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Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

February 21, 2017 5 comments

In the annals of unforgettable people I’ve interviewed and profiled, UNO’s retired director of Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Programs and Studies Tom Gouttierre ranks right up there. This is my new profile of him for the March 2017  issue of the New Horizons published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Look for it at newstands and for subscribers in your mailbox starting Feb. 27.

My first encounter with this irrepressible man came some 20 years ago and I’m still recovering from it. I mean that as a compliment.  You see, Tom fills up a room with not only his big frame and personality, but with the breadth of his life experience and the depth of his passion for things he cares about. Because he is a citizen of the world and considers his second home to be Afghanistan, where he lived and worked nearly a decade and that he made the center of his professional life,. he has an expansive view about things that you don’t run into every day. He’s seen things most of his fellow native born Americans haven’t.  That translates into him apprehending the world in terms most of us don’t or can’t because we don’t have his experience or expertise. He even shakes hands differently than most of us. He calls its an international handshake. His immersion with Afghanistan, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow, then as director of the Fulbright program in Kabul and finally as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he became an official ambassador to that country. He has many close friends who are Afghan. You can’t turn around in his Dundee home without seeing something from there. That first meeting I took with Tom was for a long interview I did to inform a cover profile I wrote about him and his love affair with Afghanistan. His affection for that nation and its people runs deep and it’s safe to say his thoughts are never far from there and them. The article I did all that time ago contrasted the veritable paradise that the peacetime Afghanistan was in the 1960s and early ’70 with the devastated shell the invading Soviets left it in. Like the millions of refugees who fled their homeland, Tom has despaired that his dream place has been so violently disrupted and shattered during three-plus decades of ongoing chaos, terror, violence and war. Like some of the Afghan people, he’s never stopped hoping and trying to do what he can to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure. His UNO Center conducted many education programs with Afghans in exile and with resident Afghans. Tom served as a top U.S. advisor on the country. He retired from UNO from 41 years but the center’s work continues and his personal interest in and connection to Afghanistan remains strong.

Here’s a link to that earler story I did about him–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/in-search-of-a-lost-dream-an-americans-afghan-odyssey/

 

 

 

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Tom Gouttierre

 

 

Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the March 2017 issue of New Horizons

 

Life changing

On the surface, Tom Gouttierre led a parochial Midwest life growing up in post-World War Ii America. By the time he was at Bowling Green State, he expected a traditional, stateside education career awaited him. Little did he imagine the far-off places his work would eventually lead, first as a Peace Corps volunteer with wife Marylu, then as a Fulbright Fellow, and finally as longtime director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Studies and Programs.

Gouttierre retired in 2015 after 41 years doing jobs he loved. His work brought him into contact with U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, ambassadors, generals, foreign leaders, geo-political intrigues and momentous events. But what he most enjoyed was interacting with International Studies students. Some came from all corners of the globe and others right from his own backyard.

“The thing driving me more than anything else was advising those International Studies majors – young Midwest kids very much like I was wanting to learn and work in the world,” he said. “I was so inspired regularly to be with these young dynamic students who wanted to do something, It was that more than any one thing that kept me working until age 75. That, and the fact that I’d step outside my door and be surrounded by students from all around the world.

“I had what I think most people who are interested in higher education and global affairs would have to be described as the dream job. I got to deal on a daily basis with hundreds of international students. They inform you even by their presence, they inform our students, they stimulate education. It’s really dynamic and so much fun.”

When Gouttierre came to UNO in 1974 after a decade of living and working in Afghanistan the university had fewer than two dozen international students and only one international program. When he left four decades later there were more than 2,000 international students and scores of programs.

The center’s work its first decade-and-a-half revolved around a donated archive comprising the largest collection of Afghan cultural material and documents outside its borders. The center’s role broadened after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With the country in tatters and millions of Afghans in refugee camps, the center tasked itself with rebuilding that Central Asian nation’s education infrastructure. Meanwhile, UNO’s Intensive Language (ILUNO) program gave the University of Nebraska at Omaha a global presence as students from diverse nations came for intensive training. Gouttierre’s experience and expertise made him a go-to U.S. government advisor and media source. During his tenure, the center managed some $120 million in federal contracts and grants.

He was part of high-level, secret negotiations for the Soviet Union to exit Afghanistan after its failed invasion. He oversaw programs that trained hundreds of Afghan residents and refugees in learning English. public administration and advanced teaching skills. Some of those trained by UNO. either here or overseas, became key players in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. Long before Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, he and Gouttiere knew each other. Another  close personal friend is current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani – a former student of Gouttiere’s. The American’s Dundee home is filled with artifacts from his and Marylu’s time there, including collections of rugs and mortars and pestles. Their home features arches reminiscent of Middle Eastern design and a solarium with a running fountain.

It’s ironic Gouttierre ended up being a citizen of the world because he barely left his native Ohio before age 25. In 1965 he took his first airplane trip anywhere – to Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. It was home to Tom and Marylu for may years, Adam, the oldest of the couple’s three sons, was born there, The country, the culture and the people fundamentally changed the course of Gouttierre’s life.

“I learned their language and culture to an uncommon degree and the reason I did is because i liked them so much,” said Gouttierre, who’s fluent in Dari. “I learned the language well enough to write poetry in their tongue and to have it published there.”

He went first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow and eventually he headed the Fulbright Foundation there. He also coached amateur basketball teams, even the Afghan national men’s  team. He once enlisted the advice of the Wizard of Westwood, UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, on how to run his famous zone press. When the Afghan nationals upset the Chinese, Gouttierre got carried off the court by jubilant players and fans chanting, “Mr. Tom.”

His immersion was as deep and complete as possible for an outsider. His interest in and affection for the people has never wavered and has been reciprocated in kind.

