Posts Tagged ‘UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies’

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–





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.”



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 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)



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.”



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


UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

December 25, 2011 1 comment




As unlikely as it may seem, the University of Nebraska at Omaha of all places is home to a major archival and training resource having to do with Afghanistan.  UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has been actively engaged in Afghan matters in educational, expert and consulting capacities, alone or as part of U.S. and United Nations efforts, that have gone on before, during, and after the Soviet invasion and the more recent U.S. war on terror waged there.  Many Afghan leaders have participated in UNO programs.  Even though UNO was unable to operate in Afghanistan itself during the Soviet occupation and during the Taliban’s rule, the university’s Afghan support programs continued in Pakistan and in Nebraska, where Afghan exiles and refugees accessed various services.  Since the Taliban’s overthrow the Center has ramped up its programs.  The following story for The Reader ( is one of a series of pieces I did on the Center’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  You can find the other stories I did about the Center under the Afghanistan heading in the category roll on the right, including a profile of Thomas Gouttierre, who directs the Center and whose deep ties to that country go back to the 1960s.  You will also find a more recent story about an exchange between UNO School of Communication faculty and students and peer communucation faculty and students from Kabul, a subject I will be revisiting in 2012.

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


It seems as soon as one plague leaves Afghanistan, a new scourge surfaces in its place. In a constant state of upheaval since the early 1970s this ill-fated central Asian nation has variously fended off foreign invaders, waged civil war, chafed at restrictive measures imposed by harsh rulers, suffered under international boycotts and dug-out from the rubble of both man-made and natural disasters.

Now, in the aftermath of decades-long warfare that wreaked such widespread havoc that not a single school was left unscathed, the country’s fragile interim government is struggling to find its way out of the abyss with the aid of an Omaha institution with deep ties to Afghanistan. Just as it has been involved in past revival efforts there, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies is right in the thick of United States-led rebuilding efforts aimed at shoring-up that nation’s gutted infrastructure, including restoring a ravaged educational base.

The new Afghan ruling class UNO is working with includes many American-educated, including UNO-trained, leaders from the Northern Alliance that helped depose the repressive Taliban regime and assisted U.S. forces in the war on terrorism. Before the Taliban instituted stifling cultural decrees that all but snuffed-out formal education in the country, the UNO center operated a program in the 1980s and early ‘90s that focused on developing leadership and nation-building skills among Afghans, whose training took place in Nebraska, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With the Taliban now relegated to the fringes of power in the wake of the recent U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, the UNO center is implementing a new education program funded by a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Called America’s Rapid Response to Education Needs in Afghanistan, the program is helping jump start the nation’s dormant education system by, most visibly, printing and distributing millions of textbooks for students of all ages now attending school in makeshift sites across the country. Throughout the Afghan civil war and the more recent U.S. campaign to root out Taliban and al-Qaida elements, UNO maintained long-held offices and printing presses in Peshawar, Pakistan, where it also stored textbooks and other educational resources in warehouses. UNO kept more than a symbolic presence in Peshawar, where Afghan refugee camps are located and where UNO education programs train teachers. When the interim government’s Ministry of Education announced plans to reopen schools in March, UNO emptied warehouses and geared-up presses for an unprecedented run of textbooks and materials that continues today. UNO also stepped-up its ongoing training of teachers, many of whom lack any rigorous secondary education.

Thomas Gouttierre, director of the UNO center, recently returned from a weeks-long visit to the war-torn nation. Gouttierre, who’s served as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, oversaw the Rapid Response program’s startup phase and met with Afghan leaders to assess educational needs and how UNO may play a lasting role in helping meet some of those needs. “The task is somewhat monumental. We’ve lost three generations of students who have not had the chance to go to school in many parts of the country. There may have been some parts of the country where there was some sporadic education but, for the most part, there was very little and, for women, almost nothing. And because there’s been no census, we don’t really know how many students there are. We’re probably going to find out by taking a count of the books we’ve distributed and subtracting that number from the total we publish,” Gouttierre said from his office on the UNO campus.





