Friday, August 26, 2016


Embattled 'Three Cups Of Tea' Author Finds Support In Unlikely Quarters

American writer Greg Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren in Pakistan (undated)
American writer Greg Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren in Pakistan (undated)
By Abubakar Siddique
Best-selling American author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson faces a media storm and legal investigations after a leading TV news show exposed alleged fabrications in his writings and possible financial misconduct.

The program, aired on CBS television's "60 Minutes" program on April 17, claimed that many key episodes in Mortenson's best-selling book "Three Cups of Tea" and its sequel "Stones into Schools" were embellished or fabricated. And it raised serious questions about his financial dealings.

The books tell the story of how Mortenson fell in love with the mountain regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and set up a charity called the Central Asia Institute (CAI) to build over 150 schools in this remote area.

Mortenson's inspirational story mobilized many Americans to contribute to the Central Asia Institute, which has raised some $50 million since 2006.

U.S. President Barack Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money to the charity last year. And Mortenson's books so impressed the Pentagon that it made them compulsory reading for U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

But now, at least one Pakistani researcher who was contacted by RFE/RL, and is featured in Mortenson's book, is threatening to sue him.

U.S. President Barack Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money to Mortenson's foundation.
Mortenson also faces an investigation over his charity's finances in his home state of Montana and his publisher, Viking, has announced plans to review alleged inaccuracies in his books.

So where is the truth? RFE/RL's investigations in Pakistan and Afghanistan chart a more nuanced picture than that presented on "60 Minutes."

There are inaccuracies aplenty in Mortenson's works and some murkiness about the exact number of schools he helped build. His claims are being harshly questioned -- especially in Pakistan.

'He Wasn't Kidnapped; He Was Our Guest"

However, Mortenson also has some surprising local admirers, despite the accusations of people like Mansur Khan Mahsud.

Mahsud is a Pashtun research scholar in Pakistan who says he's considering suing Mortenson for falsely accusing his family and community of kidnapping him. In fact, says Mahsud, they hosted and protected Mortenson during a trip to their village in the western tribal areas 15 years ago.

Mahsud says he first met Mortenson in his ancestral village of Kot Langarkhel in South Waziristan in July 1996 and spent nearly two weeks with him, guiding him throughout the region.

In "Three Cups of Tea," however, Mahsud is described as an "emerging Taliban commander" who held Mortenson captive for several days before eventually freeing him.

Mahsud, however, says he "absolutely rejects" Mortenson's account. "He was our guest and we really looked after him. We really offered him the best of our hospitality," he says.

"We took him on tours around our region. He took many pictures and made videos with us. You can watch those pictures on CBS and CNN, in which he can be seen standing and holding a gun."

What is certain is that, contrary to Mortenson's claims, there were no Taliban militants in Waziristan in 1996.

His description of the life and culture of Waziristan is riddled with errors and is even offensive, according to locals.

The kidnapping of an American would have been a major story in Pakistan but it was never reported.

RFE/RL submitted written questions and tried repeatedly to reach Mortenson and the CAI for a rebuttal.

A spokeswoman said Mortenson was "having health problems" and that RFE/RL would be contacted "at a later date."

In written replies to the "60 Minutes" program, Mortenson reiterates his claims of being kidnapped in Waziristan.

Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute insist they have been supporting community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"Yes, I was detained for eight days in Waziristan in 1996. It was against my will, and my passport and money were taken from me," he wrote in the response available on the CAI website.

"I was not mistreated or harmed, but I was also not allowed to leave. A blanket was put over my head any time I was moved by vehicle."

Mortenson and the institute's board also defended the charity's financial dealings, saying on the organization's website that they intended "to cooperate fully" with the Montana investigation and "look forward to demonstrating how our supporters' donations have been used to further our mission of education, especially for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Some Schools Were Built

But as the questions and inconsistencies continue to mount, RFE/RL has found some surprising backers who have come forward to praise Mortenson. One of them is a local politician in Pakistan's northern Gilgit-Baltistan region who originally fiercely opposed Mortenson's work.

In "Three Cups of Tea," Imran Nadim Shigri is described as an influential political figure who backed a conservative Shi'ite cleric's religious decree against the CAI's school-building.

Shigri has confirmed that Mortenson did build schools in the remote valleys of his native Baltistan. He could not recall the exact number of schools built by the CAI but said that in the remote Braldu Valley he had personally supervised the handover of five of Mortenson's school buildings to the government, which is now providing teachers and funds to run them.

Shigri says Mortenson's heart was in the right place but that the main problem was his lack of management skills, because Mortenson trusted some local people who misguided him and overinflated building costs.

Shigri also faults Mortenson for focusing largely on building infrastructure without concentrating on the education that would be provided in these buildings. "He only focused on constructing schools. He failed to ensure their sustainability and [proper] management," he says. "He also failed to ensure a high quality of education in these institutions."

Shigri is familiar with Mortenson's books and says that they read like "novels," but he is tolerant of the need for some poetic license:

"He probably was aiming to attract donations and to generate funds," he says. "So he wrote with that in mind and that's why things have been exaggerated. I am not saying that whatever he wrote is wrong. That is not the case but they are not 100 percent accurate."
Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid says Mortenson has made a "phenomenonal' contribution to promoting education in the region.

Across the border in Afghanistan, Gul Zaman, governor of the remote Naray district in insurgency-plagued eastern Konar Province, says that three of Mortenson's schools are already working in his district while one more is being built.

In the settlement of Saw alone, Zaman says, "around 700 to 800 boys and girls benefit" from the local school and there are also "200 to 300" pupils enrolled at each of the schools in Samarak and Suna Gala.

