Greg Mortenson: Promotes Peace Through Girls' Schools

The Three Cups of Tea author is one of America's Best Leaders for his work in Afghanistan.

By + More

Greg Mortenson, coauthor of the wildly successful book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace. . . One School at a Time, can recall the precise moment he knew that he had created a movement.

A girls' school that Mortenson helped to open south of Kabul, Afghanistan, had been attacked by the Taliban in the summer of 2007. The insurgents had also cut down fruit trees, a valuable source of income for some of the girls' families. So, the next day the school's headmaster got on his bike and pedaled 23 miles to notify a local militia commander that the school had been shut down. That particular commander is "a little shady," Mortenson says, "but he also has daughters in school, so he sent a local posse over.

"They came in, killed two Taliban, and put a dozen guards around the school." Guards remain to this day. "Their orders are that if anybody harms any child or teacher, shoot them. While that's not how we would handle the school problems," Mortenson, 51, says of the orders, the community's concern for its school " clearly shows they are invested." It is the sort of buy-in, he adds, that has yielded payoffs in often violent places.

Published in 2006, Three Cups of Tea has sold more than 3 million copies in 39 countries. It is also required reading for Special Forces troops deploying to Afghanistan and has garnered praise from Pentagon heavyweights like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This has made Mortenson a valued unofficial adviser to the U.S. military, a development that surprised him. "I was actually fairly critical of the military at the Pentagon after 9/11," he says. Pennies for Peace, founded by Mortenson in 1994 with schoolchildren who used their spare change to help him raise money for his first school, accepts no federal funds "and never plans to" so that it will not be "perceived as an arm of the U.S. government." Mortenson has, however, hosted commanders at his schools and visited dozens of bases to brief soldiers. "I can say the military in the last two years has gone through a huge learning curve. In many ways, I think the military is far ahead of our State Department and political leaders."

And even as the insurgency in Afghanistan has gained strength, America's growing disillusionment with the war makes Mortenson wary. "Although it may seem kind of a waste of our resources to many Americans, we made a promise," he says. When America cut funding to Afghanistan in the 1980s, "we basically abandoned the people who helped us overthrow the Soviets." He worries that history may repeat itself. "We invaded, and within a year and a half ran off to Iraq—again we abandoned the people. To me, this is our third—and final—try."

Hard climb. There were times when Mortenson, an avid mountain climber who worked in hospital emergency rooms to fund his passion, wasn't sure he would be able to start a school in the small Pakistani village where he found himself exhausted and lost after a failed attempt to ascend the notorious K2 Himalayan summit. But he was determined to return the generosity the villagers had shown him. "I kind of had to give up everything, and sell all my possessions, until things started to change around," he says. After hearing of his efforts, American schoolchildren stepped in. Their 62,400 donated pennies helped to build his first school. The villages are supplied with masons, carpenters, and teacher training. Villages must provide free labor, wood, and land.

He now visits about 200 schools a year throughout the United States, from kindergartens to the Air Force Academy, to speak about his efforts to educate impoverished children. Pennies for Peace will be in some 20,000 schools next year, giving rise to what Mortenson hopes will become a new generation of leaders in the United States who will take up the cause of global education. "Women who have an education are not likely to condone their son getting into violence," he says. "I've seen that very vividly."