“They’re so warm and receiving and supportive. Afghans are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life anywhere around the world and I’ve met wonderfully hospitable people In Japan and elsewhere. But Afghans, who have probably far fewer resources to extend in their hospitality, are heads and shoulders above everybody in their belief in their hospitality. Anybody who tries their language or knows their history is embraced by them and the more one knows these things the more one is drawn to learn more. I still enjoy that very much.”

“It’s important to know what the people are like.”

He admires the fierce, proud nature of Afghans who have famously taken up arms throughout history to repel enemy invaders in defense of their homeland and autonomy.

“They’re one of the most independent-minded people in the history of mankind. They defeated the British empire three times, they beat back the Soviet empire. They’re resilient.”

They’re also grateful to anyone who assists their aspirational dreams.

“Afghans would demonstrate and plead with the Ministry of Education to have Peace Corps volunteers teach them English in their schools.

They loved it. They were going through a democratic change at the time. They had a constitutional parliamentary monarchy with a new constitution that took control out of the military state. It was a remarkable thing that roughly coincided with the time I was there.”

 

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Tom Gouttiere holding his oldest son Adam in Afghanistan

 

 

Before and after

In more recent years, Afghans have sent teams of teachers and journalists to Omaha for intensive training. But progress is slow in this tortured era of terror attacks. Reconstruction needs are vast. Corruption, rampant. The nearly nonstop fighting of these last 30-plus years has left Afghanistan in tatters. The devastation and loss is a far cry from the veritable paradise Gouttierre once experienced there.

“When I lived there it was a dream place,” he said wistfully. “It was the ideal place to serve as a foreign service officer. I got to know the Afghans and I got to know them intimately. And I knew everybody because I was there 10 years and I coached basketball. It’s a small town country. So it was ideal.

“Female Peace Corps volunteers like my wife could bike anywhere all by themselves without any fear for security. In fact, the country was charged with protecting these Americans. There were messages on the radio saying, ‘These are our guests,’ all while radio Moscow from antennas in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) beamed in that we Peace Corps volunteers were handmaidens of the CIA.”

None of this seemed a likely landing spot for this child of 1950s mid-America. But beneath the cookie-cutter facade of muscle cars, rock ‘n’ roil lyrics and school proms Gouttierre pined for adventures far from home. He wasn’t sure how to make those yearnings reality until John F. Kennedy laid out a vision for the Peace Corps during his 1960 presidential campaign and encouraged young people to serve their country and the world in his 1961 inaugural address. The vision sparked a sense of wanderlust in Gouttierre that dovetailed with America looking beyond its shores to win hearts and minds during the Cold War.

Coming of age in Maumee, Ohio, Gouttierre followed his devoutly Catholic, hard-working Belgian-American family’s lead by going to church and cheering for their beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Detroit Tigers. His sports passion continues unabated today. He also follows Indiana and Creighton University basketball and UNO hockey. He’s a Mav season ticket-holder.

His father hailed from a long line of glass blowers but became a master baker. Tom worked in the family bakery from the time he was a boy and mastered the craft himself. Generations of Gouttierres emigrated to the States and Tom became enamored with his grandparents tales of the old country.

“I would constantly ask my grandparents and great grandparents about these things. I knew about Belgium. I was aware of the rest of the world. So I always had this interest.”

He studied maps and globes. He devoured books.

“I loved to read from The Book of Knowledge (children’s encyclopedia).

I was a curious kid. If I didn’t love sports i would have been a geek. We didn’t have geography bees but I would have loved to compete in them. I knew where the Zambezi River was and all these things.”

He loved foreign languages. One grandmother spoke only French. He went on to learn French. Latin, German, Russian and Dari.

None of his international experiences may have happened though if not for JFK’s clarion call to serve.

“I was 20 year-old college undergraduate when John Kennedy gave his address. It was THE momentous political moment in my life. Here was this rock star with a message drawing upon the angels of our nature, not the devils, that really appealed to the values Americans were feeling. It was revolutionary, too, because he was the new generation. He had just replaced one of the oldest presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower) we ever had. He was calling for this new frontier.”

JFK’s challenge to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and to to the world – “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” – was a call to action Gouttierre couldn’t ignore.

“It was a tremendous opportunity. Marylu and I were dating then. It really inspired us. I went into grad school, I graduated and we went into the Peace Corps as a married couple. My passions were driven and still are by that particular message. It’s the greatest generational message any American leader has given other than FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), who took us out of hell with “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Lincoln who implored us to behave “with malice toward none, with charity for all…”

“I am forever indebted to the Peace Corps and the Fulbright program.”

 

Tom GouttierrePeace Corps volunteers at a 1965 event outside a Kabul orphanage. Tom Gouttierre and wife Marylu are in the background along with Omaha educator Howard Faber.

 

 

A new era

Gouttierre said new U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to build walls and ban immigrants is “so insular” by comparison.

He said Trump’s executive order travel ban has only inflamed immigration fears and frustrations.

“People are up in arms over immigration but Congress does nothing. What Trump has done through executive order is bring a tension. I don’t think his order was well-advised and I don’t think the content of it was appropriate to the task. The other thing I’m concerned about is that this kind of decision hurts our long-term trade and other political and cooperative relationships we have with numbers of these countries. We need the collaboration of many of them to help track down and vet individuals.

“What we need to have is improved vetting – there’s no question about that. I don’t think the vetting process now, though not totally unsuccessful, is as efficient and sufficient as it needs to be. It’s

chronically underfunded, understaffed and just not able to keep up with the demands.”

He said another unfortunate result of the ban will be the adverse effect it has on international student populations around the United States.

He favors rigorous trade negotiations that benefit America, but fears  too hard a line might touch off trade wars that prove harmful.

“There’s all kinds of things we do we’re not going to be able to do or afford if we have trade wars,” he said. “We’ve got to think what this is going to do to our personal economies and our relationships with colleague nations and trading partners. We’re able to have the good life in Nebraska as we call it because Nebraska markets abroad.”

