The U.S. war on terror has largely been waged with guns and bombs, but these weapons often miss the true enemy in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, a best-selling author said in metro Atlanta on Jan. 28.

To Greg Mortenson, ignorance is the main adversary, and lack of education is far more dangerous in the long run than any enemy soldier.

Mr. Mortenson is the author of “Three Cups of Tea,” a book that has captured hearts around the world.  It has sold more than 2.4 million copies and remains on the New York Times bestseller list for the 104th straight week. 

The book recounts how the hospitality of a small village in Pakistan inspired him to build schools for girls in that country and in neighboring Afghanistan.

Battered and dehydrated, Mr. Mortenson and his fellow climbers first stumbled into the village of Korphe after failing to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second-highest peak, which runs along the China-Pakistan border. 

The villagers took them in, and he vowed to repay their hospitality.  When a little girl asked him to build a school, the idea for the Central Asia Institute was born.

He founded the institute in 1993 after returning from what had been a life-changing trip. But at the time – with no fundraising experience – Mr. Mortenson had no idea where he’d get the $12,000 he needed in order to make good on his promise.

He wrote letters to 580 celebrities, and only one check came back: a $100 check from famous news anchor Tom Brokaw.

Later, when Mr. Mortenson spoke at an elementary school, an inspired student pledged to use the money from his piggy bank toward the cause.  A few months later, the school had collected more than $600 in pennies.

From that effort came Pennies for Peace, a movement that has helped fund the 78 schools the Central Asia Institute has built in the past 15 years.  Mr. Mortenson has spoken at hundreds of schools, and Pennies for Peace has begun to inspire young people to form their own charitable foundations.

Mr. Mortenson’s book and the institute have nudged along the idea that cultural experience and understanding are means of providing opportunity and fostering peace.

“The only way we can really understand poverty is that we have to smell poverty, touch poverty, taste poverty, be with poverty, and we can’t solve poverty from a think tank in Washington D.C.,” he told an audience at Agnes Scott College in Decatur.

At the all-female institution, Mr. Mortenson joked that he didn’t need to emphasize the fact that girls’ education is key to redefining a society.

“If you educate a boy, you educate an individual,” he said.  “If you educate a girl, you educate a community.”

This is especially true in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Islam is the predominant religious tradition, he said. 

Giving girls access to education has a direct effect on the recruitment efforts of extremist organizations like the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan before the U.S. invaded in 2001.

In Islamic tradition, boys need a mother’s consent to join a jihadist movement, and educated mothers are less likely to give permission if the group has militant ties, Mr. Mortenson said.

For this reason, the Taliban in Afghanistan often targets illiterate males for recruitment and often attacks schools that educate girls.  In 2007, militants bombed or shot at more than 500 schools.  Some 80-90 percent of those were girls schools.

Still, the number of kids enrolled in school in Afghanistan has risen from only 800,000 in 2000 to some 7 million today.  About 2 million of those are girls. 

And the rise in female literacy has another positive effect: population control.  The higher the literacy rate, the lower the birth rate, Mr. Mortenson said.

That will be important in Pakistan, where he says the population at the current growth rate would double from 160 million to 320 million in 25 years, causing many social problems.

Mr. Mortenson believes the work his movement has inspired epitomizes the idea that America is engaged in a new war, one to win hearts and minds, not just military skirmishes.

A military veteran whose book is now often read by Pentagon officials engaged in counterintelligence activities in the region, Mr. Mortenson is convinced that no matter how many billions of dollars are spent on defense, America will never be safe until it starts building bridges to peace through education.

What the Taliban fear most, he said, “is not the bullet, but the pen.” 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...