Sunday, April 17, 2011

Greg Mortenson on 60 Minutes - CBS news

I have been following Greg's Mortenson work with the Central Asia Institute (CAI) since my year-long stay in Skardu, Pakistan,  back in 1999. I started getting e-mails from various people over the last few days, requesting images from CAI schools in Afghanistan. I didn't know why until a friend sent me that link (aired tonight). Over the years, I have heard few negative stories from various people about Mr Mortenson - it's always hard to know if they are simply jealous of his success or plainly telling the truth. I hope Greg gets on CBS's 60 minutes (or any TV interview program for that matter), to clear the air...

In 2002, Outside got in touch with me to shoot a story on the Siachen glacier, in the disputed Kashmir region - I was put in touch with Greg to get access - the initial story proposal was to cross the Siachen glacier from Pakistan to India, walking over 7000m, with missiles being fired over your head. There was talk about me coming to the US  to "train" for glacier crossing etc. I thought it was crazy and declined - a tough choice for a photographer who was just starting up.
I must have been right since the story's angle was later considerably changed: photographer and writer first had a look at Siachen's glacier and its army presence on the Pakistan side, then they went down to Islamabad to legally cross into India, make there way up to the Indian army camps opposite Siachen and complete their story. This seemed much more reasonable. Teru Kuwayama, a photographer friend met in New York in the late 90's, shot the story (great B+W work) with writer Kevin Fedarko. I was later sent to Tuvalu to shoot an interesting story on global warming for Outside, my "compensation" price. I was far from my beloved Karakoram, but that story certainly opened my horizon...

Greg's right hand man is also an old Wakhi friend of mine, Sarfraz - the older brother of my Wakhi "teacher", Alam Jan Daryo. Sarfraz is from Zood Khun, a tiny village at the end of the Chapursan valley, on the border with Afghanistan and a stone throw away (to be exact 4 days walk over a 5000m pass) from the Afghan Pamir, the home of the Afghan Kyrgyz - a story that has "obsessed" me for 10 years now. Anyway, CAI's growing involvement in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, building schools, with the help of Sarfraz, has been of great interest to me.
The CAI recently built a school in the Afghan Pamir, at a place called Bozai Gumbaz - a 4 or 5 days walk from the nearest village of Sarhad. It's hard to imagine the remoteness of the Little Pamir - and it's cultural complexity - but all these factors made it hard for me to imagine a foundation would consider building a school there - in fact, the Aga Khan Foundation didn't consider doing it, and they are the most involved in the region.

I went back to the Afghan Pamir in January-February 2011 for my second winter expedition (first was in Jan/Feb 2008, where I collaborated with anthropologist and now friend Ted Callahan, who appears in 60 minutes). During the expedition, via our only satellite phone (who worked erratically as we were close to the China/Tajikistan border), we were asked to shoot images (video + stills) of the CAI school, by an American producer, working for CBS. Strange request to get in such a lonesome place.
The school looked like it was never-ever used. The 2 only Kyrgyz teachers in the Afghan Pamir leave too far off from the school . In fact, by the time the CAI finished building the school, the government had already started sending teachers up to the Afghan Pamir and classes were being held at 8 locations. They didn't have schools, they just used the Aga Khan Foundation tourist yurts or regular guestrooms or tents. But it worked. For these reasons, the school, so far, has never been used - at least not to the degree CAI claims...

Here is the CAI school in Bozai Gumbaz (February 2011), with UrunBai, one of the Kyrgyz leader standing proud in front.
I also attached a picture from a Aga Khan Foundation's school in Zood Khun, North Pakistan - not a CAI school. When the weather is good, students often go outside of the classroom...
And finally, a telling note "Instructions for Life", posted on the wall in that AKF school. Don't forget we are in North Pakistan, immersed in Ismaili communities, a very tolerant form of Islam whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan.

All images © Matthieu Paley


Maky Dol said...

Watch Greg Mortenson Three Cups of Tea CBS 60 Minutes Review Video !!!

image masking said...