Among the many challenges Trump faces, he said.is is putting together an effective cabinet team that can help him effectively govern.

“Frankly, his team isn’t all that bad. They may think differently than I do, butt they’re all quality individuals.”

Regarding what Trump’s foreign policy looks like, Gouttierre said, “He’s somewhat of a blank canvas. We don’t know yet. He appears to be an individual who doesn’t create policy based on policy study or things of that nature. He hasn’t yet shown that. But he has indicated he wants to keep the U.S. strong and there’s no way we can keep the U.S. strong and not continue to be concerned with how the events in Afghanistan have an impact on our interests in that region of the world.”

For going on two decades American lives and resources have poured into Afghanistan to fight terrorists who’ve used that country as a staging ground and safe harbor. Every day Afghans want the terrorists out. The average Afghani gladly accepts America’s help in restoring the country to normalcy. But they warily watch for any signs American commitment is wavering. It’s happened before.

“Ashraf Ghani and President Trump have had a conversation and they both pronounced it as having gone well,” Gouttierre said. “We’ll see. I think at this stage most Afghans are just hanging loose. Believe me, Afghans at the common citizen level have a keen knowledge and focus about what’s going on in the United States than a great number of Americans because they know what happens here has major impact on their lives and their future.”

Gouttierre feels America’s relationship with Afghanistan has mostly been positive and well-received in each country.

“I think most Americans were very supportive of everything we were doing in Afghanistan after 9/11. They were also supportive before that when the Soviets invaded the country and we gave the Afghans weapons to resist them.”

UNO’s Afghanistan center took a lead role in educating the nation.

“Our center had funds to teach Afghan refugees, who number in the millions in Pakistan. After 9/11, the same thing – our center helped reopen the Ministry of Education and we prinedt books, supplied schools and trained teachers.

“We had an intimate relationship.”

By UNO bringing Afghans here over so many years, he said, a real understanding of that nation and its people developed.

.”In Nebraska we probably have a higher percentage per capita knowledge of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan than any other part of our country.”

Visiting Afghan teachers, for example. participated in programs in Omaha, Lincoln and host cities across the state.

“Nebraskans knew about them because they were seeing them and meeting them and loved them and developed intense relationships with them, so there were these good feelings.”

 

Different strokes

Relations between the nations changed once the war on terror began.

“Things started to kind of deteriorate after the invasion of Iraq” and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said. “People say the war in Afghanistan is our longest war. I really resent that. It is not accurate historically. The longest by far and away was the Cold War. It required us to be intense and focused throughout in our competition with the Soviets and the Chinese. Nearly 50 years we had that.

“This is not a war against Afghanistan, it’s a war within Afghanistan

that’s a part of the greater global war against terrorism. Like the Cold War, it’s ideologically-driven and it’s going to take a solid long-term commitment to deal with it and put it out. It’s not going to just go away.

It’s going to require taxes. The biggest mistake George W. Bush made after going into Iraq was that he tried to run that war without taxing. You can’t have a war without taxes. And what did it do? It broke our national banks and we wound up with 2008 (recession).”

Afghanistan being a battleground in the war on terror, he said,

“unfortunately has infused a negative opinion about our experiences there.” He added, “Quite frankly, most of the enemies we’re fighting are in Pakistan. They go back and forth. It’s not the Afghan people.

Well, some of them. But that’s not the war – the war is against terrorism, Al Qaeda, Isis.”

The U.S. wouldn’t even be in Afghanistan militarily if Osama Bin Laden hadn’t sought refuge and established terror training camps there.

“Now we’re in this situation which is unfortunate,” he said. “They’re our closest allies in that whole region. They really want us there. Think about it. How many of the other countries really want us?”

Gouttierre rues America abandoning Afghanistan after it’s remarkable defeat of the Soviets.

“What happened was in ’89 we dumped Afghanistan. The Soviets had left and then the USSR collapsed. Then every nefarious group in the world went into a country which had no governmental structure, so it became the dump for all the drugs. When Marylu and I lived there we never saw a field under cultivation with opium poppies. That’s all post-Soviet invasion.”

Bin Laden was among those who exploited the vacuum of power.

“He went there to fight the Soviets like a great many else did, then he went home to Saudi Arabia, where he was a citizen. although his family was originally Yemeni. They’re a very successful family worth billions of dollars. When Saddam (Hussein) invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden went to the Saudi government and said, ‘Let me bring my Afghan Arabs,’ meaning those who fought against the Soviets, ‘and we’ll drive Iraqi forces out.’  On the other hand, there was the whole United Nations coalition and Saudi Arabia went with that.

“A disgruntled Bin Laden went public about the corruption of the Saudi government and monarchy, calling them the handmaidens of the West.

He was very vocal about this and he got kicked out and his passport taken away. He fled to Sudan. The Saudis put pressure on the Sudanese to kick him out, so he went where he knew – back to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. That was in 1996. He went to Afghanistan because there was no government there. He was allowed and welcomed by the Tallbs.

“He arrived just a few weeks before I did as a member of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.. I was the senior political affairs advisor for that mission based in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to try to bring the Taliban and the Northern Alliance together. The Pakistanis were constantly trying to undermine it, so it didn’t happen. They were supporting the Taliban.”

In his advisor role Gouttierre was tasked with building profiles on Bin Laden and the Taliban.

“These were both things about which i didn’t know much because they were new dynamics.”

He soon learned they posed a dangerous threat with clear intentions on attacking America.

Gouttierre never met Bin Laden but he did see his caravan pass through a Kandihar bazaar.

“I was walking in Kandahar and all of a sudden the bazaar went silent and there was a small convoy of SUVs that went through and everybody chanted, ‘Osama, Osama, Osama.’ Everybody knew who he was because he was putting money into Afghanistan. He had billions to do that. So I didn’t see him eye-to-eye but I saw his presence. That’s as close as I got.”