In addition to elementary and secondary education, he said, “there is a real need in vocational-technical education and in trying to wean people away from the culture of the gun, where they get paid to bear weapons, to some other kind of work where they get paid” to weld a joint or repair a car engine or drive a nail or fix a leaky faucet. “Also, there was a lot of literacy lost during these last three decades and so each of the major urban centers in Afghanistan needs to have literacy programs for adults in those regions. Afghanistan’s literacy level has dropped to the level it was at when Afghanistan was emerging right after the Second World War. After that, education went through boom lets — developing rapidly enough at times to reach a significant part of the non-educated population. In the last three decades, however, that underserved segment has been missing out on any educational opportunities.”

According to Gouttierre, the rebuilding process must encompass both soft and hard infrastructure features. “In terms of teaching and administration, there are many, many people assuming roles today both in teaching and management of education whose primary qualification for those tasks has been experience and not actual higher education or, if they do have some higher education, it is one of not any real substance. So, there has to be training of what I describe as ‘the barefoot teachers’ — the people who are essentially teaching the ninth grade because they’ve had an 11th grade education or are teaching the third grade because they’ve had a seventh grade education. It’s not realistic for them to go back to school and start the whole process over at age 50 or whatever. So, in-service education is the thing for them. It has to focus on making these teachers better teachers. We’re doing that right now, and that’ll go on for a long time.”

“In terms of schools, I did not see one that isn’t in need of major rehabilitation. I saw schools in the neighborhoods in which I used to live in the capital city of Kabul where there were three walls or two walls up and no roofs,” said Gouttierre, whose own experience in Afghanistan extends back some 40 years as a former Peace Corps volunteer, Fulbright scholar and Fulbright administrator. He has appeared before the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament and the French National Assembly to discuss Afghan matters. Despite the many challenges there, by the end of April UNO was expecting to have printed and, hopefully, distributed 10 million textbooks in a little more than two months time. But even getting textbooks into the hands of children is equal parts adventure, faith and improvisation.











“The actual distribution of books and materials is a problem. The roads are bad. The Ministry of Education doesn’t have the money for trucks to take books from, say, Kabul to some outlying area, where they then need to be distributed by smaller trucks to villages and schools and from there to even more remote sites.” To facilitate the books’ delivery, UNO has formed a “cooperative” network enlisting facilities, vehicles and workers of many agencies.

There are also constant security concerns in a country rife with tribal animosity and terrorist-extremist threats. “We were told while we were there that there had been a threat uncovered from al-Qaida against our education program,” he said. “We increased our security, but nothing came of that” threat.

Even with all the problems, he added, there “are some upsides. First of all, there is this curriculum created by Afghans that students have in-hand in the books” UNO is making available. He said the curriculum is one that has been “developing over the last several decades through the help of USAID, Columbia University and UNO. That curriculum is a resource for them and one they can decide to do with as they wish.” Regarding criticism leveled against the curriculum by officials with UNICEF and other agencies who allege it relies heavily on rote learning and contains inappropriate militaristic and religious references, Gouttierre said the content in question was long ago removed or revised. Besides, he said, critics fail to take into account that symbols of, for example, dead Russian soldiers used in math problems came in the context of the nation’s bloody war with the Soviet Union.

When Gouttierre considers Afghanistan’s plight, he sees a country desperate for normalcy but unsure how to get there. He said the road ahead will need to be an entirely new one for a country reeling from more than a generation of violence — a period that saw it fracture along fault lines of both internal and external origin. A succession of disruptions destabilized Afghanistan to the point where war became an every day reality. The chaos began with the ouster of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah in 1973, quickly followed by the Soviet Union’s installation of a puppet communist government. When civil unrest threatened Soviet interests, the Red Army invaded in 1979. A bloody 10-year war ensued. By the time the Afghan rebels  — the mujahideen — defeated and drove out the Soviets, most of the country lay in ruins and millions of Afghans were dead, wounded, politically exiled, dispossessed as refugees or long-since fled to the safety of other countries. Then, in this still largely feudal land where ethnic and religious rivalries viciously compete for the hearts and minds of its beleaguered people, civil war erupted between factions loyal to opposing tribal warlords and to opposing forms of Islam. In the midst of this power struggle, the extremist Islamic movement known as the Taliban allied itself with the Pashtun minority in the southern part of the country and engaged in civil war against the more moderate Tashik majority in the north, whose forces came to be known as the Northern Alliance.

