For facts on Taliban, world looks to RPCV in Omaha

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 09 September 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: September 16 - A Returned Volunteer who served in Afghanistan talk about the Taliban: For facts on Taliban, world looks to RPCV in Omaha

By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, October 01, 2001 - 9:27 am: Edit Post

For facts on Taliban, world looks to Omaha

Sep 30, 2001 - Kansas City Star Author(s): Mary Sanchez

OMAHA, Neb. - Thomas E. Gouttierre never fought in a war and is enough of a pacifist to be grateful.

His war is just beginning. His arsenal is in-depth, firsthand knowledge of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Afghanistan. His battlefield is his desk at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he is dean of International Studies and Programs.

From it he gives media interviews - more than 250 since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

His assistant slides the office door open, attempting to make her interruption soundless so as not to disturb a phone interview with a Japanese newspaper reporter or the television reporter who is unfolding camera equipment. She mouths "the State Department" as she hands Gouttierre a piece of paper - Washington needs to know whether he is familiar with any of the names on the list.

A former United Nations specialist, this son of a Midwestern baker is among the most sought out information sources since the attacks.

"We are at war now," Gouttierre said. "I'm too old to fight. But I can help on the information side, on the education side."

Interviews are scheduled every 15 minutes. Teaching and meetings with students are squashed between blocks of media requests.

Downlinks with CNN and MSNBC often are done late at night, and some live radio interviews begin before 7 a.m.

The Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska's Omaha campus is the only such center in America, a distinction that Gouttierre jokes makes it the best and also arguably the worst.

A sort of right-hand lieutenant to Gouttierre works a shout away, in the office next door. There, Peter Tomsen, former special envoy and U.S. ambassador to the Afghan Resistance, cranks out opinion pieces for newspapers across the country and fields his own interviews.

Tomsen came to the picturesque campus three hours north of Kansas City three years ago. He thought the university the perfect place to spend a year and write his book False Dawn: Afghanistan and the Islamic Extremist Challenge.

He has the outline completed, and the first paragraph.

"It'd be a best seller now," he laughs as he reaches for a stack of articles, primers for reporters on the Middle East conflicts he knows so well.

Tomsen is among the last of foreign officials to meet with the leader of the Afghan resistance to the Taliban. He met with Ahmad Shah Masood in June. This month Masood was assassinated, most suspect by bin Laden's henchmen.

Together Gouttierre and Tomsen - both 61 and reared 35 miles apart in small Ohio towns - have become a knowledge base for the war on terrorism.

"We are in for a long and unfortunate kind of war," Gouttierre said.

He makes the comment in his office under the gaze of the woman who oversees nearly all of his interviews.

She is a portrait, a poster-size print of a photo that became one of the most popular National Geographic magazine covers.

The beautiful, green-eyed woman, her hair covered with a traditional head scarf, was an Afghan refugee, among the more than 5 million who fled during the war with the Soviet Union.

Gouttierre helped the photographer during the trip. No one knows what happened to the woman, whose photo inspired many calls for her hand in marriage.

"I think that those eyes show both defiance and fear," he said. Briefing America

Students, reporters and top government officials who seek out Gouttierre all receive nearly the same information - although it is shifted into sound bites for television, in-depth conversations for the well-versed and humor-filled attempts to prod twentysomethings to question the full range of U.S. policy.

According to Gouttierre:

The war against the Taliban is winnable. There are resistance groups in Afghanistan, numbering 15,000 to 20,000. But they must be used in a way that lets people know the United States is not against the Islamic religion. And the area is rife with longstanding religious and ethnic splits that the United States needs to understand.

"If we use the pockets of opposition wisely, the Taliban might implode."

The Taliban are made up of perhaps 35,000 to 40,000 loosely knit groups of guerrilla fighters without much loyalty.

"If we want to remove terrorism from Afghanistan, we have to go in there with human bodies and destroy the terrorist training camps."