Gouttierre feels the U.S. hung Afghanistan out to dry after the Afghans drove out the Soviets,

“We switched administrations – we went from Reagan to Bush I. He and his secretary of state, James Baker, “saw great opportunity with the collapsing of the Soviet Union to ensure Russia would not come back as the Soviet Union again. That’s what their focus was. What Afghanistan needed, which I think it deserved, was some type of Marshall Plan. They were our allies fighting against the Soviet Union.

We owed them. They’re the ones that died.”

He said America’s failure to have a cohesive policy concerning Afghanistan and its fate proved costly.

“We didn’t understand how this would come back and bite us. We owed the Afghans something. That country was left in total destruction.

We talk about the tremendous refugee crisis now in Syria  Why?

Because they’re going to Europe and they’re coming back to us.

Afghanistan had 7 million of its citizens outside of the country. There were 5 million in Pakistan, another 2.5 million in Iran. They lost over a million people in the war with the Soviets. We’ve forgotten that. Our memories are very short.

“So what happened? It came back and bit us in the butt. We dumped them and 12 years later we had 9/11.”

He suggests much of the chaos could have been prevented.

“We didn’t help the Afghans reconstruct their infrastructure. There were a lot of refugees in Pakistan and Iran who could have come back and helped to put something together. When we did start to help after 9/11, we blew it. We spend a lot of money and want immediate results. What does that bring? It brings mistakes, corruption, lost money.

The U.S. had $20 billion unaccounted for. Nobody knows where it is.

“The whole Muslim world was watching how we did it and we really messed it up. Now were trying to help the Afghans build out from under the mess our chaotic approach of throwing money and demanding quick results produced.”
Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (©Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson)

 

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (©Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson)

 

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Tom Gouttierre conferring UNO honorary status on Hamid Karzai during the then-Afghan president’s visit to Omaha

 

Finding an unlikely home for pursuits and passions

Gouttierre made Nebraska a haven for Afghans but he nearly didn’t come here himself. He was running the Fulbright Foundation overseas when he and Center for Afghanistan Studies founder Chris Jung, whose father was part of an Indiana University team in Afghanistan, began doing exchange programs. Then Jung died and UNO courted Gouttierre to take the open post. He told UNO officials no three times. He finally went to a trusted mentor, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Theodore Eliot, who told him, ‘fI they offered me that job, I’d leave this job and take it.” Are you kidding me?” Gouttiere asked.

Eliot laid it out for him:  “You love afghanistan, you love international education exchange – this is your way to go back to the United States.”

“I thought about it,” Gouttierre said, “and on April 1, 1974 I sent a cable to the head of the search committee that read, ‘This is no April Fool’s joke…I accept. I’ll report 1st of August.'”

Upon their arrival, the Gouttierres were struck by the welcome extended them and by the support that helped the center and international studies and programs rapidly grow.

“There was such an interest, such an enthusiasm in Omaha, more than we could have expected. It was really something we could have only dreamed for, hoped for,” Gouttierre said.

Under the leadership of chancellors Ronald Roskens and his successor Del Weber UNO caught the nascent wave of globalization. The university went from having a limited international presence to being a national leader in global engagement.

“Our whole experience here from the very beginning was overwhelmingly positive. It never ended and it still hasn’t. There was real receptivity and that’s what made it so wonderful.”

Sister University relationships were formed. The intensive language program, he said, “took UNO’s name all around the world. People came to Omaha, Nebraska to study intensive English. When I got here in ’74 the challenge was to get people to come to Omaha, Nebraska. We didn’t have agriculture. We didn’t have dorms. Well, we started an intensive English language program and it became one of the largest, most highly regarded ones in the Midwest. We became a leader.”

Former UNO chancellor Del Weber said, “Tom took a fledgling program and built it into an outstanding Center for Afghanistan Studies and International Studies known throughout the country. He combined a deep intellectual knowledge of the MIddle East with an on-site practical understanding of Afghanistan, Forty-one years ago few in Omaha would have known how to spell Afghanistan yet find its place on a map. It was a forgotten county. Countless Nebraskans are now well informed. That is no rare feat.”

Introducing his adopted state to the country that adopted him and that captured his heart has been satisfying. Being part of the inner workings to get the Soviets out was stimulating. His last trip to Afghanistan was in 2014 and he hopes to return again.

He’s grateful for the support subsequent UNO administrators continued showing the center and international studies and programs. He’s appreciative, too, of the strong team around him that made extensive travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Washington D.C., for example. possible. UNO’s partnerships with Kabul University are particularly close and varied, including a journalism exchange program between faculty and students from each institution.

Weber marvels at what Gouttierre wrought.

“I admire Tom for his grasp of the Middle East and Afghanistan, his sharp focus and his single-minded emphasis on that area. All of his time, effort and knowledge was given to building that program he was brought to build at UNO. He stood up for it, fought for it and succeeded in making a superb program known nationally and internationally.”

Weber got to see Gouttierre in action on some overseas trips they made together.

“My many travels with him told me much about his work. He was a man who knew how to play and work hard. On one of our trips to Pakistan we convinced the American consul In Islamabad to permit us to go into Kabul for a short trip to see our school programs in-person. The consul told us if we ran into any problems we were on our own as the U.S. government  would not provide any assistance.

“We stayed with the minister of protocol, who insisted I sleep in his bed. As I crawled in, I felt a pistol under the pillow. Since there was no electricity, I gingerly put the pistol on the floor. In the morning I discovered it was loaded. He told me no one in Kabul was without his pistol in bed. We went to the airport to catch a Red Cross airplane back to Islamabad only to discover it had been grounded due to shelling at the airport. Again we stayed with the minister. That night in the city under siege was a long one. I wondered if we would ever get back.”

Even as Gouttierre’s profile increased and opportunities to go elsewhere emerged, he said, “I never, ever considered leaving Omaha. I love being in Omaha. The luckiest break of my life was to say yes to come to UNO and Omaha in 1974.”

