Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Greg Mortenson (Viking Penguin, New York, 2009)
I knew before finishing Three Cups of Tea that I wanted to read the sequel. Stones into Schools is even more wonderful. For one thing, Mortenson has found better help with the writing, so the story is crafted in a riveting, compelling fashion.
Most of all, though, the story itself is riveting and compelling. While autobiography was a necessary and interesting part of the first book, this one is more about the work of the Central Asia Institute than about Mortenson himself. In an inversion of the usual approach taken in books about institutions, here the pyramid of emphasis gives the most prominence to the people at the bottom of the organizational structure. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Central Asia Institute is the extent to which the principle of subsidiarity is honored: the work is handled at the lowest competent level, which means most of it is in the hands of the Afghanis and Pakistanis themselves. The Americans handle the overall organization and fundraising, at which it must be admitted we are much better than at dealing with the intricacies of getting things done in a culture that is completely foreign to us.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan; the rise and fall and rise of the Taliban; the devastating earthquake in Kashmir; the tensions (and war) between India and Pakistan; the unselfish goodness and the tragic, pig-headed stupidity of American intervention—see these from the inside, and never look at a map of that part of the world in the same way again. Learn what unbelievable sacrifices the "backwoods," tribal peoples will make to gain an education for their daughters, and how much they appreciate schooling for their sons that does not include militant, Taliban-backed, Saudi-funded, extremist indoctrination.
What pleases me most about Stones into Schools is the clear fairness of it all. In the acknowledgments section, there are as many D's after the politicians names as there are R's. Mortenson excoriates and praises American policy with an even hand, according to the results he sees. And while he is careful never to take any funding from the U. S. government for fear of jeopardizing the credibility of his organization, he is happy to work with the military to promote peace and understanding.
Prior to those meetings [with military personal, from service academies to high-level officials], my judgment of the American military's conduct in Afghanistan was harsh and rather uncompromising—and even after these encounters, I still have my objections. Between June and November 2006, for example, the U.S. Air Force ... dropped roughly 987 bombs on Afghanistan.... The resulting civilian casualties generated deep revulsion among the Afghan people.
Nevertheless, as I experienced the equivalent of sharing three cups of tea with the U.S. military, my perspective began to change. In a way, each side had something to teach the other, and we both wound up emerging wiser and enriched by the encounter. In the end, I also came away with the conclusion that the military is probably doing a better job than any other institution in the United States government—including the State Department, Congress, and the White House—of developing a meaningful understanding of the complex dynamics on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The progress that the military has made began under President Bush, and continues under President Obama. The Central Asia Institute's supporters are as "red" as they are "blue." They are school children collecting Pennies for Peace, and high-ranking military leaders. Is there something here that can unite our sorely divided country?
I often recommend books, but I rarely say, "everyone should read this book."
Everyone should read this book.
Most of all, every American should read Stones into Schools.