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Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

Emblem of Afghanistan

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Thomas Gouttierre’s work with Afghanistan has drawn praise and criticism, moreso the latter as of late given what’s happened there with the war and some of that nation’s top leadership having been befriended and trained by Gouttierre’s Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  The following profile I did on Gouttierre appeared in 1998, long before U.S. involvement there escalated into full military intervention.  Regardless of what’s happened since I wrote the piece, the essential core of the story, which is that of Gouttierre’s magnificent obsession with that country and its people, remains the same.

The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).




Tom Gouttierre, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, took over as director of the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska in 1974.



Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, Omahan Thomas Gouttierre fell under the spell of an enigmatic desert nation as a young man and has been captivated by its Kiplingesque charms ever since.

The enchanting nation is Afghanistan and his rapture with it began while working and living there from 1965 to 1974, first as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English as a second language, then as a Fulbright fellow and later as executive director of the country’s Fulbright Foundation.  His duties included preparing and placing Afghan scholars for graduate studies abroad.  During his 10 years there, Gouttierre also coached the Afghan national basketball team.  Sharing the adventure with him was his wife and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Marylu.  The eldest of the couple’s three sons, Adam, was born there in 1971.

Before his desert sojourn, the Ohio native was a naive, idealistic college graduate with a burning desire to serve his fellow man.  When he got his chance half-a-world away, it proved a life transforming experience.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person,” he said.  “I was there from age 24 to 34 and I learned so much about myself and the rest of the world.  It gave me an opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people.  I love Afghanistan.  It’s people are so admirable.  So unique.  They have a great sense of humor.  They’re very hospitable.  They have a great self-assurance and pride.”

But the Afghanistan of his youth is barely recognizable now following 19 years of near uninterrupted carnage resulting from a protracted war with the former Soviet Union and an ongoing civil war.  Today, the Muslim state lies in shambles, its institutions in disarray.  The bitter irony of it all is that the Afghans themselves have turned the heroic triumph of their victory over the vaunted Soviet military machine into a fratricidal tragedy.

Over the years millions of refugees have fled the country into neighboring Pakistan and Iran or been displaced from their homes and interred in camps across Afghanistan.  An entire generation has come to maturity never setting foot in their homeland or never having known peace.

The nation’s downward spiral has left Gouttierre, 57, mourning the loss of the Afghanistan he knew and loved.  “In a sense I’ve seen what one might call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said, “because for all its deficiencies, Afghan society – when I was living there – was really a very pleasant place to be.  It was a quite stable, secure society.   A place where people, despite few resources and trying circumstances, still treated each other with a sense of decency and civility.  It was a fantastic country.  I loved functioning in that Afghanistan.  I really miss that environment.  Not to be able to go back to that culture is a real loss.”

Through it all, Gouttierre’s kept intact his ties to the beleaguered Asian nation.  In his heart, he’s never really left.  The job that took him away in 1974 and that he still holds today – as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – has kept him in close contact with the country and sent him on fact-finding trips there.  He was there only last May, completing a tour of duty as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.  It was his first trip back since 1993 (before the civil strife began), and what he saw shook him.

“To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates was very, very sad,” he said from his office on the UNO campus, where he’s also dean of the Office of International Studies and Programs.  “Much of the country looks like Berlin and Dresden did after the Second World War, with bombed-out villages and cities.  Devastation to the point where almost no family is left unaffected.

“Going back for me was very bittersweet.  With every Afghan I met there was such despair about the future of the country.  The people are fed up with the war…they so want to return to the way things were.  People cried. It was very emotional for me too.”

Everywhere he went he met old friends, who invariably greeted him as “Mr. Tom,” the endearing name he’d earned years before.  “In every place I visited I wound up seeing people that I have known for most of my adult life.  Individuals that have been here at the University of Nebraska at  Omaha – in programs that we’ve sponsored – or people I coached in basketball or people I was instrumental in sending to the U.S. under Fulbright programs or people who taught me Persian and other languages of Afghanistan.  So, you know, there’s kind of an extended network there.  In fact, it was kind of overwhelming at times.”

Colleague Raheem Yaseer, coordinator of international exchange programs in UNO’s Office of International Studies and Programs, said, “I think he’s received better than any ambassador or any foreign delegation official.  He’s in good standing wherever he goes in Afghanistan.”

Yaseer, who supervised Gouttierre in Afghanistan, came to America in 1988 at the urging of Gouttierre, for whom he now works.  A political exile, Yaseer is part of a small cohesive Afghan community in Nebraska whose hub is UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies.  The center, which houses the largest collection of materials on Afghanistan in the Western Hemisphere, provides a link to the Afghans’ shared homeland.

Aside from his fluency in native dialects, his knowledge of Islamic traditions and sensitivity to Afghan culture, Gouttierre also knows many of the principals involved in the current war.  It’s the kind of background that gives him instant access and credibility.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Gouttierre said.  “The Afghans have a phrase that translates, ‘The first time you meet, you’re friends.  The second time you meet, you’re brothers.’  And Afghans really live by that – unless you poison that relationship.”