His cozy ties to the U.S. State Department aroused suspicions in some quarters he was a CIA operative but he flatly denies it. While he did get push-back from some colleagues, he said most UNO faculty and staff expressed support, as did alums and the Omaha community, for the center’s work. No student protests raised objections.

“In all the speeches I’ve given, and I’ve given so many, I’ve never had anybody ask a question or make a comment that was motivated by a sense of meanness. I had people disagree with me, but that’s alright –I like that, I like to have discussion and debate.”

 

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Tom Gouttierre relaxing at home

 

 

Stepping back and moving on

Though he clearly found his calling, Gouttierre said he always looked forward to retirement. He only worked as long as he did because he enjoyed his job. Now he’s enjoying that long anticipated retirement.

“My intent was to do more of the things I love to do with family and friends and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

He’s taking his family to Lakeland, Florida to cheer on the Tigers at spring training. He said a day doesn’t go by without he and his sons exchanging texts or emails about the club.

His love of fine dining, cooking, reading, conversation, movies and tinkering around the house keeps him plenty busy.

Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, his joy tinged with sadness affinity for Afghanistan is omnipresent. That place is so very far away, yet reminders of it are everywhere in his life and home. The feelings and memories always near.

“I’ll never be able to set aside Afghanistan. That’s a passion of a unique nature. I learned so much about life by having the opportunity to live among them, broadening my horizons, enriching my appreciation of other peoples, languages, cultures. I gained greater appreciation of our country by having the chance to live abroad – the best kind of comparative education.

“These opportunities have made me a better informed and more sensitive person and appreciative of the many breaks i have had.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

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Old partnership takes new turn: UNO-Kabul University renew ties with journalism program

January 24, 2011 1 comment

Female students at Kabul University.

Image via Wikipedia

The article below is the latest of several I have written over the last decade or so about the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  This story concerns a UNO-Kabul University journalism collaborative or partnership being overseen by the center, which received a $1.3 million grant to fund the endeavor.  The center is a nearly 40 year-old institution dedicated , just as it name states, to Afghanistan studies and as such it is a unique operation and certainly one you would not expect to find in the Midwest.  Its director, Thomas Gouttierre, has been a profile subject of mine (you’ll find my piece on hin on this blog).  He and his assistant Raheem Yaseer and their UNO colleague John Shroder are among America’s foremost experts on Afghanistan.  The center has been involved in all manner of training and support there and its expertise is often tapped by U.S. government sources.  Much of the center’s efforts have been directed at helping train Afghan nationals in order to rebuild that nation’s infrastructure.  My new article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) lays out the recently formed journalism partnership program involving faculty exchanges and Afghan journalism educators and students coming here to shadow their American counterparts as well as working journalists.  I hope to be one of those journalists they meet with and follow around.  Look for more of my work covering this unfolding story in the months ahead.

 

Old partnership takes new turn: UNO-Kabul University renew Ttes with journalism program

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

UNO communication professor Chris Allen recently returned from a two-week needs assessment trip to Afghanistan. His journey was part of a federally-funded journalism faculty-student development program between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Kabul University.

As Afghanistan attempts normalization in this post-Taliban era, the nation’s indigenous media uneasily co-exist with Islamic law and government ambivalence. Yet, flush with freedom and peace for the first time in decades. Allen says “a surprisingly vigorous and developing media system” exists there.

Consider two vastly different television shows: the incendiary Niqab has masked women detail abuse they’ve suffered; the popular Afghan Star is an American Idol riff.

Training the next generation of Afghan journalists requires access to resources and modern practices. That’s why UNO and Kabul University are connecting aspiring and working journalists in academic, professional and cultural exchanges. Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. State Department‘s Fulbright program, this three-year partnership renews old ties between the two institutions and is the latest example of UNO’s decades-long work with Afghanistan.

UNO’s School of Communication and its Center for Afghanistan Studies are collaborating on the program. Allen was accompanied by CAS director and dean of International Studies and Programs Tom Gouttierre and CAS assistant director Raheem Yaseer.

The university’s relationship with the nation goes back to 1972, when two campus geography professors began research collaboratives. A donated collection of Afghanistan materials has grown to 12,000-plus items. In 1975 a linkage with Kabul University began.

To date, the center’s received some $60 million in grants and contracts for technical assistance programs, training and educational exchanges. Hundreds of Afghans have come to UNO for training to help rebuild their nation’s infrastructure. Hundreds of Americans come here to train as liaisons in reconstruction efforts.

The center maintains a Kabul field office and Team House, where Allen stayed. It also operates the UNO Education Press, which printed the new Afghan constitution and the ballots for the first democratic elections there in decades.

Even during the Soviet occupation and war, the Taliban reign of terror and the U.S.-led invasion to oust terrorists, Gouttierre says the center remained in contact with various education and government officials in Afghanistan or in exile in Pakistan.

He says a model for this new collaborative is the center’s 2002-2005 teacher education project, which brought Afghan women educators for an immersion experience as part of reopening the nation’s schools. Just as those visitors did, Afghan journalists will stay with Nebraska host families.

Plans call for a group of Afghan professors to arrive in late spring, with additional contingents of faculty and some students arriving later this year. More UNO School of Communication faculty are to visit Afghanistan in the coming months. Program visitors on each side will observe best practices and shadow their peers.

 

Chris Allen, second from left, with Kabul journalism faculty

 

 

Because UNO’s Chris Allen was in Kabul during finals week he didn’t observe classes, but he did speak with faculty.

“I really didn’t know anything about them and they really didn’t know anything about me and to sort of start off on an even footing was a really good thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to go in with preconceived notions that might prejudice the questions I would ask. I could ask really naive questions, and I did that, and I think that served as an ice breaker to say, I need to understand what you guys are doing and what your media are doing as much as you need to understand what we’re doing.

“It enabled me to go in and do a needs assessment from the ground up.”

