“So, did you have your three cups of tea?” a U.S. infantryman, bulky in body armor, asked another soldier as he emerged from the mud-brick home of an Afghan village elder.
In this case, it wasn’t tea but slices of cool melon, served to the sweating troops who spent an hour crouched on a plastic tarp covering the dirt floor of the house in this hamlet in northern Afghanistan.
But the phrase “three cups of tea” has entered the American troop lexicon as shorthand for any leisurely, trust-building chat with locals. It is drawn, as legions of readers can attest, from the bestselling book of the same title by former mountaineer Greg Mortenson, who has devoted himself to establishing girls schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With its inspirational tone and idealistic worldview, “Three Cups of Tea” would seem an unlikely primer of military counterinsurgency.
Its message, however, has become entwined with U.S. strategic thinking in Afghanistan during the last year, roughly coinciding with the tenure of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who reached out to Mortenson and sought his advice on overcoming the mistrust of Afghan villagers.
Mortenson then helped broker a series of meetings between the general and tribal elders.
Befriending the locals in the service of ambitious goals in a strange land is hardly a new idea. But Mortenson’s vivid, often poignant stories of his own early struggles to connect with standoffish or hostile elders in communities where he wanted to provide girls with schooling struck a chord with several senior military officers.
The book’s rise in influence coincided with a growing belief that the war effort was faltering, in part because force alone was not working. Protecting civilians took center stage in the strategy McChrystal put together soon after arriving last summer.
Although the general was forced to relinquish his command over intemperate comments to a Rolling Stone reporter by him and senior aides, troops were already well steeped in the “Tea” phenomenon by the time of his departure this June.
Many deploying soldiers had the book pressed on them by wives or girlfriends. At bases around Afghanistan, tents and barracks often contain a dusty, dog-eared copy. Over the last year, Mortenson has made occasional appearances to talk to troops.
The new commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, whose own wife urged him to read the book, has reaffirmed McChrystal’s counterinsurgency doctrine, which he had helped craft. This month, he issued guidelines instructing troops to mingle with locals whenever possible.
“Take off your sunglasses,” was one of Petraeus’ admonitions. Another: “Drink lots of tea.”
The military’s embrace, however, has created some complications for Mortenson, who recognizes that it might arouse suspicions among some of the villagers he deals with.
“It’s risky; some people don’t like it,” he said of his informal advisory role. “But then, some other people don’t like us talking to the Taliban either.”
A self-described free thinker who once lived in his car during a bout of joblessness, Mortenson hated the book’s original subtitle, which included the phrase “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism.” (Armed with the clout of burgeoning sales, he got it changed in later editions.)
It is an open question, though, whether the tactics championed in the book — respect, cultural sensitivity and perseverance — can reap the same rewards in an utterly different context.
In Afghan villages, troops in full battle gear making their way through narrow lanes remain an incongruous sight. Sometimes they are trailed by children, laughing and unafraid, but they can also be the recipients of studied silence or hard-eyed stares. Even a courteous reception is often tinged with wariness.
Abdul Shah Qul, the ranking elder of Pul-e-Kheshti, heard out the American troops who visited him last month, nodding assent as they told him of their wish to keep his community safe and help with local development.
“If we see anything bad or strange, we will let you know,” he told the newcomers.
But later, contacted by telephone, he expressed doubts that an occasional visit by the American forces could keep the insurgents at bay.
“Seventy percent of the people here,” he said, “believe the Taliban will be back.”