Today, even with the Taliban and al-Qaida removed from power, outbreaks of violence continue, countless thousands of civilians remain homeless and millions of mines litter the landscape. It is an embittered populace with virtually no family left untouched by the carnage. In a society bereft of much of its pre-war leadership and still divided along ethnic-religious lines, the pervasive culture of the gun looms over the scene, with the threat of coups, insurgences and feuds never far away.

As Gouttierre sees it, Afghan leaders and their international partners must look beyond cultural-political differences and focus instead on forging a common vision for public programs like education that operate at the national level. Because he estimates about “80 percent of the real brain trust of Afghanistan has been drained,” the country is starving for human and material resources and is being flooded by NGOs (non-government organizations) trying to corner the market in relief or aid programs, including education programs. He said the country is so desperate for help that it feels obliged to accept any aid, regardless of whether it conforms to or helps further national education aims.



“What’s needed but what is lacking is an emphasis on the national nature of the educational mission. Programs are needed that have a cohesive nation-building content. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge now. That’s one of the reasons why Afghans’ new leadership chose the curriculum we were safeguarding. It was their curriculum. It was comprehensive. It was cohesive. And it was, more than anything, theirs.”

He said the U.S. has a major part to play in any process that makes Afghan education a source of unification rather than division. “We have to do whatever we can to increase the capacity of the Ministry of Education. The infrastructure of the ministry is somewhat skeletal right now. There are people filling a lot of positions who are now faced for the first time with a national mandate. All the mandates up till now have been somewhat regional or else lacking totally. But education in Afghanistan is now a national program. It’s not divided up into regional school districts or local school districts or anything like that. It’s national. So, we have to increase the capacity of the ministry to call the shots for what should be done in that country.”

What is being done now, he said, is “an immense” reclamation project that seeks to  not only revive but reinvent an education process interrupted and largely destroyed by the hostilities of the past 23 years. He said as more Afghans migrate to urban centers from rural provinces, where the traditional practice of agriculture has been rendered next to impossible by the presence of land mines, adult vocational education will become paramount. He added that education for women will need to be a primary focus in a country where “female empowerment” is a new but crucial concept. “Women have been unable to work for so long but there are so many of them who are eligible for the workforce, age wise and need wise, if not skill wise.”

Even as conditions remain difficult and dangerous throughout the country, the wish of the Afghan people to resume education is so strong that weeks before the official start date for schools to reopen on March 23 students began gathering in all manner of impromptu settings to attend class. School was to begin in two phases over a several month period, but citizens’ interest in seeing school start NOW was overwhelming enough that the government opted to open all schools at once. “People had been deprived of education for so long they all started at the same time,” Gouttierre said. “They are just so eager. They’re really embracing this concept, especially the girls.”




The deluge of students has been such that no real attempt is being made now to place individuals according to ability or age. “Nobody’s making a challenge,” he said. “I think everybody feels that if someone says he should be in the fourth grade then let’s put him there and let’s work with him because, bottom line, we’ve got to get this thing going rather than wading through endless challenges. Besides, there’s not the means to find out for sure where people should be placed.”

While attending the launching day ceremonies for the new education initiatives at a ramshackle school in Kabul on March 23, Gouttierre said it was apparent to him and the Afghan nationals present that a historical milestone was being witnessed. “Everybody understood they were marking time,” he said. “That they were marking a major departure from the way life had been for the last decades in Afghanistan and that they were trying to relaunch modernization, development and progressive movement.”