Allen says the Afghans expressed a need for assistance on both teaching and practical levels. He says many expressed a desire to improve teaching techniques by moving away from lecture-oriented approaches to more hands-on student participation. He says Afghan educators are hampered by limited facilities and resources, such as teaching television without a studio or cameras or editing equipment. However, he says a new media center is in the works.

The most glaring need Allen saw was for more classroom computers. He says the basic reporting class has 10 computers serving 50 students.

“I’m not sure how they’re getting that done.”

He also marvels at how working media, faculty and students brave forbidding conditions, including security and transportation issues.

He’s told that journalism graduates readily find jobs in the Afghan media, which many call “a growth industry.”

Admittedly, he says, his lack of Persian language skills limited him but it didn’t prevent his noting some arcane story structure problems in print and broadcast reports. Despite shortcomings, he and Gouttierre say the media is a vital presence. Dozens of independent print publications have launched. Saad Mohseni, chairman of the largest independent media company there, MOBY Group, is Afghanistan’s first media mogul. The government-run media enterprise RTA is ubiquitous. Radio is the most pervasive medium, says Allen, because it’s accessible and doesn’t require high literacy.

Gouttierre says the UNO-KU project comes at a transformational time.

“Now we have this situation for UNO faculty and students to be engaged right up close with a country’s media that is trying to leap frog in a sense. It kind of reminds me of when I first went to Afghanistan in the early ‘60s as a Peace Corps volunteer and the country was just emerging as a constitutional, parliamentary democratic process. The press was becoming independent at that same time.”

He anticipates each side will learn much from the other, though he suspects Americans may have the most to gain.

“It’s surprising how far Afghans have taken themselves with few resources and how much we can learn from their creativity and initiative in very trying circumstances.  its shocking to see how much they’ve accomplished with so many obstacles.”

A Peace Corps Retrospective


Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Image via Wikipedia

Another anniversary story.  It was the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps and I just happened to know a few veterans of that renowned service program, and so after they agreed to share their stories with me, those experiences formed the backbone of  what I wrote.  One of the individuals I profiled served in Afghanistan and the other three in India. All of them were deeply affected by what they saw and did and at some level that experience has informed everything they’ve done since then.  My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.  On this same blog you can find my profile of one of these Peace Corps veterans – Thomas Gouttierre, and his affinity for and work with Afghanistan.

A Peace Corps Retrospective

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Forty years ago, the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers landed in Ghana and Tanzania, Africa. The young, bright-eyed Americans were a new kind of emissary. Neither diplomats nor missionaries, they arrived in far-flung destinations with the appointed task of helping Third World peoples learn skills and develop resources for overcoming tyranny, poverty and disease.

Trained in various service assignments, ranging from education to health to agriculture, the volunteers embodied the idealism and vigor of America’s young, energetic President, John F. Kennedy, who had announced his vision for the Peace Corps in an October 14, 1960 campaign speech at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the nation’s youth to aid the developing world. Once elected, Kennedy reiterated the plan for an international volunteer corps during his January 20, 1961 inaugural address, asking a new generation of Americans to join “a grand and global alliance” to aid the dispossessed and pledging “our best efforts to help them help themselves.”

Kennedy’s clarion call was answered by thousands, including several Nebraskans. By September ‘61 Congress approved legislation formally authorizing Peace Corps and by the end of that year the first contingent of volunteers left for their host countries. Within five years, more than 15,000 volunteers from around the U.S. were implementing Peace Corps projects in the field. As of 2001, 163,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries.

Among those heeding the call during that heady first decade were Tom and Marylu Gouttiere, Peter Tomsen, Beth Furlong and Ron Psota, five transplanted Omahans who were then fresh-from-college graduates looking for a way to make a difference and to find an adventure. Peace Corps duty proved a defining experience for each, indelibly changing the pattern, direction and focus of their lives. For each, it was a time of personal growth and broadened perspectives. They would never look at the world or its diverse people the same way again. For proof, each returned Peace Corps volunteer has given his or her life over to working with people and each has become a world citizen with deep, personal ties to the international arena.

Tom Gouttierre was either headed for a career as a master baker just like his father or as a manager with General Motors just like his friends when Kennedy’s call to service got him thinking beyond the parochial borders of his Maumee, Ohio hometown. “He was an inspiring guy. When he spoke I was just kind of taken by his message of going outside what we normally do,” said Gouttierre, who today directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies and heads the International Studies and Programs Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

 

 

Tom Gouttierre

 

 

From the time he was a child Gouttierre had been curious about the wider world and longed for journeys that would open up its vast horizons to him, only he lacked a way to make it happen. By his early 20s he was studying liberal arts at Bowling Green State University, but remained frustrated in his efforts to break from the mold. That’s when he and his wife, Marylu, decided to throw caution to the wind and enter the Peace Corps. After training in Vermont, the couple was assigned to Afghanistan, a remote, forbidding country that would figure prominently in the rest of their lives. During their 1965-1967 tour, the couple was based in the capital city of Kabul. He worked as an English-as-a-foreign language instructor and basketball coach at Lycee Habibia high school and she as a physical education instructor at Kabul University and a business instructor at all-girls schools.

“We were one of the few married couples,” said Marylu, an Oriental rug retailer. “It was an unknown experience. We had no idea what to expect, whether our language skills would help us or where we would live. There was no telephone. No television. No communication. It was a really exciting experience, a really scary experience, but also a very rewarding experience, and after awhile we just both fell in love with the culture and the people. It’s good to give some of your own services to others, but when you do that you gain so much also.”

