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Key to Afghan crisis: tea and education

Greg Mortenson, author of 'Three Cups of Tea,' says success lies in building trust and schools in rural Afghanistan.

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Chairman Joint Chiefs Of Staff Admiral Mullen and Greg Mortenson, director of Central Asia Institute Pushgur Girls school inauguration, Panjshir valley, Afghanistan, July 15.

Chad McNeely/US Armed Services

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Greg Mortenson doesn't need to rely on think tanks or arcane policy documents to find the road to a better Afghanistan.

The mountaineer-turned-school builder from Montana – recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize – depends on what might be called his own show-of-hands index, based on his visits to speak with children in the United States and Afghanistan. In the past few months alone, he's spoken to tens of thousands of them.

"I always ask American schoolchildren how often they talk with their grandparents about the important events of history in the past. Invariably, maybe 10 percent at most will raise their hands," he says.

He poses the same question in the remotest corners of Afghanistan, where he has successfully erected 80 schools, many of them focusing on education for girls. There, the range of responses he receives seems to reflect the social health of a particular community.

In rural villages where the Taliban has not exerted its will on the community, Mr. Mortenson says perhaps 80 percent of kids respond affirmatively. But in areas where home-grown and foreign Taliban fighters have established brutal strongholds, sometimes with connections to Al Qaeda, almost no child raises a hand.

As President Obama pledged another 30,000 US troops Dec. 1 to root out terrorists in Afghanistan, Mortenson is suggesting that effort must go hand in hand with another: grass-roots education.

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