The festive ceremonies included not only Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and other high-ranking Afghan officials, but a parade of peasant families, including parents accompanying young children who had never attended school before. The scene left Gouttierre with some lasting impressions. “I have two very vivid images in my mind from that. One is of all the mothers and fathers coming to register their children for school. And to see the excitement and enthusiasm and hope and desire on their faces was just very, very meaningful. The other thing was seeing this parade of boys and girls in uniforms and of teachers and administrators in suits and dresses enter the school. Watching that, one recognized something happening there that hadn’t been going on for nearly three decades. People were crying, as was I and as was Hamid Karzai. We were thinking about the sacrifices and losses and the new opportunities.”

Securing a stable education system in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said, demands two things. “One is establishing universal security. The second is making sure the international communities really do provide what they’re promising to provide and haven’t yet — namely, the kinds of money and in the right forms” Afghanistan requires. “There’s a lot of money being spent on putting the elements into place and that’s mostly in management and administration. The actual programming money, I think, is still to come. Whether or not there’s going to be that delivery of funds is the important thing.”

He said the symbolic return in mid-Aprilc of long-exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah may bolster the rebuilding efforts underway. “It could mean a lot. It might mean more credibility to the current process if he’s supportive of all this and I think he should be and will be. He is highly popular and, again, if he is part of all this it will give it a historical-traditional foundation that would help. Now, he’s 87-years-old, so he’s not going to be dynamic. He’s going to be symbolic. He’s going to be presiding. He’s going to be a great-grandfather kind of figure. But that’s an important thing for Afghanistan, which has lost out on so much of its traditions and history.”

If nothing else, Gouttierre said, the rebirth of education in Afghanistan expresses the will of the people and represents the first national program sponsored by the interim government. “This action is the first comprehensive program initiated and sustained by this government that has national reach in Afghanistan. Everything else may not reach beyond the confines of Kabul. I think there is a consensus behind it. The only place there would be a lack of consensus would be among the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida and those of like-mind.”

Whether the present leadership remains in office to carry out its educational mission will be determined by a congress of Afghan elders convening in June. The loya jirga or grand assembly will decide if Karzai and his ministers retain power or are replaced in a new transitional government until democratic general elections are held in two years.

UNO’s efforts in rebuilding the educational system in Afghanistan were honored by President and Mrs. Bush during a March 20 event in Alexandria. Va. The university’s current grant through USAID ends at the end of 2002. In the meantime, Gouttierre said, “we’ll look at what other areas we might be able to do and do well for Afghanistan. We think the one that might be most down our line would be something like vocational education.”

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation

December 20, 2011 2 comments

The role the U.S. has played in Afghanistan and with visiting Afghans in this country is fraught with controversy.  The same holds true for what the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has done and continues doing in terms of training and immersion opportunities offered to Afghan students and professionals who come here to participate in various programs. The controversy stems from the complex problems facing Afghanistan, economically, politically, culturally, and the strategic motivations by Americans to aid, occupy, and control that country. Whether you see controversy or not depends on your point of view.  Leaving politics and motivations aside, UNO’s programs have provided a link or bridge unlike few others in giving Afghans some of the tools they need to rebuild and restore their embattled and ravaged nation. This story from several years ago profiles a project that saw scores of Afghan women educators come here to further their professional development.  The story appeared in truncated form in The Reader ( and here I’m able to present it in its entirety.  This blog contains other stories I’ve written about UNO’s deep ties to Afghanistan.

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


The latest cadre of teachers in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Afghanistan Teacher Education Project return home this weekend after a month of training and cultural exchange Nebraska. This is the third group from Afghanistan to come here in the last year-and-a-half. A new group is scheduled to arrive in the fall. The program, supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, is part of the UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies’ longtime efforts at repairing the war-ravaged Asian nation’s fractured education system.

