Mortenson’s fall from grace started with renewed scrutiny over some of the early passages in the Three Cups of Tea and subsequently the financial (mis)management of his Central Asia Institute (CAI) – founded in 1996, long before most North Americans had the slightest interest in this region. The turning point was the “60 Minutes” episode that publicly disgraced Mortenson. Though he has recently begun to reemerge from the shadow and move forward with his original mission, Mortenson and CAI have cruised largely outside of the limelight, and in disgrace, ever since.
Two allegations stand out. The first, as noted, regards fabrications in his account of what happened after his unsuccessful attempt to climb the K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. The second regards the financial mismanagement of CAI funds. Of note, and in response to these allegations, a new documentary pushes back, defending Mortenson vociferously.
So which account should we believe? Though I’m in no better position to judge than anyone else, I am sympathetic to Mortenson, and skeptical of those who have been most ardently critical. Let me first clarify that there is no doubt that both his storytelling and CAI financial management were flawed, as even he himself has admitted on several occasions. So then why do I remain sympathetic to Mortenson?
First, I am from this part of the world and I know the region on a deeply personal level, and I have a feeling that on net Mortenson has done much more good than harm through his work at CAI for the people of Af-Pak. There is ample evidence that he has built functioning and effective schools, especially for girls, in places where there were no schools before. Second, I tend to assess the allegations from a bird’s eye view and not through stand-alone tidbits, which I think, and clearly have been in this case, can be quite misleading. For a person who has almost single-handedly pursued valuable work in these remote regions, does it really matter if his encounter at a village in Korphe was just a few hours or a few weeks long? How do these allegations fare in the broader scheme of things? Consider some recent events and new information:
The Montana attorney general (CAI is based in Bozeman, MT) conducted a comprehensive investigation in this regard and the result was a fine of about $1 million that Mortenson had to pay to CAI, while also stepping down as a voting board member. So all this fuss ended with just a million dollar fine? This figure alone pales into comparison with both a) how much good he has done in the region for two decades, and b) how much aid money has been wasted by the more “official” development sector whether right, left or center.
The U.S. alone has spent almost a trillion dollars in Afghanistan since 2002 and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has repeatedly reported that billions of development dollars can no longer be accounted for. Some specific cases of this far more egregious mismanagement include:
- Stability in Key Areas (SIKA) Programs: After 16 Months and $47 Million Spent, USAID Had Not Met Essential Program Objectives http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/audits/SIGAR%20Audit%2013-16-SIKA.pdf
- Afghan National Security Forces: Additional Action Needed to Reduce Waste in $4.7 Billion Worth of Planned and Ongoing Construction Projects http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/audits/SIGAR-Audit-13-18.pdf
- Forward Operating Base Sharana: Poor Planning and Construction Resulted in $5.4 Million Spent for Inoperable Incinerators and Continued Use of Open-Air Burn Pits http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/inspections/SIGAR_14-13_Inspection_Sharana%20Incinerators.pdf
- Balkh Education Facility: Building Remains Unfinished and Unsafe to Occupy After Nearly 5 Years http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/inspections/SIGAR_Inspection_14-24.pdf
- Pol-i-Charkhi Prison: After 5 Years and $18.5 Million, Renovation Project Remains Incomplete http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/inspections/SIGAR-15-11-IP.pdf
- SIGAR Audit: U.S. Unable to Gauge Progress of $77 Million Investment in Afghan AG Ministry -Capacity Building at Ag Ministry Vital to Afghan Farmers, Private-Sector Development- http://www.sigar.mil/newsroom/ReadFile.aspx?SSR=7&SubSSR=28&File=pressreleases/11/2011-oct-20-pr.html
- Afghanistan's National Power Utility: $12.8 Million in DoD-Purchased Equipment Sits Unused, and USAID Paid a Contractor for Work Not Done http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/audits/2012-12-18audit-13-2.pdf
- Imam Sahib Border Police Company Headquarters in Kunduz Province: $7.3 Million Facility Sits Largely Unused http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/inspections/2013-01-29-inspection-13-05.pdf
- Special Report 15-10-SP: Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan: After a Decade of Reconstruction and Over $7 Billion in Counternarcotics Efforts, Poppy Cultivation Levels Are at an All-Time High
- And so on…
What Krakauer did was necessary, but one can’t help but wonder if he had any personal grievances against Mortenson, and why we as a society don’t scrutinize every case of fraud and corruption in the field of international development, as we did in this case.
Mortenson was admittedly terrible in his financial management, but was it fair to disgrace him to this level for his mistakes? Do we even think about the consequences this ordeal had on the communities in remote regions of Af-Pak? Could it have been handled differently so that he would learn his lessons, pay for his mistakes, and even make it a lesson to others in the development industry without the added psychological trauma, shame and disgrace to his name? What is a greater sin, that he actually built 100 schools but claims (intentionally or otherwise) that he built 120, or that no more schools to be built (and by extension, no additional girls getting an education) in another village as a result of these allegations and the subsequent plummeting in CAI donations? Again consider the graft and mismanagement that has permeated, and indeed characterizes, so much of what we consider “official development assistance” by governments and larger organizations in the same region, with far less impact on the well-being of Af-Pak people.
I will close with one of his famous quotes as food for thought, which sums up his worth in both words and action and which I think is much bigger than all the accusations, (though unfortunately even this quote has sometimes been used against him):
“War will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”
AMRDI Central Asia Specialist