On its website, the CAI lists eight schools in Konar and in a recent U.S. television interview, Mortenson claimed to have built 11 schools in the province.

But Zaman says that two of the schools named by the CAI were actually built by a NATO provincial reconstruction team. Zaman's statement was verified by Syed Jamaluddin Hassani, head of Konar's education department.

A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Education in Kabul had no knowledge of the Central Asia Institute schools.

'Extraordinary' Contribution Should Not Be Overlooked

Well-known Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid has known Mortenson and his work for many years. Although he can't vouch for 100 percent accuracy in Mortenson's writings, he says there is no denying Mortenson's "phenomenal" contribution to promoting education -- especially for girls -- in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rashid also credits Mortenson with bringing education and development to the forefront of the Afghan discussion in America, raising awareness of the issue among the general public, America's policy makers and its armed forces.

"I find it very hard to believe all these charges," Rashid adds. "I can well believe that there might be exaggeration on his part for some of the things that he claims to have done. But I think his mission has been absolutely extraordinary and that is what we should keep in mind."

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Roohullah Anwari contributed reporting from Konar, Afghanistan. Heather Maher contributed reporting from Washington. RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondents Daud Khattak and Abdul Hai also contributed to this story
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Susan Hale Whitmore from: Silver Spring MD
April 21, 2011 23:37
Appreciation and kudos to RFE/RL for bringing to everyone's attention a new source of actual information about CAI ~~ people in the areas where CAI has worked... (At the same time, it is too bad that quotations from "well-known Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid" especially are placed at the very end of the column! It's all too likely that many will read only the first few paragraphs and not stay 'til the end.)

by: Senge Sering from: Washington DC USA
April 22, 2011 02:03
Please visit to learn more about the region where Mortenson started his school projects. We the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan, a region of former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir do have lot of respect for him for providing education to girls in that area. The region has one of the lowest per capita incomes and one of the lowest literacy rates and without support of NGOs like CAI and AKDN, education would be a dream for the majority as more than half of the locals live below the poverty line. Since Pakistan government has failed to provide for the educational needs of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, it is people like Mortenson who became the hope for us

by: Clydene from: San Diego
April 22, 2011 09:39
What will happen is the IRS will take care of the issues presented by us use of the charitable donations to CAI for his own expenses on his book tour, $2 million dollars of an income event and penalties that Mortenson will have to resolve.

I am surprised by so many comments that this was a victimless crime because of the amount of good he did. Imagine if he had been able to foucus the $2 million dollars on actual follow through with books and teachers for the schools instead of making money on speaking tours and having children across America empty out their piggy banks to fund his private jet plane.

Instead of owning up to his issues and addressing this like a man, he has instead been “hospitalized” and has turned over operations of CAI to his wife. Really, doesn’t he want to solve the problem by getting a professional to run CAI like he should?

Just so everyone can see the rules:

The organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, and no part of a section 501(c)(3) organization's net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual. If the organization engages in an excess benefit transaction with a person having substantial influence over the organization, an excise tax may be imposed on the person and any organization managers agreeing to the transaction.
In Response

by: Mary Ann from: St. Louis
May 16, 2011 18:09

You've missed the point here. Imagine where those girls would be that now have schools if Greg M. had done nothing. People are so quick to jump the gun and point the finger when things aren't quite right or perfect.

I say to you - those without sin - cast the first stone - or better yet - Use that stone to build something up (like schools for needy children) rather than tearing down an individual who has made many sacrifices to make these schools happen. What have you done that could even compare?

CAI has some flaws, true. You nor i know exactly what they are but I can't imagine that they are as bad as the 60 minutes report would have you believe. And I'm sure that will come out in the wash. So sick of the negativity and skepticism. Can a person do something for the greater good and not be so criticized? Makes me crazy.

by: Isoruku from: USA
April 22, 2011 15:45
I find your self-promoting paragraph ("RFE/RL's investigations in Pakistan and Afghanistan chart a more nuanced picture than that presented on '60 Minutes.") really irritating. If you watched the 60 Minutes piece, both Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer acknowledged the good work that Mortenson has done. But that doesn't excuse his continuing accusations over the years that Mansur Mashod "kidnapped" him and was a "Taliban." And his account of stumbling into the village after his failed attempt to summit K2 could easily have been amended anytime in the ensuing years. And he could have made his charity more transparent at any time. But he hasn't done that. Just because you found some people in Pakistan who admire what he has done, that doesn't mean your account is "more nuanced" or that Mortenson should be judged by a lower standard.

by: Jahan Zeb Khan from: Canada
April 22, 2011 20:02

'A very good article indeed'
Reading the disturbing story of Greg Mortenson the major world media, most of them are vague to write the FULL truth about Greg Mortenson’s unjust and fictitious stories about the education of girls of Pakistan and Afghanistan and to use them as scapegoat to earn fame and millions of dollars for his children - Amira and Khyber. While Mortenson’s story of kidnapping by Taliban is a slap on the face of Pashtun nation.
Mortenson story is a case for study for American and Pashtun media and academia alike that Pashtuns and especially tribal people of Pakistan and Afghanistan do not go after people to fight until people comes to their land and want to subdue them. Currently these Pashtun tribes living in Waziristan, Khyber, Momand, Dir and the scenic Swat valley have formed Lashkars (militias), and fighting with Taliban of Haqqani Network and other Taliban groups. These tribes are also against Pakistan ISI and Arab Jihadists intervention.
Jahan Zeb is Canadian Pashtun and perusing his MA degree in Community Studies.

by: Joan K from: USA
May 02, 2011 16:03
Read this message from the CAI board of directors regarding Greg's compensaion.

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