Participants, all women, attend computer and intensive English language classes on the UNO campus and observe master teachers at two Omaha elementary schools. The women also visit schools and various attractions statewide, including the program’s satellite communities-schools in Oakland and Scottsbluff, Neb.

Once back in their homeland, the teachers share the skills and methodologies they acquired in the program with their peers. Each graduate is charged with training 10 colleagues from their school. That means the 37 graduates to date will soon have impacted some 370 teachers. Even more are reached via workshops and seminars the graduates present in conjunction with Ministry of Education officials. The women who completed the most training here were prepped for their American trip by their predecessors in the program. This trickle-down approach broadens the program’s reach, thus making a dent in the nation’s extreme teacher shortage.

The first group to come, in 2002, was an older, more tradition-bound bunch. The second, in 2003, were younger and more Westernized as would be expected from ESL teachers. This last cohort — all elementary school teachers — was further yet removed from the Taliban’s reach. Women are the focus of the program because their education was interrupted by prolonged fighting and then banned outright by the now deposed-Taliban. The radical fundamentalists made it a crime, punishable by beatings or reprisals, for females to teach and attend school. Some visiting teachers defied the ban and taught secretly under the repressive regime.

Aabidah, a teacher at Nazo Anaa Middle School in Kabul, is one of 12 women who attended the UNO program in April and May. She risked everything to practice her profession against Taliban edicts. “Yes, it was dangerous. I had six girls in my home. Daughters of friends and neighbors. It was done very secretly,” she said. Under the guise of teaching sewing, she instructed girls in Dari, Pashto and other subjects.

The teachers, ranging in age, experience and sophistication, have made an enduring impression on everyone they’ve met, including their host families and instructors. Robin Martens, who along with her husband, Gene, hosted Aabidah and another Afghan teacher, Lailumaa Popal, at their northwest Omaha home, is impressed with Aabidah’s fearlessness. “She seems to be a brave person. She has a strong personality and she kind of forges ahead even when she’s not sure about things. I like that about her,” Martens said. Regarding the quieter Lailumaa, a teacher at Lycee Zarghoonah in Qandahar, Martens observed, “She’s very caring and I think she must be a very good teacher because whenever I mispronounce a word in Dari, I laugh it off, but she insists I say it correctly.”

Barbara Davis, an Omaha Public Schools reading specialist, has hosted Afghan women in her Benson home. For Davis, they define what it is to be “courageous” under crisis. “If I were in the same situation I don’t know if I could have taught school in my home with the threat of my life. I really don’t know.”

In the capital city of Kabul, where most early training participants came from, women enjoy relative freedom to work and teach and go out on the streets sans chadri (or burqa), the traditional full-body veil. But even Kabul was a harsh place in the grip of the Taliban. “The Taliban was very bad. Very dangerous,” Aabidah said. “When they were in Kabul we don’t have jobs. We stay at home. We wear chadri. No, I don’t like chadri. It was very hot. I like the freedom. Now, we are free and happy. I like all of this in my country.” Things haven’t changed much in more provincial areas, where many recent participants reside and work. Women there must proceed with greater caution. “In Kabul, it’s OK. Outside Kabul, it’s bad,” Aabidah said referring to the current climate for women in Afghanistan.

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush



Lailumaa fled with members of her family to Pakistan during the struggle for power in Afghanistan that erupted in civil war in the 1990s. Coming from a family of educators that regards teaching as a higher calling, Lailumaa said she greatly missed her students and her craft. After combined U.S.-Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, she returned to her homeland to resume teaching.

In the wake of the Taliban’s fall, Lailumaa, Aabidah and other women educators teach openly again. It’s the one thing they can do to restore their country. Aabidah said she teaches because “I love my children, my students, my people. I want a good future for them.” Baiza, a 2002 program grad who taught geography-history in a Mazar Sharif school, said then, “Students are part of my life.”

Sandra Squires, a UNO professor of speech-language-communication disorders, feels a kinship with her Afghan counterparts: “I realize that except for all the trappings, we’re all teachers,” she said. “We’re all very much alike. We love kids and we want to be doing something that can better the world, and that’s universal.” Aabidah feels the same. “Yes, I feel the teachers here are like my sisters,” she said.

