September 16, 2001 - A Returned Volunteer who served in Afghanistan talk about the Taliban

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 09 September 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: September 16, 2001 - A Returned Volunteer who served in Afghanistan talk about the Taliban

By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, September 19, 2001 - 2:03 pm: Edit Post

Read the full story from the Omaha World Herald:

The first time Thomas Gouttierre met the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan, they parted with hugs.

The Taliban, Muslim clerics who became familiar to Americans last week for their close ties with terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, also have ties with the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"You sit down with them and they're relatively regular joes," Gouttierre, director of the UNO center, said last week. He has visited Taliban members in their homeland and hosted them in Omaha.

He has worked simultaneously with them and their foes to provide education in Afghanistan.

Gouttierre endorsed the virtual certainty of U.S. retaliation if evidence continues to point to bin Laden's global organization as the force behind Tuesday's attack on the United States. He cautioned against being too cautious: "The longer we try to determine who was the bad guy, the farther away the bad guy is going to get."

Since entering the mountainous central Asian country 37 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, Gouttierre has coached the Afghan national basketball team, headed the Fulbright Foundation in Kabul, directed UNO's study program, and researched the Taliban as a U.N. peacekeeper.

When he arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, on the peacekeeping mission in 1996, the Taliban were one of the few gaps in Gouttierre's knowledge of Afghanistan. The Muslim clerics emerged as a religious, political and military force in the mid-1990s in response to the chaos and corruption that ensued after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

At Gouttierre's initial meeting in Kandahar, the Taliban were surprised when the American spoke fluently in their native Dari.

"They were charmed," Gouttierre recalled. "By the time I left they were hugging me."

Last week, as President Bush threatened the Taliban about the consequences of harboring terrorists, Gouttierre said that he and UNO's program got close to the Taliban but not too close.

"We never served as advisers in any way to the Taliban," he said. "All of us here at the center have been opposed to what the Taliban were doing. In all of our dealings with them we were only doing one thing - that is, teaching children."

The U.S. relationship with Afghanistan over the past half-century has ranged from generosity to defense to indifference to threats.

UNO's 30-year relationship with the impoverished nation has not wavered: In war and peace, whoever was in charge in Afghanistan, UNO has sought to teach its students and teachers.

In fact, as Americans watched the horrifying images of airliners crashing into skyscrapers Tuesday, a message from UNO was en route to the Taliban leaders: The Omaha program was asking them to order UNO- developed textbooks from the university's printing operation in Pakistan.

"We are ready to help to print their textbooks for all schools under Taliban or no Taliban," said Abdul Raheem Yaseer, campus coordinator for UNO's program in his homeland.

UNO's relationship with Afghanistan began in the early 1970s. At the time, said Del Weber, UNO's chancellor from 1977 to 1997, "Most of the people of this country would not be able to find Afghanistan on a map."

In the 1950s and '60s, the United States helped the mountainous Asian nation as it did much of the developing world - building roads, advancing agriculture, sending Peace Corps volunteers.

One of those volunteers was Gouttierre, who joined UNO in 1974 as director of the fledgling Afghan program and dean of international studies.

Through the 1970s, UNO and other Nebraska schools exchanged faculty and students with Kabul University in the Afghan capital under a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development. That program ended and U.S. policy toward Afghanistan shifted abruptly with a 1978 coup and the 1979 Soviet invasion.

With Iran on Afghanistan's western border, American leaders feared growing Soviet influence in the region and saw an opportunity to defeat their Cold War adversary.

Seven disparate Afghan factions joined to form the mujahedeen resistance. The United States helped with $2 billion in aid, weapons and training, funneled mostly through Pakistan. Thousands of Islamic radicals, including Osama bin Laden, came to Afghanistan to join the fight.

"The people we did support were the nastier, more fanatic types of mujahedeen," said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior State Department official in the 1980s.

But Cohen, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the move was justifiable: "If you want to win the Cold War and defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, you can't use the Salvation Army."

While the war dragged on, UNO won a USAID educational grant in 1986. UNO operated from Peshawar, Pakistan, training teachers, developing curricula and publishing textbooks.

"We had to send books into the country on the backs of donkeys and mules and people," Yaseer said.