Especially in the early 1960s, countries viewed Peace Corps volunteers “as a kind of feather in their cap,” Tom Gouttierre said, and much of that enthusiasm had to do with foreign peoples’ admiration of Americans. “The students I worked with tried to take everything out of me that they could. They were curious as hell. They were always wanting me to do something with them or for them. It was flattering that your skills were that attractive to this group of people. Before Vietnam really got kind of overbearing, Americans, largely because of the impact of Kennedy, had a real appeal for the younger generation. I can’t tell you how many times some Afghan came up to me to express their sorrow at the death of Kennedy. ‘He was a great man,’ they would say. That was a great asset for any Peace Corps volunteer. You had this icon who helped elevate your own position in their eyes. Today, America is viewed a little differently and for that reason it’s probably more difficult to be a Peace Corps volunteer now, even though living conditions are better.”

Tom Gouttierre’s Peace Corps service set the stage for a distinguished professional life with deep ties to Afghanistan. He and Marylu returned there in 1969 when he studied abroad as a Fulbright Scholar and they remained there the next six years as he headed the Fulbright Foundation and coached the national basketball team. The Gouttierre’s oldest child, Adam, was born in Afghanistan. During his UNO tenure he’s built a massive archive on Afghanistan, supervised education programs there, participated in United Nations fact-finding junkets there and appeared before Congress addressing issues relating to Afghanistan.

Since leaving, he’s watched with a heavy heart as the nation crumbled under the strain of successive crises — from a war with the former Soviet Union to civil strife to the oppressive Taliban regime to the current specter of American-Allied retaliation for harboring terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Many of his former students have been lost. “I’ve seen what one my call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said. “To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates is very, very sad.”

His thoughts of Afghanistan are bittersweet.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person. I was a flower waiting for the sun to rise and it just unfolded parts of me that never would have been unfolded if I had not done that. I learned how to live in very challenging circumstances. It opened everything else up for me. I was naive, but the Peace Corps showed me the world. It gave me the opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people. I love Afghanistan. Its people are very hospitable. They have great self-assurance and pride. Today, however, they have such despair about the future of the country. They are fed up with war. They want things to return to the way they were. And I guess what keeps me at this work is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way, those admirable qualities of Afghan culture I came to love so much will to some degree be restored. So, I keep pursuing that.”

Peter Tomsen was a student at Wittenberg University in Ohio when Kennedy’s appeal to America’s youth hooked him. “I can remember, even today, him asking us, ‘How many of you would be willing to study Urdu and go to Pakistan and serve?’ There was an explosion of enthusiasm built around the novelty of the idea — of going off to help others — but also the charism of President Kennedy. He moved us. He moved a whole generation,” said Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence in the UNO International Studies and Programs department. “There was a rush to join up. There were many more volunteers then there were slots. We were extremely idealistic. Many of us, including me, had never even left our country much less our state. And that element — of an unseen adventure — was there, too.”

In a case of it truly being a small world, Tomsen and Gouttierre, both the same year, grew up within 35 miles of each other in northwest Ohio, came to a similar epiphany regarding the Peace Corps at nearly the same time and embarked on international careers that eventually led them to being UNO colleagues. Assigned to Nepal, Tomsen first underwent extensive language and culture training in Washington, D.C. and hard physical training in Hawaii (to steel him for the rigors of trekking through the Himalayas). Upon his arrival in Nepal, he taught social sciences at a college constructed of stone, bamboo and thatch, but before his two years were up he was charged with the new mission of opening a vocational school for Tibetan refugee children.

Peter Tomsen

 

 

Being transported from the plenty of America’s Breadbasket to the subsistence-level conditions in Nepal exposed Tomsen to a side of the world he could not have imagined. “Outside of the capital, there was no electricity in Nepal,” he said. “There was only one road. It was a very poor area with very little to eat. We ended up just having rice twice a day with vegetables and sometimes with meat. Often, we slept on mats on the ground. We didn’t have newspapers or television. We could only get the BBC on transistor radio. We were really isolated. There was a high illiteracy rate. Peoples’ interests didn’t go much beyond survival. But, faced with a situation like that, you soon realize how little you need, especially when you have friends. We had extremely close friendships with the people and they had it with each other too. The people were proud and led a fulfilling life.”

After his 1963-1965 Peace Corps tour, Tomsen returned to the U.S. to teach at St. Cloud State University before landing a diplomatic post in the U.S. State Department, where he enjoyed a 33-year career that culminated with him serving as ambassador to Armenia. Wherever he’s worked, he’s carried with him core values from the Peace Corps, including “interpersonal and intercultural abilities” and greater “tolerance, patience and sensitivity.” He said. “After living in a village environment in Nepal for two years I was at home and comfortable the rest of my life every time I met a foreigner.”

Beth Furlong had rarely traveled outside the confines of Davenport, Iowa, where she was a hospital nurse, when she opted to stop playing it safe and to push herself beyond her comfort zone by entering the Peace Corps. Following training in New England, her assignment was teaching public health education to adult men and women, including students at an all-women’s teacher training institute in East Mysore, India. It was about as far afield from her rural Midwestern upbringing as she could get and the dichotomy led her to change her outlook on things.

“I led a restricted life before I entered,” said Furlong, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and a faculty associate in the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University. “It made me a mobile-international citizen. It helped me look beyond my ethnocentrism. It gave me a new concern about poverty and justice. And, also, it gave me an appreciation for the fact there’s no one right way to do anything. The area I lived in was predominantly Hindu and Muslim and so I learned there are many ways to worship. I learned that washing myself didn’t have to mean bathing, but could mean pouring water over myself. It was a wonderful lived experience of getting outside America and seeing how other people live.”

Back in the U.S., Furlong switched her career track from hospital nursing to community health nursing as a direct result of her Peace Corps service, which opened her eyes to the need for more and better preventive — rather than reactive — public health policy in addressing such things as nutrition, safe drinking water, immunizations, family planning and maternal-child care. At home, she has involved herself in scores of organizations dedicated to the justice, anti-poverty and peace movement, including Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and Nebraskans for Peace. She has taught ethics at international conferences in Eastern Europe, most recently under the auspices of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the American International Health Alliance.