Thomas Gouttierre greeting an Afghani girl


According to Yaseer, Gouttierre’s “developed a skill for penetrating deep into the culture and traditions of the people and places he visits.  He’s able to put everything in a cultural context, which is rare.”

It’s what enables Gouttierre to see the subtle shadings of Afghanistan under its fabled veil of bravado.  “When people around the world wonder why the Afghans are still fighting, they don’t realize that a society’s social infrastructure and fabric is very fragile,” said Gouttierre.  “They don’t realize what it means to go through a war as devastating as that which the Afghans experienced with the Soviet Union – when well over a million people were killed and much of the traditional resources and strengths of the country were destroyed.  When the Soviets left, the Afghans tried to cobble together any kind of government and they were unsuccessful.

“Now they’re trying to put this social-political Humpty-Dumpty back together again, and its just very difficult.”

Under Gouttierre’s leadership the center has been a linchpin in U.S.-U.N. efforts to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan and has served as a vital conduit between Afghans living inside and outside the country and agencies working on the myriad problems facing it.  With nearby Peshawar, Pakistan as a base, the center has operated training and education programs in the embattled country, including a new program training adults in skills needed to work on planned oil and gas pipelines.

Gouttierre himself is a key adviser to the U.S. and world diplomatic community on Afghan matters.  He’s served as the American specialist on Afghanistan, Tajikistan and South Asia at meetings of the U.S.-Russian Task Force (Dartmouth Conference) on Regional Conflicts.  He’s made presentations on Afghan issues at Congressional hearings and before committees of the British Parliament and the French National Assembly.
And last year he was nominated by the U.S. State Department to serve as the American representative on the U.N. Mission to Afghanistan. “It was quite an honor,” said Gouttierre. “And for me to go back and work among the people again was very appealing and very rewarding.”

The aim of the U.N. mission, whose work continues today, is to engage the combating parties in negotiations toward a just peace settlement.  German Norbert Holl, a special representative of the U.N. secretary general to Afghanistan, heads the mission, whose other members are from Russia, Japan, England and France.

On two separate month-long trips to Afghanistan, Gouttierre met with representatives of the various factions and visited strategic sites – all in an effort to help the team assess the political situation.  His extensive travels took him the length and breadth of the country and into Pakistan, headquarters for the mission.  He talked with people in their homes and offices, he visited bazaars, he viewed dams, irrigation projects and opium fields and traversed deserts and mountains.





Marylu Gouttierre said her husband’s involvement with Afghanistan and commitment to its future stems, in part, from a genuine sense of debt he feels.  “He feels a responsibility.  It is his second home and those are his people. He’s not only given his heart, but his soul to the country.”

He explains it this way:  “Afghanistan has a special place in my professional and personal life and it has had a tremendous impact on my career.  It’s been so much an instrument in what I’ve done.”

To fully appreciate his Afghan odyssey, one must review how the once proud, peaceful land he first came to has turned into a despairing, chaotic killing field.   The horror began in 1978, when Soviet military forces occupied it to quell uprisings against the puppet socialist regime the USSR had installed in the capital city of Kabul.  The Soviets, however, met with stiff resistance from rebel Mujaahideen freedom fighters aligned with various native warlords.  Against all odds, the Afghans waged a successful jihad or holy war that eventually ousted the Soviets in 1989, reclaimed their independence and reinforced their image as fierce warriors.

The Afghans, whose history is replete with legendary struggles against invaders, never considered surrender.  Said Gouttierre, “The Afghans felt they were going to win from the start.  They felt they could stick with it forever.  They had a strong belief in their own myth of invincibility…and to everyone’s surprise but their own, they did force the Soviets to leave.”

But the fragile alliance that had held among rival factions during the conflict fell apart amid the instability of the post-war period.   “The Soviets left someone in charge who had been their ally in power. That was Najeebullah.  His government fell in 1992.  That only helped exacerbate things.  The cycle of fighting continued as the Afghans who had fought against the Soviet army continued their fight against Najeebullah, who was captured, tried and executed by the Taliban (an Islamic faction) in September of 1996 for his crimes against the Afghans, which were considerable.”  Gouttierre knew Najeebullah in very different circumstances before the war, when the future despot was a student of his in a class he taught at a native high school.

After Najeebullah’s fall, a mad scramble for power ensued among the  Mujaahideen groups.  As Gouttierre explains, “The leaders of these groups had become warlords in their own regions.  They kind of got delusions of grandeur about who should be in control of the whole country and they began to struggle against each other.”



Sports Illustrated photo of Afghan basketball



In the subsequent fighting, one dominant group emerged  – the Taliban, a strict Islamic movement whose forces now command three-quarters of the country, including the capital of Kabul – with all its symbolic and strategic importance.  A loose alliance of factions oppose the Taliban.

“As the Taliban (Seekers of Islam) grew in strength, they began intimidating and even fighting some of the minor Mujaahideen commando groups, and to a lot of people’s surprise, they were successful,” said

Gouttierre, whose U.N. assignment included profiling the Taliban.  “They are very provincial, very rural – and in their own minds – very traditional Muslims and Afghans.  They’re not that philosophically sophisticated in terms of their own religion, but they are very sophisticated in terms of what they understand they want for their society, and they’re able to argue and discourse on it at length without giving any quarter.  And they’re willing to go to war over it.