By the time USAID stopped the grant in 1994, "we had huge trucks that were crossing the border just loaded with tons of textbooks," said Weber, the former UNO chancellor.

In the eight years of the grant, UNO spent more than $50 million to train teachers and develop curricula for more than 130,000 students at more than 1,000 refugee schools in Pakistan and 1,000- plus schools in Afghanistan. Part of the program sought to improve schooling for girls and women.

The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 might have brought an influx of U.S. aid to rebuild the devastated country. But the collapse of the Soviet Union followed swiftly, commanding U.S. attention.

"Suddenly there were 14 or 15 new countries with which to deal," recalled Ronald Roskens, who visited Afghanistan as UNO chancellor in the mid-1970s and played a key role in foreign policy as director of USAID in the first Bush administration. Afghanistan, he said, "was not given sufficient attention."

Without U.S. aid, Gouttierre said, "the extremists filled the vacuum."

The mujahedeen, like many revolutionary armies, fought better than they governed. Without the common Soviet enemy, the factions degenerated into corruption and civil war.

Weber visited Kabul in the mid-1990s and saw "a city that was absolute rubble." Boys who looked 11 years old patrolled the streets with Kalishnikov rifles.

The UNO chancellor stayed with the minister of protocol, who insisted that the guest use his bed. As Weber slipped his arm under the pillow, "I felt a cold piece of steel," the minister's loaded pistol.

As the Taliban emerged from the turmoil, few alarms sounded in the United States.

"I don't think there's any question we let that slip off the radar screen," said Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Despite their failings, "the Taliban came onto the scene as saviors," said John Damis, a Middle East scholar at Portland State University in Oregon. "They would bring peace to a war-torn country and they would rid the country of corruption."

Bin Laden and Pakistan saw a valuable ally in the Taliban. Pakistan, always fearful of India to its east, wanted stable, friendly Islamic neighbors to the west. Bin Laden wanted a base to train Islamic fanatics for suicide attacks around the globe.

As the Taliban fought a coalition called the Northern Alliance, a Houston-based oil company presented UNO with an opportunity to resume teaching in Afghanistan.

Unocal Central Asia Ltd. wanted to build a pipeline through Afghanistan. To win favor and to train potential workers, the company wanted to start a technical training program.

UNO, said Gouttierre and Yaseer, insisted on remaining neutral in the civil war. It proposed and Unocal agreed to fund a plan to teach technical skills to male youths in Kandahar, which the Taliban controlled, and to train women as teachers in the region controlled by the Northern Alliance.

"I felt it was important to carry the message" that UNO would continue educating women and girls, Gouttierre said. "We said, 'You must understand that we will work with the other side as well.'"

Fighting delayed the establishment of the school for women, which finally opened in old school buildings in Baniyam.

During the Unocal project, two Taliban officials visited Omaha. Gouttierre said it was important to cultivate ties with both sides, to encourage resolution of the civil war.

Unocal changed its mind and the program ended in January 1999 after 15 months. Since then, UNO's only operation in the region has been the textbook operation in Pakistan, kept alive by private funds.

Weber admits to some qualms "in retrospect" about the UNO ties with the Taliban. "The hope always was that the Taliban would be only a very temporary phenomenon."

The former chancellor is proud, though, of the university's persistence in providing education in Afghanistan despite the many obstacles. "That's probably one of the finest things that the University of Nebraska at Omaha has ever done."

Affection and concern for the Afghan people remains strong among Omahans who have visited and worked there.

"What a tragedy for these people," Gouttierre said. "They don't want Osama bin Laden there. They don't want the Taliban there."UNO Program

1972 - Center is founded.

1974 - UNO hires Thomas Gouttierre as director of Afghan program and dean of international studies.

Through 1978 - UNO exchanges students and faculty with Kabul University.

1978-86 - After 1978 pro-Soviet coup and 1979 Soviet invasion, UNO has no programs in Afghanistan.

1986-94 - UNO trains teachers, develops curriculum and prints textbooks for Afghan schools from Peshawar, Pakistan.

1996-97 - Gouttierre takes leave to serve on United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Afghanistan.

1997-99 - Under contract with Unocal, UNO teaches technical skills to male youths in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and trains women as teachers in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

By jack bean ( on Monday, July 25, 2005 - 3:27 am: Edit Post

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