In February of 2002, Mortenson is again in Pakistan. The U.S. action against Afghanistan has ended the rule of the Taliban and the Taliban’s repression of the Afghan people. Although Mortenson had been in favor of that war, he now worries about the many civilians who were killed or injured. In addition, the promised aid for rebuilding has not yet reached those in need. Mortenson travels to Kabul, where he learns that Uzra Faizad, a high-school principal, tries to teach 4,500 students with 90 teachers. None of these teachers has been paid for several months. Mortenson obtains permission from the CAI board to provide supplies for the students, and Julia Bergman, the librarian who works with the CAI, insists on traveling with him to distribute them, despite the danger.
Back in America, Mortenson continues to speak out on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Representative Mary Bono is so impressed by one of his presentations that she arranges for him to speak to a group of other congressmen. A Marine general makes a contribution to the CAI and arranges for Mortenson to meet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The meeting is very brief—Mortenson isn’t even offered a seat—and Mortenson mainly recalls Rumsfeld’s expensive, highly polished shoes. He receives an offer of funding from an unnamed government figure who suggests countering the rise in madrassas by creating more moderate schools to compete with them. But Mortenson feels his credibility in the region would be damaged if he were suspected of allying with the U.S. government. As the chapter ends, Mortenson wonders if his efforts are having any effect.
Kevin Fedarko, a reporter doing research for an article on high-altitude warfare, goes with Mortenson to a meeting in Korphe. Jahan, Haji’s grand-daughter, interrupts the meeting to remind Mortenson about his promise to help her, and Mortenson gives her tuition money for medical school. Fedarko is so impressed by this incident that he persuades Parade Magazine to run a cover story on Mortenson’s work. The story appears shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, and many readers view Mortenson’s work as an alternative to war. Donations to the CAI pour in. This new support allows Mortenson to give raises to the Pakistani employees and accept an increase in his own salary. He also rents an office for himself and hires a small staff. In addition, the money makes it possible to start new projects in Pakistan for students continuing their education. Another Pakistani cleric, however, has declared a fatwa against Mortenson and has partially destroyed one of the CAI schools. The case goes before a conservative Muslim court and not only is the fatwa lifted, but the cleric is ordered to pay for damages to the school. Mortenson meets with a powerful Pakistani official who seeks his advice on how best to spend government funds in the region. As the chapter ends, he visits Jahan, who tells him she now believes she can be a great woman.
Mortenson is on his way to the Wakhan Corridor (a thin arm of Afghanistan that runs alongside an area of northern Pakistan) to fulfill his promise to the Khirgiz chief who approached him in Zuudkhan. On a flight to Kabul, Mortenson meets the elderly Afghan king Zahir Shah, and the two discuss how American attention has turned away from Afghanistan to the war in Iraq. Mortenson tells Zahir Shah about his work, and the king suggests he see Sadhar Khan, a leader of the Afghan freedom fighters (mujahideen) who cares about the welfare of his people. After a harrowing journey that involves getting trapped in a dangerous tunnel and caught in a cross-fire between opium smugglers, Mortenson reaches Faizabad riding in the bed of a truck filled with rotting goatskins. He then makes his way to Baharak and finds Sadhar Khan. Khan knows of his work, and the two men begin discussing possible locations for schools. Khan explains that he wants to honor his fallen soldiers by building schools, and Mortenson realizes that his future will be about working on this new project.
Chapter 21 continues to show how Mortenson’s mission has changed from a little-known humanitarian project to an endeavor at the crossroads of world events. Mortenson was literally half a world away from the World Trade Center on 9/11, but he was very near the remote regions of Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and his followers planned the destruction of the Twin Towers. Due to his experiences in Central Asia, Mortenson has a very different view of events than most Americans, since he knows that the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. He also understands how terrorist groups exploit the region’s poverty and lack of education to recruit soldiers. Yet his attempts to explain these realities to the public and to the government fall largely on deaf ears. Although there is now a worldwide focus on the region, we can see that it will pose new hardships for Mortenson’s work rather than bringing new aid. At the end of Chapter 21, as Mortenson prepares for his twenty-seventh trip to Pakistan, he wonders whether anyone is listening to him, and whether the frequent separations from his family are worthwhile.
By this time, nearing the end of the book, we have accompanied Mortenson on his journey and can understand his point of view. Like Mortenson, we have gotten to know the people of Pakistan, so we share in his distress when he realizes that some of the civilians threatened by war may actually be CAI students and their families. Knowing how hard Mortenson has worked to stretch the CAI funds, we understand his frustration at seeing so much spent on warfare when it could have been spent providing people with education and opportunities. In addition to sharing Mortenson’s experience, we are also able to see it in a larger framework. When the events in these chapters occurred, Mortenson had no way of knowing how long the war in Iraq would last, or how much it would turn attention away from Afghanistan. As readers, we realize that the very things he worried about then are things that have actually happened since. That recognition gives these final chapters added poignancy.