Your blog is really helpful! many many thanks for sharing this nice post!

Bob Jackson said...

Jon Krakauer has a booklet available online that describes in more detail Mortenson's claims and the reality behind them. It's available free for download until April 20 from:

Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way

Of course, one could do similar articles on the fiction within books written by Sarah Chayes and Rory Stewart about their time in Afghanistan.

Matthieu Paley said...

Thanks Bob - I just read it. Actually I was aware of Byliner since my picture was used for the cover of the book. Krakauer's report seems accurate to me. And I know Ted Callahan for a while (we spent part of a winter together up in the Afghan Pamir) - we have both been involved with the Afghan Kyrgyz community for a long time (my part, over 10 years). What Greg is writing about the Khan and other aspect of the Kyrgyz community is very much grossly exaggerated. It made me laugh because it reads like a Hollywood script, to please his readers. By doing so he completely walks away from the truth... but why doing that when reality seems good enough?
all best,

Bob Jackson said...

It's the same with the Sarah Chayes book The Punishment of Virtue about her visit to Kandahar to do humanitarian work after the fall of the Taliban. I'm sure you're aware that the reality on the ground is that work in these locations can be difficult with a lot of setbacks and progress comes slowly. But people want to hear a fairy tale- especially in the area of Pakistan/Afghanistan where much of the news is bad news.

I always sensed that Mortenson fabricated his claims but also objected his promotion of the "just build schools" counterinsurgency model. Afghanistan is sadly filled with many schools that were constructed without anyone talking to the Ministry of Education about whether they would be staffed by teachers or have maintenance funding. Many of them were likely done by battalion commanders who read Three Cups of Tea before being deployed.

I was curious if anyone has ever published a list of the schools that CAI claims they have built. Is this available anywhere? Does Krakauer have this list?

Bob Jackson said...


I also had no idea that it was your photo on the cover of Krakauer's booklet but when I saw it I thought "what a great photo!"

Anne said...

I just read (and reviewed The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. It is written in Afghanistan. I liked that memoir alot, but it was interesting to me that Mortenson is the author who is quoted on the front of the book. I actually haven't read his book. He's denying everything, but 60 minutes said that they had multiple sources. I thought that was interesting that they really went to a lot of trouble to back up their interview. Thanks for your post. It is helpful to see the pictures and see the link to Jon Krakauer's blog as well. What I've realized is that what we read we believe and it's often hard to tell what the truth is!

Matthieu Paley said...

Hi - exactly right, people want to hear fairy tales and I guess it's tempting as a writer to feed them what they want... I have a list of the schools in the Wakhan - supposedly it costed 35.000 USD to build the school in Bozoi Gumbaz - let me get my hands on it: please contact me about this via my e-mail info(at) - cheers, Matthieu

FYI: just put up a new story on my website about my latest Afghan Pamir winter trip where I shot that school image - have a look on my website if you wish, under Stories, the Last Khan.

John Mock said...

Bob Jackson asked for a list of CAI schools. The only list I've seen is on the CAI website:

Anonymous said...

OK, may be just one cup of tea and not three, and just three schools not eleven. Whatever the truth about numbers, Mortenson did a commendable job of building schools in peaceful and never-Talibanised Baltistan, and some in restless and Talibanised Afghanistan and Waziristan. But the story is not really about him or the numbers, be they financial or of schools. Rather it is about something else. The persistent scrutiny of his personal and individual behavior and financial malpractices obfuscates that something else, hence even in the failure of Mortenson the person, Mortenson the ‘state project’ continues to succeed. In order to understand the difference between the two we have to ask a different question: the question is not whether or not Mortenson cheated and failed, but rather how could he have been so successful in the first place, and what this has to do with the state.

