‘Three Cups of Tea’: Served with a grain of salt?
Greg Mortenson, the high-profile advocate of girls’ education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been forced to defend his best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time,” against charges that key stories in it are false.
Mortenson shot to international fame with the book, which describes his getting lost in an effort to climb K2, the world’s second-highest peak, being rescued by Pakistani villagers in the village of Korphe and vowing to return there to build a school for local girls.
He also claims to have been captured by the Taliban and held for several days before being released.
Another best selling-author, however—Jon Krakauer of “Into Thin Air” fame—told a CBS “60 Minutes” investigation that aired Sunday that the story is not true.
“It’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie,” Krakauer tells the program.
“Three Cups of Tea,” co-authored by writer David Oliver Relin, stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for four years after it was first published in 2006, becoming a global publishing sensation that has sold more than three million copies and been translated into 47 languages.
Mortenson is also the author of the 2009 sequel “Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” which was another Times best-seller.
Both books recount Mortenson’s quest to bring schools to some of the remotest parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan on the theory that education—especially for girls—is the best way to end the scourge of the Taliban and other extremists in the region. Mortenson’s publisher, Penguin Books, modestly describes him as “a real-life Indiana Jones.”
Mortenson’s quest to end extremism through education has made him a darling of the U.S. military. A photograph in “Stones into Schools” shows U.S. President Barack Obama’s top military adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, opening a girls’ school in northern Afghanistan with Mortenson in 2009.
Krakauer is a climber and former donor to Mortenson’s charity. CBS said he was one of Mortenson’s earliest backers, donating $75,000 to his cause, but withdrew his support over concerns the charity was being mismanaged.
He tells CBS News investigator Steve Kroft in the Sunday broadcast that a “close friend” of Mortenson’s who hiked back with him from K2 says Mortenson never heard of Korphe, the village he says he stumbled into, until a year after the failed climbing attempt.
In a transcript of Mortenson’s written responses to questions posed to him by CBS—a transcript posted on the website of Mortenson’s charitable organization, the Central Asia Institute—the author denies the claim is false.
He says he did visit Korphe in 1993, after his failed attempt to climb K2, but that the local people “have a completely different notion about time” than those in the West, implying they would not have been able to recount the exact year he visited.
“60 Minutes” also raised questions about the veracity of other episodes in the book, including his supposed 1996 kidnapping in the remote Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, along the Afghan border.
That story is one of the more exciting episodes in “Three Cups of Tea.” Over the course of a chapter, Mortenson describes being kidnapped by Waziri tribesmen and detained in a makeshift prison by Kalashnikov-toting guards for eight days, at which point he was suddenly released.
In “Stones into Schools,” Mortenson even provides a photo of his kidnappers, 13 fierce-looking tribesmen, many of whom are clutching guns.
CBS said it found four of the men in the picture and that all denied being Taliban. The network said the men provided another photo of the group with Mortenson, and in it, the author is shown holding an AK-47.
The photos raise a question about the truth of Mortenson’s claim that he was abducted. It is somewhat unusual for a group of kidnappers to pose for a photograph in which all their faces can be clearly seen. Gary Noesner, the former chief hostage negotiator at the FBI who has worked on 120 kidnapping cases, says it is “not common but not unheard of” for kidnappers to pose for pictures.
One of the supposed kidnappers in Mortenson’s photo is Mansur Khan Mahsud, who directs a Pakistani think tank that specializes in research in Pakistan’s tribal regions. (Mahsud has done research for the New America Foundation, where Peter Bergen is a director.)
Contacted by CNN, Mahsud said Mortenson’s account of his trip to Waziristan “is a pack of lies and not a single word of it is true.” Mahsud elaborated that Mortenson had come to South Waziristan in 1996 with one of Mahsud’s relatives and had stayed in the family village, Kot Langer Khel, for more than a week.
Rather than being kidnapped, Mahsud says, his family treated Mortenson as “an honored guest” and adds, “We were his protector in South Waziristan.”
On his website, gregmortenson.com, Mortenson claims the kidnapping was carried out by the Taliban. However, the Taliban had no presence in Waziristan in 1996, only arriving in the region after their fall from power in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001.
The Taliban had also banned photography at the time that they had supposedly kidnapped Mortenson.
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“Three Cups of Tea” author accused of hoax