In 2002, Baiza described the responsibility she and her fellow teachers feel to transform education at home with the “new concepts and skills” they learn here.

The Afghans have been motivated to be change agents, according to Anne Ludwig, assistant director of the ILUNA, the intensive language program at UNO. “What I see is women who are prepared, enthusiastic and eager to go home and make a difference in their lives and in the lives of other women,” Ludwig said. “I think they learn what they come to learn. One of them said what she would take back more than anything else was the idea that in the American classroom we want the students to feel good and positive, whereas back home the teacher is the autocrat and students are made to feel inferior. She liked the idea of opening up the classroom to where students feel safe, free to communicate and achieve.”

Practicums presented by Howard Faber, an Omaha Dodge Elementary 6th grade teacher fluent in Farsi, demonstrate good teaching practices the Afghans can implement in their own classrooms. He introduced the most recent group to Teacher Expectation Student Achievement or TESA, a set of methods promoting fairness and equality in learning, an issue of great import in Afghanistan, where ethnic-religious differences run deep. As former refugees resettle the country, he said, classrooms are filling with students of widely varying backgrounds and ages.

Faber feels the women symbolize their country’s hoped-for healing. “They’re from different places and different ethnic groups, and I think it’s very positive you have these people of varied cultural backgrounds working together on this common project. I think it bodes well for what might happen in Afghanistan, which now is a little bit like the United States was after the Civil War. You have deep feelings that are going to die slowly. Part of the healing there has to be that these cultural groups that fought so long work together.”

He said TESA alerts teachers to biases they harbor and offers strategies for giving “all children an equal opportunity to participate and to learn and to feel valued and welcomed. I show them what I do in my own classroom. They’re very practical things you don’t need a computer to do.” Later, he and the women discuss what transpired. “They ask me things…they really immerse themselves in the classroom. They even teach children a bit of their language. The kids are especially curious about them writing from right to left. It’s connected well with our studies.”

For Afghan teachers, seeing the bounty of American schools is both disheartening and inspiring. Baiza said, “Everywhere we went we saw the facilities, the machines, the technology, and I felt a kind of dismay that we are deprived of them. But I know these things are not dropped from the sky. There’s a lot of research, thinking and hard work that have gone into it…and this gave me a kind of hope that if our people work as hard, someday they will have these things, too.” Recent teacher participants were struck, too, by the disparity. “I’m very sad for the people of Afghanistan because our country’s very poor,” said Lailumaa. “I am upset we don’t have computers, books, notebooks, tables, chairs. We have blackboard and chalk,” said Aabidah. “We want computers. We need schools. That’s our hope.” Her students are “happy to learn” and “very intelligent,” but lack so much.

UNO’s Sandra Squires said the women’s devotion to teaching in the absence of basics makes her feel “very humbled. They’re doing things with absolutely nothing. I mean, they have to solve problems in ways I never had to dream about.” For their return trip, UNO gives each visiting teacher a laptop computer and a backpack filled with school supplies. But as UNO professor of education Carol Lloyd noted, “It still is barely a ripple in this ocean of need.”

Education is a mixed bag in Afghanistan. When schools reopened to great fanfare in 2002, far more students than expected flooded classrooms, which then, like now, were makeshift spaces amid rubble or cramped quarters. That surge has never let up as more refugees return home from camps in Iran and Pakistan. Overcrowded conditions and high student-teacher ratios continue to be a problem. Damaged schools are being rebuilt and new ones going up, but demand for classrooms far exceeds supply. For example, Aabidah’s school has 16 classrooms for its 3,000-plus students. Already scarce resources are siphoned off or entangled in red-tape.

“The schools are running by the enthusiasm of the parents and the commitment of the teachers, but there isn’t much government or international support for education,” said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies. “Schools don’t get enough funds and when they do get funds, a project that is started then stops because the funds dry up or are misused.”

