I see that people are finally reading my post from six months ago about Greg Mortenson and the CAI (Central Asia Institute). The 60 minutes piece and the CNN article and all the rest have changed things, haven't they? I never went into details last year about what might be in it for the people who I have long suspected are behind him. So I guess that's kind of overdue.
First of all, I'm going to say it yet again. If you want to get a handle on what's going on in that part of the world, personally, I say drop "Mortenson's" books. Instead, read Charlie Wilson's War (The movie's not bad in its own way), Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid, and The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet, by Brian Murphy.
Just for starters, this would also be the time to say that I was born in Panama. To parents who had spent quite a bit of time in Mexico. And each of whom has since spent ample time in the developing world, from Sri Lanka to Kenya to Nicaragua. And very little of that in hotels or other "Americanized"and protected zones. My best friends when I was a little kid were the missionary family down the hall. Their mom was from a Wyoming family of evangelists (she eventually spent years in China) and their dad grew up in a mission in Burma and did his thesis on U Thant, who was then just a local notable. I'll get back to him later.
I could go on with the long list of missionaries and NGO folks and ethnobotanists and mountain climbers in my life or the time I've spent in my own kinds of places that aren't exactly "U.S. mainstream" but let's just say that when I wrote six months ago about having a visceral sense of Mortenson's books being wrong, it wasn't in comparison to Discovery Channel specials. It was in comparison to things like, oh, god, my father is caught in a "civil revolt" again and I'm really impatient to hear from him. Or once, oh crud, here I am arguing with my mother about is it worth keeping our appointments while the smoke from the protests and Guardia Civil's tanks wafts into our room?
Okay, that having been said, it's time for me to speculate.
My guess is that there were people in, well, let's just say the Mary Bono/Mellon-Scaife world, who were uncomfortable with the various movements by people like BRAC to route around the horrific but very controllable "education" infrastructure in south Asia.
In other words, there were, by the late nineties, any number of groups, most native to south Asia, that were working to build schools, many also for especially for girls, tying this into microcredit (note how CAI has now positioned themselves as a gatekeeper for microcredit as well) and enable things like access to birth control and health care for women. In other words, groups that were and still are generally taking a decentralized, locally controlled, collaborative approach to the systemic problems that have kept women (and actually, to some extent, everybody not from the ruling families) relatively powerless in that part of the world for, at the least, centuries.
Now, I don't know about how much y'all followed the Reagan period approach to policy there but a key part of it was a systemic approach to do just the opposite. To keep things such that oil companies and our local totalitarians could "smoothly" keep doing their thing. I've long since lost track of the number of schools U.S.-backed people like the Contras burned down or how many teachers they tortured and killed. And it's not like U.S. foreign policy has exactly become simon-pure since then or avoided such techniques before.
Not to mention that birth control, especially in the developing world, is a big no-no to such people. They feel that it's VERY important to keep groups backing that on the margins. Our Congress has given us demonstrations of just how hard and viciously the right will fight for that quite recently, haven't they?
So they found an American, a charismatic guy raised in a missionary outpost, a very controllable, very ambitious, very Christian guy who was already doing something in the field and happily admitted that he wanted to hand off things like publicity and managing money, and they turned him into a front man they could position publicly as THE voice of education reform in that part of the world. It's a game as old as Alfred Sloane. If you can't kill a threatening movement you build your own organization under your control (G.M. backing Greyhound Lines, anybody?) and position it as the "more legitimate" and emotionally compelling substitute for the people who are threatening your power.
And Greg Mortenson would have been, I suspect, a very controllable front indeed for the person who knew what buttons to push. I don't think that my friends' dad ever quite got the hang of American culture and his permanent confusion about what "America" meant is pretty common among people who grow up overseas in missions. I strongly suspect this applies to Greg Mortenson. They grow up on idealized and very fraught stories of the U.S. and visits from friends of their parents and workers for the mission and some of these former mission kids seem to have trouble all their lives with a certain kind of "in-betweenness" and need to get back to what feels "real" conflicting with a guilt that they should want to be "back" in the U.S. where they've been told they "belong" but never entirely feel comfortable. Except when spending time with others from the same backgrounds which just leaves them driven to go back "overseas" again. Sound familiar?
So if Mortenson's would-be backers/handlers can drape their "suggestions" and "advice" in the language he was brought up in, then he'd be eager to agree and go along. And as, over time, that advice grew to include money and organizational help and maybe now and again "one of our people who'll drop by and fix that little problem you're having with your accounting" he would be quite possibly relieved to be able to turn his back and not look too closely at the details. And as the "help" shifted over to them buying him expensive suits and flying him around on private jets, there would always be somebody there to tell him that this wasn't a bribe or a luxury. Just a selfless part of doing the job. And as the Pakistani and then U.S. military stepped in, he could just keep saying that it was all for the purest of reasons. And as for his millions in "personal expenses", he wasn't stealing CAI's money. It was all for the greater good, really, and surely not at all, well, sinful. I don't think that any of us will ever know how deep the lies went in his head and among the staffers at CAI. But we know that one way or another the answer was "pretty deep."
At the moment the world out there is enjoying their high dudgeon about "this is an OUTRAGE!" but they aren't, from what I've seen, asking the question, "so, if this has been going on for over ten years, why weren't you covering this in, say, 2007, when he was already a celebrity but hadn't gotten the massive support from everybody from the New York Times to Oprah Winfrey that he has now had?"
This is about centralization of power, and the coordination and propaganda machines that play such a key role in making that centralization possible. It's also about the media's collective habits of what to cover and how.
And that makes it everybody's business.