Spend some time with US Army officers and this much is clear: They are obsessed with drinking tea. At times, tea can seem a bit like the militarys secret weapon. A young US officer bonds with an Afghan elder over cups of the brew, and soon they are working side by side to win the locals trust and drive out the insurgents. Much of the militarys belief in tea culture can be traced back to Greg Mortenson and his memoir, Three Cups of Tea , a book touted by top commanders and devoured by younger officers. In recent days Mortenson has had to fend off allegations that big chunks of his memoir, which chronicles his work to build schools in some of the most remote and violent areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are lies. Both 60 Minutes and writer Jon Krakauer have alleged that Mortenson has misused money donated to the charity he formed. Mortenson has defended his memoir as largely true and denied any financial impropriety. The allegations are rippling through the publishing industry, which has seen this sort of scandal before, and through high schools and universities across the country that placed the bestseller on their required reading lists. But the scandals most far-reaching impact could be on the US military, which was quick to embrace Mortensons message that one American could help change the lives of Afghans and bring light and learning to a troubled part of the world. His recipe for winning the war on terror was tantalisingly simple: By building schools especially girls schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mortenson and his backers could vanquish religious extremism. The US military was just dying for his story to be true, said Celeste Ward Gventer, who was a senior civilian adviser to the US military in Baghdad during some of the darkest days of the Iraq war. They were dying to believe that this one guy learned the culture, earned the Afghans respect and helped them build a better society. Mortensons celebrity in the military took off about the same time that the Afghanistan war started to founder. Officers who had done multiple tours in Iraq, but had little experience in Afghanistan, went searching for someone who could explain a deeply alien culture to them. Three Cups of Tea and the follow-up, Stones Into Schools, were much more fun to read than the militarys counterinsurgency doctrine and carried with them a far more uplifting message. Never mind that the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai sometimes seemed like a poorly managed kleptocracy, his books seemed to say. Pay no attention to the fact that Afghanistan often could be a brutish and inhospitable place. Mortensons narratives of wise, patient and kind Afghan and Pakistani elders made it seem as though progress in Afghanistan was achievable. All US troops had to do was learn the Afghan culture, show some patience and deliver a little bit of progress, and the Afghans would see the US militarys good intentions and turn against the Taliban. In this formulation, counterinsurgency a complex, morally ambiguous and frequently bloody type of war came to look a bit like social work with guns. By mid-2009 Mortenson was making the rounds at military bases across the country and meeting with top officers such as Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gens David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal heralded his work. The mountain-climber-turned-philanthropist visits about two dozen posts each year to lecture to troops deploying to Afghanistan on the nuances of tribal warfare, according to a US Army website. Dog-eared and dirt-encrusted copies of his memoir can be found at the most remote Afghan outposts. In April he was the keynote speaker at a major US Army strategy conference on the future of the Army officer corps and officer ethics. Pentagon officials have declined to comment on Mortensons predicament. Mortensons biggest impact, however, is evident in the writings of Army officers who embraced his call to tea. Last year, Lt-Col Patrick Gaydon and Capt Jonathan Pan wrote of their alliance with Haji Abdul Jabar, a district governor in Afghanistans violent Arghandab district. Like Greg Mortensons best seller, our relationship with Jabar was forged over chai (tea) during the late summer and fall of 2009, the two officers wrote in a piece for Small Wars Journal, a website where military officers debate battlefield strategy. Jabar was courteous but reserved when he first met the two earnest soldiers. Once he came to know Gaydon and Pan, his reserve melted away, according to the officers, and Jabar treated them as family. Jabar was killed as he drove home from work last June, a sign that stabilisation was working in Arghandab, according to Gaydon and Pan. (The somewhat tortured thesis is that the Taliban killed him because his work with the Americans was winning the support of previously indifferent locals, thus threatening the Talibans power base.) The story could have been lifted right from the pages of Mortensons collected works. But the reality wasnt quite as cheery. Other US officials working in the area concluded that Jabar was skimming funds earmarked for US reconstruction in his district but not sharing the spoils with others in the area. It was a mob hit, one US official told The Washington Post. We were getting played the whole time. Not everything about the militarys embrace of Mortensons tea philosophy has been counterproductive. Id say the biggest value of Mortensons work was in creating the 'dont be a jerk school of counterinsurgency, said Joshua Foust, who worked as an Afghan analyst for the Army. I think it would be a shame to abandon the idea of trying to respect the people youre trying to reform with guns and money just because one of the people promoting the concept is shown to be a fraud. In the near term, Mortensons stumble will almost certainly lead to greater soul-searching among officers who have been questioning not only Mortenson but also the broader hearts-and-minds approach of this war. And the controversy is likely to spur more discussion about the limits of American goodwill and influence in a place such as Afghanistan. No amount of tea with Afghans will persuade them that we are like them, that our war is their war or that our interests are their interests, said Michael Miklaucic, a long-time official with the US Agency for International Development who is currently serving at the Pentagons National Defence University. The war in Afghanistan isnt about persuasion or tea. It is about power. Miami Herald