Tom Gouttierre, director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, said education is hindered by the “piecemeal application” the U.S. is taking to that nation’s recovery. “We’re trying to do Afghanistan on the cheap, because we’re focusing so many of our dollars on Iraq. So, we wind up bringing in a lot of other participants in a kind of donor conference approach to reconstruction and development. It leaves Kabul overrun by all kinds of different aid organizations, but with no coordination and no real firm Marshall Plan approach. It’s very hard for the Ministry of Education to coordinate it into one central educational plan for the country. It’s frustrating.”

Of all the gaps and shortages, the most acute is women teachers in such outlying provinces as Herat, where the reach of president Hamid Karzai is weak and the pull of old, oppressive cultural norms is strong. Despite the suppression of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror base, the ethnically and religiously diverse nation is still seething with tensions, not the least of which is the place of women in Afghan society. Tribal rulers enforce restrictive measures.

“There is a great need for women teachers in the provinces and the women want to go, but they cannot. First, their families will not let them go and, second, the families themselves will not go because warlords and local commandos control the areas. People are scared. Also, parents are hesitant to let their girls go to school because the extremism and fanaticism in these regions is threatening,” Yaseer said.

Such fears are part of larger safety issues that find land mines littering roads and fields and Taliban loyalists and rebels waging violence. “There are some obstacles on the way to progress and security is number one,” Yaseer said. Aabidah agrees, saying that even above resources, “We want security. That’s our big problem.”

The challenge, too, is training enough teachers to educate a rising student enrollment. “The paradox is there hasn’t been any real formal education for teacher trainers for a long time and yet there are more kids in school now than ever before, and so that means the gap between the training needed and the numbers of students in classes is great,” Gouttierre said. “Among Afghans there’s a realization of something having been lost for generations and a determination not to let it get away from them again.”

Gouttierre said the fact this most recent crop of visiting Afghan teachers came from underrepresented areas, reflects UNO’s attempts to extend teacher training “in places where we haven’t been.” Part of that training is being undertaken by past graduates of UNO’s Afghan Teacher Training Project in concert with the center’s on-site master teacher trainers. The project is just the most visible branch of a much larger UNO effort. For years, its center has been: holding workshops and conferences for Afghan professionals and leaders involved in its various reconstruction efforts; training more than 3,000 Afghan teachers in workshops staffed by teacher trainers in Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan; and writing textbooks and printing and distributing them by the millions.

These far away efforts are personified by the visiting Afghan teachers, who represent the face and future of education in their country. The diverse women all share a passion for their people and for teaching. Although their stays here are relatively brief, their impact is great. After hosting two older Afghan women who called her “our daughter,” Charity Stahl said, “I will never be the same.” Stahl, assistant director of the Afghan Teacher Education Project, later visited the women in their homeland while volunteering for an NGO. Of their emotional reunion, she said, “I still can’t believe it.”

For Barbara Davis, hosting is a cultural awakening in which her guests call her “mother,” teach her to make Afghan meals or get her to perform native folk dances. Despite a language barrier, she felt the women revealed their true selves behind the veil. “We really got to know each other,” she said. “We talked just like sisters. These are some of the warmest, dearest women I’ve ever met.”

The experience is equally meaningful to the Afghans. Aabidah called the training program “very interesting and very good” and described America as “not like in the movies. The people are very kind and hospitable. When I go back to Afghanistan, I’ll miss our dear host family and our American friends. They’re like my family in Afghanistan.” Coming to America, she said, “is like a dream for me.”

Her hosts, the Martens, will cherish many things. The pleasure Aabidah and Lailumaa took in cooking native dishes for them or in wiling away nights sitting around and talking, Or, what sharp bargain shoppers the women proved to be. Or, how thrilled they were to drive, for the first time, as the couple watched nervously on. “They’re people just like us. They want the same things we do. For themselves. For their families. We have so much to share with each other,” said Gene Martens.

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 (




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 (


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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