The Taliban are highly sophisticated in technology but largely made up of undereducated fanatics from Pakistan. Talib is an Arabic word meaning "religious student." Taliban is the plural.

"Afghanistan, through the Taliban, has become the dumping ground for all of the terrorists worldwide."

Most Afghans do not support the Taliban or their brand of Islam.

For example, the Taliban have twisted the teachings of Islam in such a way that women are not allowed an education or to work and can be beaten for having a veil out of place.

The Taliban have "turned Afghanistan into kind of a religious concentration camp."

Pakistan's military intelligence on the Taliban is crucial. Pakistan provided the Taliban with food and supplies for years. Pakistan military officials will know where the potable water is, where land mines are and where bin Laden could hide.

"The military in Pakistan has now realized it has created a kind of Frankenstein monster in their midst."

Bin Laden's coffers are not self-sustaining and probably include money from heroin grown in Afghanistan and religious giving in mosques throughout the Middle East.

"A little money goes a long way in Afghanistan. And many people give in mosques probably thinking they are doing the work of God. ... We've permitted the sale of arms worldwide to become a legitimate business. And now you get people like Osama bin Laden as a customer. And he's got the money."

The last point could be termed the extra credit essay that both Gouttierre and Tomsen feel passionately about - America will have the chance to right an old wrong by giving Afghanistan help to rebuild its society into at least a quasi-democracy.

Afghanistan, Gouttierre is fond of saying, was the straw that broke the back of the camel that was the Soviet Union. Afghanistan fought a nearly 10-year war against the Soviet Union, aided by the United States and other countries.

The Soviets pulled out in February 1989. In November the Berlin Wall fell. Within two years the Soviet states broke up. But there was no Marshall Plan to help Afghanistan rebuild. The result was a political vacuum the Taliban readily filled.

"We need to do this right so we don't have a mess to clean up in another 10 to 15 years," Gouttierre said. "We abandoned the Afghans before. We owe them now." A long journey

Tom Gouttierre didn't plan to become a world scholar. He seemed destined to be a baker, like his father.

By the time he was 18, he had earned a master baker certificate. But he was always entranced by the mysteries of the world far from his home near Toledo, Ohio.

But a baker's salary didn't allow world travel.

Gouttierre decided he'd have to work his way around the world. So the newly married Gouttierre and his wife, Marylu, volunteered for the Peace Corps in the late 1960s. They asked for Turkey, Iran or Iraq, an attempt to fling themselves far from what was familiar.

They got assigned to Afghanistan, working for 11 cents an hour. They stayed nearly 10 years.

Gouttierre also was a Fulbright fellow and worked as director of the Fulbright Foundation. And he coached the Afghanistan national basketball team.

The couple might have stayed longer had not the University of Nebraska at Omaha been embarking on the creation of an international studies program.

The campus had become the home of a large collection of works on Afghanistan, perhaps the largest outside that country. Gouttierre, who is fluent in Afghan Persian (Dari), Iranian Persian (Farsi) and Tajiki Persian (Tajiki), was recruited to lead the department in 1974.

In the winter of 1996 he was called to be a senior political affairs officer with a U.N. Peacekeeping Mission. His first assignment: find out whether bin Laden had re-entered Afghanistan after being kicked out of his native Saudi Arabia. Gouttierre hit the streets, contacting many of the people he knew.

Three hours later he knew it was true. By the next day bin Laden was Gouttierre's "folder," or assignment. By the end of the week Gouttierre was put in charge of tracking intelligence on the Taliban.

He never met bin Laden and was encouraged by U.N. officials not to try.

But he did have connections with many of bin Laden's officials. And it was through them that Gouttierre first began to see potential weaknesses in the Taliban.

It is a story he recounts often these days, one he repeated at a dinner gathering recently at the home of the university's chancellor, Nancy Belck.

Gouttierre has rushed to the home late, straight from a phone interview with Court TV in his office.

Standing above the audience of about 40 civic and university officials, he soon has them captivated. Only the gas heaters and the chirping insects of nightfall interrupt.

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