Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan

Document Type



Institute for Educational Development, Karachi


This article examines the role of humanitarian discourse and development in reconfiguring the contemporary culture of empire and its war on terror. It takes as its point of entry the immensely popular biographical tale, Three Cups of Tea, which details how the American mountaineer Greg Mortenson has struggled to counter terrorism in Northern Pakistan through the creation of schools. Even as this text appears to provide a self-critical and humane perspective on terrorism, the article argues that it constructs a misleading narrative of terror in which the realities of Northern Pakistan and Muslim life-worlds are distorted through simplistic tropes of ignorance, backwardness and extremism, while histories of US geopolitics and violence are erased. The text has further facilitated the emergence of a participatory militarism, whereby humanitarian work helps to reinvent the military as a culturally sensitive and caring institution in order to justify and service the project of empire.


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University.

Publication (Name of Journal)

Third World Quarterly