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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
In the last three chapters of the book, Mortenson’s financial fortunes change,
but his situation becomes more, rather than less, complicated. Mortenson has
struggled for years with little money, sharing in a way the poverty of those he was
helping. Then, in Chapter 21, the American government offers him a huge amount of
money. He decides, however, he would lose his credibility in the region by accepting
it. Then, in Chapter 22, he gains an unexpected financial support from the public,
providing him the opportunity to reward his helpers, upgrade his operations, and
undertake new projects. But the more resources he has, the more there is to do. We
see in Chapter 23 that money cannot solve some problems. Mortenson’s journey to the
Wakhan Corridor is as difficult and dangerous as anything he had ever attempted
before, and we realize that the challenges ahead of him will be greater than any
he’s faced before.
In Chapter 23, Mortenson switches his personal commitment from Haji Ali, the
chief of a small village, to Sadhar Khan, the formidable leader of a fighting force.
This change completes the dramatic shift that has taken place between the beginning
of the book and the end. Mortenson’s harrowing trip to the Wakhan corridor in
Chapter 23 is as challenging and life-threatening as his descent from K2 had been,
and when he arrives at his destination, he must once again follow his instincts. He
must choose whether to trust Sadhar Khan, a man with a violent past. Yet Mortenson
recognizes in this warrior the next phase of the mission he had begun with Haji. By
comparing the two men, Relin makes us recognize how much the world has changed since
Mortenson first stumbled into Korphe. Looking back, we see that Korphe’s isolation
from the world was in some ways a blessing, as Mortenson realized when he
contemplated building the bridge.