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In Nebraska, a Center for Afghanistan Studies - and for controversy

Critics say the institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has gone too far in its work with the U.S. military, the State Department and even the Taliban. Its director makes no apologies.

March 27, 2010|By Kate Linthicum
  • Director Thomas Gouttierre has no apologies for the centerÂ’s work.: “Our interest is humanitarian.”
Director Thomas Gouttierre has no apologies for the centerÂ’s… (Chris VanKat / For The Times )

Reporting from Omaha — On the dusty plains of Afghanistan, a surprising number of people are said to know the word "Nebraska."

It began as a fluke in the early 1970s, when administrators at the University of Nebraska at Omaha launched the Center for Afghanistan Studies. They wanted to distinguish the school as an international institution, and no other university was studying the then-peaceful nation half a world away.

As Afghanistan became a central battleground in the Cold War and then in the war against terrorism, the center -- and its gregarious, well-connected director, Thomas Gouttierre -- were fortuitously poised.

Equal parts research institute, development agency and consulting firm, the center has collected tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. military, the State Department and private contractors for its programs at home and in Afghanistan.

Like much of America's involvement in that nation, it has not been without controversy.

The center has come under fire from some academics who say it has not generated the kind of scholarly research needed to help solve Afghanistan's problems. It has also been criticized by women's rights groups for its dealings with the Taliban.

Most frequently it has been targeted by peace activists, who say the center's past and current collaborations with U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan are unethical.

"I don't think the University of Nebraska has any business teaching kids anywhere in the world how to be killers," said Paul Olson, president of Nebraskans for Peace, an activist group that has been calling on the university to close the center for the last decade.

As evidence, Olson points to the center's $60-million contract with the U.S. government in the 1980s to educate Afghan refugees who were living in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation.

It printed millions of textbooks that featured material developed by the mujahedin resistance groups -- including images of machine guns and calls for jihad against the Soviets.

Gouttierre says criticisms of the center are "revisionist" and fail to acknowledge the challenges of working in a society that has been at war for three decades. The center's aim, he says, has been to build cultural understanding and empower the Afghan people.

"Our interest is humanitarian," he said. "They are victims who lost years of their lives on earth."

Few Americans know more about Afghanistan than Gouttierre, who fell in love with the country as a Peace Corps volunteer there in the 1960s.

He and his wife, Mary Lou, arrived during the "golden age" of Afghanistan, a time before the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban and the widespread production of opium.

In a mud house in Kabul, he wrote love poems in the Afghan language of Dari. At the high school where he taught English, he built a basketball court (he later coached the Afghan national basketball team).

And he met a collection of people who would later figure largely in Afghanistan's history -- future Marxists, anti-Soviets and ministers of the current government of Hamid Karzai.

In 1973, after nearly 10 years in Afghanistan, Gouttierre was invited by the University of Nebraska to lead the newly launched Afghanistan program, with the title dean of international studies.

Gouttierre moved to Omaha and set up an exchange program with Kabul University. He recruited Afghans to come teach and helped organize a large library of donated Afghan materials.

The U.S. funded its educational projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan until the 1990s, when the Taliban took power and the contracts dried up.

That left the center to do "whatever was necessary" to continue its programs, Gouttierre said.

In 1997, that meant signing a contract to train workers for Unocal, a California company that was trying to build a natural gas pipeline in Afghanistan. That year, several Taliban ministers came to Nebraska for a tour of the campus. Several women's groups, angry over the Taliban's repressive policies against women, protested.

It was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that launched Gouttierre -- and the center -- onto the international stage.

The morning of the attacks, Gouttierre showed up to teach his Introduction to International Studies lecture and found half a dozen reporters sitting in the center aisle.

Over the next 10 months, he said, he gave more than 2,000 interviews to journalists from around the globe who wanted to learn about the rise of the Taliban and about Osama bin Laden, whom Gouttierre had researched while on a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The center's newfound prominence helped garner more funding.

In 2002, the State Department gave the center a $6.5-million contract to print 15 million textbooks. Images of AK-47s were absent in these books, but they included phrases from the Koran, prompting criticism that U.S. funds were inappropriately being used to print religious material. The following year, the government did not renew the book contract.

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