Talking with . . .

Tom Gouttierre

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    ONE OF THE PEOPLE to whom the news media and Congress have turned since September 11, 2001, is Tom Gouttierre (Afghanistan 1965–67). Gouttierre is director of the nation’s unique Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Nebraska.
         For 37 years he has lived, worked, and studied Afghanistan — as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kabul, as a Fulbright Fellow, and then as Executive Director of the Fulbright Foundation in Afghanistan. Gouttierre has made presentations on aspects of the war in Afghanistan, on US-Pakistani Relations, on International Terrorism, and on Human Rights in hearings before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations. He has been invited to present his views on Afghanistan and human rights issues in hearings before committees of the British Parliament, the French National Assembly, the Norwegian Storting, and the UN Select Committee on Human Rights. Since 1986, Gouttierre has served as the American specialist on Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and South Asia at the meetings of the US - Russian (formerly Soviet) Task Force (the Dartmouth Conference) on Regional Conflicts.
         Gouttierre speaks, reads and writes Afghan Persian (Dari), Iranian Persian (Farsi), and Tajiki Persian (Tajiki), and has published numerous articles about Afghanistan society, culture, and politics. He is the co-author of a two-volume language textbook (Dari for Foreigners); original Dari poetry, and had translated Persian poetry. Today he serves as the Dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and as the Director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
         We spoke to Tom recently by phone about his Peace Corps experience, Osama bin Laden, and Afghanistan today.

    Did you go into the Peace Corps from directly from college?

      Yes. I was raised in Maumee, Ohio, and worked in my Dad’s pastry shop. I got my Master Baking Certificate when I was 18, but I had never been anyway from Maumee until I went to Bowling Green State University. The college was 13 miles from Maumee and I never saw it before starting school. The first plane I flew on was when I went to Peace Corps training.

    Where were you at a PCV in Afghanistan and what was your job?

      My wife, Mary, and I taught in Kabul. I taught English in a secondary school and also coached basketball. I was, in fact, the first male to be approved to coach girls. I also established the first high school girls’ league. We had four teams. And I coached the boys as well.
           In the ten years that I lived in Kabul, I also coached the Afghan National Basketball Team. This was during the time I was director of the Fulbright Foundation in Afghanistan.

    From your experiences in the region, where do you think the U.S. went wrong with Afghanistan? How did we get to where we are today?

      After the cold war, the U.S. dropped Afghanistan. We were no longer involved in the events of the country. We could have led the Afghan people to reconstruct their social structure, social fabric, infrastructure, and economy. It was a country that needed a Marshall Plan of reconstruction, because it looked very much like the financial district in New York City today, or Berlin after World War II. It had lost millions of people, and almost all of its trained talent.

    What about the region? Where have we gone wrong there?

      We have not had a good long-term policy relating to Central Asia, South Asia, and Afghanistan. Our government didn’t understand how to effectively work with the competing Afghan resistance parties after the Russians left. The last time we had a real policy concerning Afghanistan was under former Secretary of State George Schultz. James Baker did not have one, nor did Warren Christopher, nor did Madeleine Albright. I was waiting to see if Colin Powell would have one, but all that’s been pre-empted. Now we have a policy, but it’s been forced upon us by war.

    What did the Afghans want?

      A lot of them would have been happy to see the removal of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and the Pakistanis from their country. The Taliban does not represent the average Afghan. If we have to go into Afghanistan, we need to remember that there are many there who would like to cooperate with us, with whom we could work in the future, so that we could help preclude a repetition of these circumstances.

    How do we do that?

      The key is an aggregate working with the UN and by working directly with the Afghans. Working towards reconstruction. If we don’t, we’ll face the same problems there, as well as, in Pakistan.
           We need more people-to-people involvement. We need more of the kind of work done by Peace Corps Volunteers and Fulbright scholars. You listen to the media and everyone is asking, why do they hate us? Well, they hate us because 30 years ago we stopped communicating with them. We pulled out of their lives and their country.

    Do you think that former PCVs from Afghanistan have anything to
    Contribute to understanding the country?

      Of course. The Third Goal. No one in this country understands the positive aspects of the Afghan culture. Afghanistan is a beautiful country with a rich culture, but you don’t see that today. Former Volunteers can put a face on the Afghans.

    What was Afghanistan like when you were living there as a PCV?

      It was a very different country. Women were not wearing a veil. There were actually more women in college than men. There were women in the government, women as cabinet ministers. Women were equal. Also it was a time when everyone went to movies, went out dancing. There was no religious or gender concentration. Afghanistan was a joyful place.

    Have you ever seen bin Laden?

      No, but I saw his compound in Kandahar, and I once saw his motorcade. I have maps in my office of his training camps in Afghanistan.

    When was it that you saw his motorcade?

      I spent several months studying him for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in 1996 and ’97. At the time I used my sources to confirm for then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Bourtros-Ghali that bin Laden had indeed returned to Afghanistan after leaving Sudan.

    Could the Taliban throw bin Laden out of Afghanistan?

      No, it’s more likely that he could throw them out. The Taliban have become a junior partner in the strategic plans of Osama bin Laden and the Pakistani extremists.

    How have the wars with the Russians and today touched you?

      Well, I no longer have the houses I lived in when I was in the Peace Corps and with Fulbright. They are all rubble. I have also lost so many good Afghan friends, in the war and because they have become refugees.

    What do you try to achieve with your International Studies Program at Omaha?

      We started here in Omaha in 1973 and today we have 160 students majoring in international studies. We have over a thousand international students studying here, and about 500 of our students studying overseas. The International Studies Program has an undergraduate degree in international business and commerce, secondary school teaching or government service. We have 160 majoring in international studies at the college.

    What do you tell your students to do when they graduate?

      I tell them to join the Peace Corps. I tell them to apply for a Fulbright. I tell them to go out into the world. It is what I did and it has made all the difference in my life. Remember, I started as a baker in Maumee, Ohio, and if I could leave home, anyone can. The Peace Corps was my ticket to a wonderful and eventful life.