How could Mortenson’s charity get away with the deceit for so long without it being noticed? Why did the top brass of the military seek him and his book as a part of their counter-insurgency strategy? The Pentagon made TCT required reading, buying copies in bulk. It seems that Mortenson went along with them, playing the game and getting dizzy on the fame and attention, and eventually the feeling of power that came with it. He dined with celebrities and diplomats and flew on a black hawk with General Patraeus. Current and former presidents donated his charity money and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Mortenson became a state project, in a non-formal sense, after 9/11. He was the soft face of American power, used to win hearts and minds overseas and quelling domestic anxieties about the fairness of the war. Mortenson’s early efforts to provide education for girls were no doubt initially genuine; perhaps after 9/11 he came too close to the nucleus of power which corrupted him. He started feeling invincible and thought he get away with anything, even lies and financial fraud.

In my view, on the one hand Mortenson’s story is that of human fallibility, and the corrupting influence of power and fame. But it is also about informal state projects, informal in the sense that these projects are not explicitly planned, initiated and funded by the state, rather sometimes certain situations, events, or person suddenly become of strategic importance to the state. In Mortenson’s case it was his work as a humanitarian and a social development worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan that became of strategic importance to the US state in the midst of the Afghan war in which it was losing both the hearts and minds of the Afghan and Pakistani people, and the patience and support of the American people.
Americans should read and write books about the role that the US has played in the region, particularly since the 1980s, such as their sponsoring the production of radical text books that preached fundamentalism to the ‘Jihadis’ whose daughters Mortenson is trying to educate. Unless we understand this history, and how that history continues to haunt us today and provide the social and human conditions in which people like Mortenson become heroes, we may bring down Mortenson the person but not Morteson the project.

Anonymous said...

I was in Skardu last year and GM Parvi seems to be very angry with Greg. But lets be clear here that GM Parvi is not an angel either. He made himself pretty rich by working with Mortenson. I know for fact now that there is a CAI Pakistan as apposed to CAI USA, Parvi clear Mortenson out of the scene as 'take out a hair from butter' as we say in urdu.

Mathieu ji kya haal hein. This is Shafqat

John Mock said...

Looking at the CAI list of schools for Wakhan, I can recognize most of the village names.

But some I can't.

Anyone know what villages these might be?






Matthieu Paley said...

Hi John - no, I don't know any of these villages. Maybe Shesht stands from Sherk (the village with the hot spring)?

Shafqat Gi - Sab tikke, merbhani! Ap kese hon?

Looking back, what I find odd is that, in the beginning, CAI did not team up with AKDN, who has been committed to education (esp. girl's education) in Pakistan and Afghanistan for much longer than CAI. It seems to me it would have been much more efficient. It must have been something they considered. It is especially strange that 3 cups doesn't mention at all AKDN educational activities all over this region, since the early 80's.

John Mock said...

Matthieu, I think that 'Shesht' might be Sheshp, and 'Yardar' might be Wardev. You remember the house for the woman at Wardev that CAI built? One of the other two must be Kret, where CAI built a school and a house where the Chapursan workers lived, which Inayat later used as his residence cum office with WCS.
Matthieu, when you were through Sarhad this winter, was the CAI building there in use as a school? For years it was used to store the WFP food supplies sent annually for the Kirghiz.

Mary Jane said...


Very insightful post. I love the handwritten "Instructions for Life" at the end. I was in the Gilgit and Hunza areas as a tourist in 1997. We visited a school on the Gilgit River, run by the Aga Kahn. When I read Mortensen's books 8 years later, I was left with the worry that the beautiful places I visited were endangered by terrorists. I no longer believe that to be true, and like you, wonder in afterthought, why Mortensen did not team up with AGDN.

I love your blog!

Maximobo said...

Working in the development sector, this whole story raises so many questions about the aid industry (which whether we like it or not, Mortenson has become a part of through the CAI).

But 2 great photos from you help get to the heart of the issue: what should our goal be in providing basic education? Noone can expect children to sit in a concrete "stable" in the snow. Solutions do exist, but they are tough to get and require us to find out how to get kids in to schools, get them learning, and then keep them in school together with all the other roles that they have to perform for their families.

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