“Each region where they’ve gone, they’ve been aided by the fact that the people living there were disenchanted with those in control.  Most of the other groups, unfortunately, lost any credibility they had because of their failure to bring about peace, stability, security and reconstruction.  The people were willing to support almost anything that came along.”

The Taliban has drawn wide criticism, internally and externally, for its application of extreme Islamic practices in occupied areas, particularly for placing severe restrictions on women’s education and employment and for imposing harsh penalties on criminals. Gouttierre said while such actions elicit grave concerns from the U.N. and represent major stumbling blocks in the Taliban’s quest for full recognition, the movement has effectively restored order in areas it controls.

“I have to say that in the areas of Afghanistan I traveled to which they control, the Taliban had confiscated all the weapons, removed all the checkpoints people had to pass through, eliminated the extortion that was part of the checkpoints and instilled security and stability,” said Gouttierre.  “You could travel anywhere in Kabul without having to be in any way concerned, except for the mines that haven’t been cleared yet.”

Conversely, he said, the Taliban has exhibited brutal politics of intimidation and blatant human rights violations, although other factions have as well.  “It’s not a question of who’s good and who’s bad,” he adds.  “There’s plenty of blame and credit to be shared on all sides.”







He found the Taliban a compelling bunch.  “One of the things I was impressed with is that all of the leaders I met were in some ways victims of the war with the Soviet Union.  They all exhibited wounds, and they acquired these wounds heroically carrying out the struggle against the Soviet Union, and I respect them for that.  That needs to be taken into account.”

In addition to pushing for a ceasefire between the Taliban and its adversaries, Gouttierre said the U.N. mission consistently makes clear that in order to gain credentialing from the U.N. and support from key institutions like the World Bank, the Taliban must do a better job of protecting basic human rights and ensuring gender equity.

He said the main barrier to reaching a cease fire accord is the Taliban’s nearly unassailable military position, which gives them little reason to make concessions or accept conditions.  Another impediment to the peace process is the nation’s rich opium industry, whose interests diverge from those of the U.N.  And a major complicating factor is the support being provided the warring factions by competing nations.  For example, Pakistan and certain Persian Gulf states are major suppliers of the Taliban, while Iran and Russia are major suppliers of the opposition alliance.

Taliban and opposition leaders did meet together at several U.N. sponsored negotiation sessions.  The representatives arrived for the talks accompanied by armed bodyguards, who remained outside during the discussions.  The tenor of the meetings surprised Gouttierre.  “It was far more cordial than I had anticipated.  These men got along remarkably well, in part because they all know each other.  That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements.  When offended, Afghans can be exceedingly formidable to deal with.”

At Gouttierre’s urging, the mission began holding intimate gatherings at which representatives of the warring parties met informally with U.N. officials over food and drinks and “where translators were not the main medium for communication and where everybody wasn’t on guard all the time.”  He hosted several such luncheons and dinners, including ones in Kandahar, Baamiyaan and Kabul.  The idea was to create a comfortable mood that encouraged talk and built trust.  It worked.

“In diplomatic enterprises often the most effective periods are at the breaks or the receptions, because you’re sometimes able to get people off to the side, where they’re able to say off the record what they can’t say officially.  And that’s exactly what happened.  Those of us in the U.N. mission got a better sense of who the Taliban are.  They’re not irrational.  They do have a sense of humor.  And they got a better sense of who we are – that we’re not just officials, but that we also have a long-term interest in Afghanistan.”

Gouttierre said the mission has overcome “high skepticism” on the part of Afghans, who recall the U.N. granted Najeebulah asylum despite his being a war criminal.  He said the Afghans’ estimation of the mission has moved from distrust to acceptance.  And he feels one reason for that is that the present mission has “more clout and recognition than any previous mission to Afghanistan.”  Supplying that essential leverage, he said, is the “unstinting support of influential countries like the U.S., France, England, Russia and Japan.”

Despite recent news stories of military inroads made by opposition forces, especially around Kabul, the Taliban remain firmly entrenched.  Gouttierre believes that unless a major reversal occurs to change the balance of power, the Taliban will continue calling the shots.  If the Taliban eventually consolidate their power and conquer the whole nation, as most observers believe is inevitable, the hope then is that the movement’s leaders will feel more secure in acceding to U.N. pressure.

Gouttierre said that despite the failure to gain a ceasefire thus far, “the fact remains the two sides are meeting with each other, and that’s the first step in any peace process.  We don’t have agreements on anything yet, but at least the channels for continuing dialogue have been opened.”

As Gouitterre well knows, the process of binding a nation’s wounds can be frustrating and exhausting.  He stays the course though because he wants desperately to recapture the magical Afghanistan that first bewitched him.  “I guess one of the things that keeps me at this is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way those admirable qualities of Afghan culture which I came to love so much will to some degree be restored.  So I keep pursuing that.”

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