Today, she is planning her first trip back to India since she left 33 years ago and is eager to return to the villages she volunteered in to see what progress time has wrought. All these years later, Furlong fondly looks back at her India tour of duty and appreciates how it helped her move beyond the “constricted view” of things she arrived with to develop a greater, more encompassing understanding of other cultures. As Furlong discovered, Peace Corps volunteers do not merely observe the cultures they serve from some ivory tower distance, but rather wade right in to live and work among the people.

 

 

Beth Furlong

 

 

In her case, that meant eating spare meals, doing without electricity, using an outhouse, bicycling from town to town and being the object of curiosity wherever she traveled. It meant being treated to a level of hospitality that humbled her, as peasants shared meager food supplies with her, a perfect stranger, when such provisions should really have gone to their malnourished children. It also meant finding out, first hand, what peoples’ needs were and devising responses to meet those needs.

When she and her Peace Corps partner, Alice, identified a need for sanitary food preparation and bathroom facilities, they took the initiative and worked with CARE volunteers to build kitchen sheds and latrines in dozens of villages. She’s hoping that when she visits these villages, the sheds and latrines still stand. She said she could not have gotten as intimate with Indian culture as she did without the Peace Corps placing her smack dab in the middle of things. That sentiment is shared by fellow Peace Corps veterans.

“Peace Corps volunteers get closer to the quick of society than do anybody else, whether its foreign service officers or scholars or anyone else,” Gouttierre said. “The Peace Corps is probably the best people-to-people experience ever devised. In that regard, it’s as important as it ever was and I think it’s still the best kind of foreign assistance and foreign exchange of any kind.”

Ron Psota had long ago decided not to be a dairy farmer like his parents, who owned and operated a spread near Ord, Nebraska. No, he wanted to see the world and to explore other possibilities. So, he became a liberal arts major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned an architecture degree he hoped one day to use in the Peace Corps, whose foreign service appealed to his sense of curiosity. Ironically, once in the Peace Corps he did not end up designing low cost housing as imagined but instead found himself on familiar ground by assisting farmers in India with their agricultural needs. Still, the Peace Corps offered him the chance to live out a dream and to carve out a new life.

“I’d always been interested in other cultures. That was a strong pull. That and the fact maybe you could do some good and maybe have a helluva good adventure too,” said Psota, International Students Coordinator at Bellevue University. “I think if I had not done that my life would be quite a bit different. It was sort of a defining moment. It changed my world view. It changed the way I work and what I do and everything else.”

 

 

Ron Psota, left, with foreign exchange students

 

 

Perhaps the biggest change it made in the lives of Psota and his wife, Eileen Wirth, has been in their serving as hosts for hundreds of foreign students over the years. First, at UNO, and more recently at Bellevue University, Psota has been a liaison for international students, many of whom have lived with the couple at their Bemis Park area home, which is filled with artifacts and photographs from their many travels and exchanges. Psota has maintained contact all these years with the village he served and has returned to India four times.

The couple are adoptive parents to two children, now grown, who are foreign-born nationals. Their son, Raj, came from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in New Delhi and their daughter, Shanti, came from an orphan agency in Thailand. He said his reaching out to international youths is his way of repaying a debt he feels he owes those villagers who welcomed him 30-odd years ago. “A lot of this is sort of pay back. The world needs to be more welcoming to each other.” Psota’s wife, Eileen, said she knew as soon as Ron came back from his Peace Corps stint that “I was going to share him with India for the rest of our lives. And, of course, India then became Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand…”

Psota was part of a Peace Corps team working to increase village level food production.

“We were sort of county agents charged with introducing new hybrids, fertilization, land leveling and crop protection measures. We were half that  and half snake oil salesmen in a lot of ways,” he said. “We were supposed to get farmers to change. At times it was sort of, ‘God, are they ever going to change?’ We were probably bringing on the future and one of the things we were concerned about was ensuring the future had a human face.”

Despite some resistance and skepticism, Psota said farmers soon saw the benefits of improved methods. “The Indians were like farmers anyplace in the world. They may not have been able to read and write, but they all could count. When they counted the number of bags of rice that came off some of our hybrid areas versus what they got off their own plots, they were going to plant them. The yield was that much greater.” Psota and his team also modernized farming practices by starting a tractor cooperative that brought mechanized plowing and harvesting to the area.

A lasting impression for Psota is how much a spectacle he and his Peace Corps mates were. “We were the best show in town in a lot of ways. We were curiosities. I always felt I was on display. The first month or so after my arrival I lived in a school house with windows on all sides, usually complete with little kids looking in at all hours of the day and night. The villagers were just always there. You’d open your door at 6:30 in the morning to go do your duty in the mulu bushes and four people would fall in on you. You soon learned to play to the crowd.” In his travels back to India he’s found the people “much more in tune with what’s going on and a little more in control over their own lives.”

Peace Corps veterans comprise a special fraternity or, as Peter Tomsen, put it, “a family,” built on shared service abroad. Ron Psota often organizes reunions of returned Peace Corps volunteers. To a man and woman, they describe their volunteering as the most seminal experience in their lives.

Gouttierre said, “My whole life is the product of the Peace Corps. I’m more proud of being a Peace Corps volunteer than of anything else I’ve done. When I find out somebody is a returned Peace Corps volunteer it automatically raises their estimation in my eyes. It still is a very profound experience in terms of what it does to crystallize one’s inner dimensions.”

Tomsen, whose daughter followed him into the Peace Corps, said, “It was the most formative experience I ever had. Do I think I made a difference? Yes, but I think I got more back than the villagers.” Furlong, who was planning to attend the Peace Corp’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. until it was postponed in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, simply said, “It changed me.” Finally, Psota said, the Peace Corps opened up “the wonder of the world for me. Now, I’ve got friends all over the world to see. Yeah, I got a lot out of it.”

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

May 19, 2010 13 comments

Emblem of Afghanistan

Image via Wikipedia

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.”

 

 

 

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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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