated in the fall of 2001 and subsequently fled to the northwest regions of Pakistan, have been resurgent in recent years. Since 2005, the Taliban has returned to Afghanistan to make territorial gains, replacing local governments and traditional ruling authorities and challenging the central government in Kabul.

Despite Afghanistan’s grim outlook, Greg Mortenson, in his most recent book Stones into Schools, offers the hope of a promising future for the country. Mortenson, the author of the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea and director of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), first traveled to South Asia in 1993 in a failed attempt to hike K2, the second highest peak in the world. Delusional from altitude sickness on his return to base camp, Mortenson got lost and stumbled into a small village in rural Pakistan. Befriending the local leader, Mortenson helped the village build a school that would provide education to hundreds of young women. Sixteen years later his organization has established more than 130 schools, educating nearly 60,000 students in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Whereas Three Cups of Tea tells the story of Mortenson’s early adventures in Pakistan, Stones into Schools focuses more on Afghanistan, particularly in the period following the U.S. invasion. At times, it spills into the world of politics, something his previous book did not do. Mortenson criticizes the Afghan government for its limited interest in bringing education to rural areas. For the first few years of Mortensen’s work, he operated inside the country without proper documentation. Upon visits to Kabul, government officials told CAI to start building schools in the capital, alleging that the last thing Afghans in remote corners of the country want are schools. Mortenson found the contrary to be true; the most important thing that Afghans in these areas cherish is education. They want schools for their children.

This book has several lessons to teach its readers, who, like those of Three Cups of Tea, will range in diversity from women’s book groups in towns across America to American soldiers deployed around the world. Through Mortenson’s adventures, one can find the typical scenes of Afghanistan that are portrayed in the media – endemic corruption, war, poverty, and illiteracy. One can also find the stories of former mujahedeen fighters – people who took up arms to fight the Soviets in the 1980s and were active in the Afghan civil war of the early 1990s. Some are even former Taliban members. Hardened by years of war, and distaste for the Taliban’s repressive rule, they put away their weapons and returned home to help rebuild their communities.

Given the overwhelming attention, support, and money Three Cups of Tea received, its sequel was a foregone conclusion. Since 2006, Mortenson has traveled tirelessly around the United States giving speeches and raising money for CAI’s schools. No doubt it has expanded CAI’s work building schools – a good thing – but it has also turned Mortenson into a celebrity-like figure, something he also laments. In 2008, he met with Pakistan’s then President Pervez Musharraf to receive notification that he would be awarded the Sitara-e-Pakistan, Pakistan’s highest civilian award. The meeting was a poor decision, he admits, because it distracted him from a promise he had been holding for 10 years: to build a school 14,000 feet above sea level in one of the most remote corners of the world.

Stones into Schools tells a powerful story; one that should be read by anyone trying to understand the challenges this region of the world faces. As the United States enters its 9th year in Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers are looking for a way out. Building schools and providing education is not a short-term solution, nor is it the only solution. But in order to ensure that Afghanistan becomes a peaceful, self-sustaining country, U.S. policymakers must adopt policies that express a long-term commitment to education in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan.