Another anniversary story. It was the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps and I just happened to know a few veterans of that renowned service program, and so after they agreed to share their stories with me, those experiences formed the backbone of what I wrote. One of the individuals I profiled served in Afghanistan and the other three in India. All of them were deeply affected by what they saw and did and at some level that experience has informed everything they’ve done since then. My story originally appeared in the New Horizons. On this same blog you can find my profile of one of these Peace Corps veterans – Thomas Gouttierre, and his affinity for and work with Afghanistan.
A Peace Corps Retrospective
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Forty years ago, the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers landed in Ghana and Tanzania, Africa. The young, bright-eyed Americans were a new kind of emissary. Neither diplomats nor missionaries, they arrived in far-flung destinations with the appointed task of helping Third World peoples learn skills and develop resources for overcoming tyranny, poverty and disease.
Trained in various service assignments, ranging from education to health to agriculture, the volunteers embodied the idealism and vigor of America’s young, energetic President, John F. Kennedy, who had announced his vision for the Peace Corps in an October 14, 1960 campaign speech at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the nation’s youth to aid the developing world. Once elected, Kennedy reiterated the plan for an international volunteer corps during his January 20, 1961 inaugural address, asking a new generation of Americans to join “a grand and global alliance” to aid the dispossessed and pledging “our best efforts to help them help themselves.”
Kennedy’s clarion call was answered by thousands, including several Nebraskans. By September ‘61 Congress approved legislation formally authorizing Peace Corps and by the end of that year the first contingent of volunteers left for their host countries. Within five years, more than 15,000 volunteers from around the U.S. were implementing Peace Corps projects in the field. As of 2001, 163,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries.
Among those heeding the call during that heady first decade were Tom and Marylu Gouttiere, Peter Tomsen, Beth Furlong and Ron Psota, five transplanted Omahans who were then fresh-from-college graduates looking for a way to make a difference and to find an adventure. Peace Corps duty proved a defining experience for each, indelibly changing the pattern, direction and focus of their lives. For each, it was a time of personal growth and broadened perspectives. They would never look at the world or its diverse people the same way again. For proof, each returned Peace Corps volunteer has given his or her life over to working with people and each has become a world citizen with deep, personal ties to the international arena.
Tom Gouttierre was either headed for a career as a master baker just like his father or as a manager with General Motors just like his friends when Kennedy’s call to service got him thinking beyond the parochial borders of his Maumee, Ohio hometown. “He was an inspiring guy. When he spoke I was just kind of taken by his message of going outside what we normally do,” said Gouttierre, who today directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies and heads the International Studies and Programs Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
From the time he was a child Gouttierre had been curious about the wider world and longed for journeys that would open up its vast horizons to him, only he lacked a way to make it happen. By his early 20s he was studying liberal arts at Bowling Green State University, but remained frustrated in his efforts to break from the mold. That’s when he and his wife, Marylu, decided to throw caution to the wind and enter the Peace Corps. After training in Vermont, the couple was assigned to Afghanistan, a remote, forbidding country that would figure prominently in the rest of their lives. During their 1965-1967 tour, the couple was based in the capital city of Kabul. He worked as an English-as-a-foreign language instructor and basketball coach at Lycee Habibia high school and she as a physical education instructor at Kabul University and a business instructor at all-girls schools.
“We were one of the few married couples,” said Marylu, an Oriental rug retailer. “It was an unknown experience. We had no idea what to expect, whether our language skills would help us or where we would live. There was no telephone. No television. No communication. It was a really exciting experience, a really scary experience, but also a very rewarding experience, and after awhile we just both fell in love with the culture and the people. It’s good to give some of your own services to others, but when you do that you gain so much also.”
Especially in the early 1960s, countries viewed Peace Corps volunteers “as a kind of feather in their cap,” Tom Gouttierre said, and much of that enthusiasm had to do with foreign peoples’ admiration of Americans. “The students I worked with tried to take everything out of me that they could. They were curious as hell. They were always wanting me to do something with them or for them. It was flattering that your skills were that attractive to this group of people. Before Vietnam really got kind of overbearing, Americans, largely because of the impact of Kennedy, had a real appeal for the younger generation. I can’t tell you how many times some Afghan came up to me to express their sorrow at the death of Kennedy. ‘He was a great man,’ they would say. That was a great asset for any Peace Corps volunteer. You had this icon who helped elevate your own position in their eyes. Today, America is viewed a little differently and for that reason it’s probably more difficult to be a Peace Corps volunteer now, even though living conditions are better.”
Tom Gouttierre’s Peace Corps service set the stage for a distinguished professional life with deep ties to Afghanistan. He and Marylu returned there in 1969 when he studied abroad as a Fulbright Scholar and they remained there the next six years as he headed the Fulbright Foundation and coached the national basketball team. The Gouttierre’s oldest child, Adam, was born in Afghanistan. During his UNO tenure he’s built a massive archive on Afghanistan, supervised education programs there, participated in United Nations fact-finding junkets there and appeared before Congress addressing issues relating to Afghanistan.
Since leaving, he’s watched with a heavy heart as the nation crumbled under the strain of successive crises — from a war with the former Soviet Union to civil strife to the oppressive Taliban regime to the current specter of American-Allied retaliation for harboring terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Many of his former students have been lost. “I’ve seen what one my call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said. “To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates is very, very sad.”
His thoughts of Afghanistan are bittersweet.
“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person. I was a flower waiting for the sun to rise and it just unfolded parts of me that never would have been unfolded if I had not done that. I learned how to live in very challenging circumstances. It opened everything else up for me. I was naive, but the Peace Corps showed me the world. It gave me the opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people. I love Afghanistan. Its people are very hospitable. They have great self-assurance and pride. Today, however, they have such despair about the future of the country. They are fed up with war. They want things to return to the way they were. And I guess what keeps me at this work is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way, those admirable qualities of Afghan culture I came to love so much will to some degree be restored. So, I keep pursuing that.”
Peter Tomsen was a student at Wittenberg University in Ohio when Kennedy’s appeal to America’s youth hooked him. “I can remember, even today, him asking us, ‘How many of you would be willing to study Urdu and go to Pakistan and serve?’ There was an explosion of enthusiasm built around the novelty of the idea — of going off to help others — but also the charism of President Kennedy. He moved us. He moved a whole generation,” said Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence in the UNO International Studies and Programs department. “There was a rush to join up. There were many more volunteers then there were slots. We were extremely idealistic. Many of us, including me, had never even left our country much less our state. And that element — of an unseen adventure — was there, too.”
In a case of it truly being a small world, Tomsen and Gouttierre, both the same year, grew up within 35 miles of each other in northwest Ohio, came to a similar epiphany regarding the Peace Corps at nearly the same time and embarked on international careers that eventually led them to being UNO colleagues. Assigned to Nepal, Tomsen first underwent extensive language and culture training in Washington, D.C. and hard physical training in Hawaii (to steel him for the rigors of trekking through the Himalayas). Upon his arrival in Nepal, he taught social sciences at a college constructed of stone, bamboo and thatch, but before his two years were up he was charged with the new mission of opening a vocational school for Tibetan refugee children.
Being transported from the plenty of America’s Breadbasket to the subsistence-level conditions in Nepal exposed Tomsen to a side of the world he could not have imagined. “Outside of the capital, there was no electricity in Nepal,” he said. “There was only one road. It was a very poor area with very little to eat. We ended up just having rice twice a day with vegetables and sometimes with meat. Often, we slept on mats on the ground. We didn’t have newspapers or television. We could only get the BBC on transistor radio. We were really isolated. There was a high illiteracy rate. Peoples’ interests didn’t go much beyond survival. But, faced with a situation like that, you soon realize how little you need, especially when you have friends. We had extremely close friendships with the people and they had it with each other too. The people were proud and led a fulfilling life.”
After his 1963-1965 Peace Corps tour, Tomsen returned to the U.S. to teach at St. Cloud State University before landing a diplomatic post in the U.S. State Department, where he enjoyed a 33-year career that culminated with him serving as ambassador to Armenia. Wherever he’s worked, he’s carried with him core values from the Peace Corps, including “interpersonal and intercultural abilities” and greater “tolerance, patience and sensitivity.” He said. “After living in a village environment in Nepal for two years I was at home and comfortable the rest of my life every time I met a foreigner.”
Beth Furlong had rarely traveled outside the confines of Davenport, Iowa, where she was a hospital nurse, when she opted to stop playing it safe and to push herself beyond her comfort zone by entering the Peace Corps. Following training in New England, her assignment was teaching public health education to adult men and women, including students at an all-women’s teacher training institute in East Mysore, India. It was about as far afield from her rural Midwestern upbringing as she could get and the dichotomy led her to change her outlook on things.
“I led a restricted life before I entered,” said Furlong, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and a faculty associate in the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University. “It made me a mobile-international citizen. It helped me look beyond my ethnocentrism. It gave me a new concern about poverty and justice. And, also, it gave me an appreciation for the fact there’s no one right way to do anything. The area I lived in was predominantly Hindu and Muslim and so I learned there are many ways to worship. I learned that washing myself didn’t have to mean bathing, but could mean pouring water over myself. It was a wonderful lived experience of getting outside America and seeing how other people live.”
Back in the U.S., Furlong switched her career track from hospital nursing to community health nursing as a direct result of her Peace Corps service, which opened her eyes to the need for more and better preventive — rather than reactive — public health policy in addressing such things as nutrition, safe drinking water, immunizations, family planning and maternal-child care. At home, she has involved herself in scores of organizations dedicated to the justice, anti-poverty and peace movement, including Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and Nebraskans for Peace. She has taught ethics at international conferences in Eastern Europe, most recently under the auspices of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the American International Health Alliance.
Today, she is planning her first trip back to India since she left 33 years ago and is eager to return to the villages she volunteered in to see what progress time has wrought. All these years later, Furlong fondly looks back at her India tour of duty and appreciates how it helped her move beyond the “constricted view” of things she arrived with to develop a greater, more encompassing understanding of other cultures. As Furlong discovered, Peace Corps volunteers do not merely observe the cultures they serve from some ivory tower distance, but rather wade right in to live and work among the people.
In her case, that meant eating spare meals, doing without electricity, using an outhouse, bicycling from town to town and being the object of curiosity wherever she traveled. It meant being treated to a level of hospitality that humbled her, as peasants shared meager food supplies with her, a perfect stranger, when such provisions should really have gone to their malnourished children. It also meant finding out, first hand, what peoples’ needs were and devising responses to meet those needs.
When she and her Peace Corps partner, Alice, identified a need for sanitary food preparation and bathroom facilities, they took the initiative and worked with CARE volunteers to build kitchen sheds and latrines in dozens of villages. She’s hoping that when she visits these villages, the sheds and latrines still stand. She said she could not have gotten as intimate with Indian culture as she did without the Peace Corps placing her smack dab in the middle of things. That sentiment is shared by fellow Peace Corps veterans.
“Peace Corps volunteers get closer to the quick of society than do anybody else, whether its foreign service officers or scholars or anyone else,” Gouttierre said. “The Peace Corps is probably the best people-to-people experience ever devised. In that regard, it’s as important as it ever was and I think it’s still the best kind of foreign assistance and foreign exchange of any kind.”
Ron Psota had long ago decided not to be a dairy farmer like his parents, who owned and operated a spread near Ord, Nebraska. No, he wanted to see the world and to explore other possibilities. So, he became a liberal arts major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned an architecture degree he hoped one day to use in the Peace Corps, whose foreign service appealed to his sense of curiosity. Ironically, once in the Peace Corps he did not end up designing low cost housing as imagined but instead found himself on familiar ground by assisting farmers in India with their agricultural needs. Still, the Peace Corps offered him the chance to live out a dream and to carve out a new life.
“I’d always been interested in other cultures. That was a strong pull. That and the fact maybe you could do some good and maybe have a helluva good adventure too,” said Psota, International Students Coordinator at Bellevue University. “I think if I had not done that my life would be quite a bit different. It was sort of a defining moment. It changed my world view. It changed the way I work and what I do and everything else.”
Ron Psota, left, with foreign exchange students
Perhaps the biggest change it made in the lives of Psota and his wife, Eileen Wirth, has been in their serving as hosts for hundreds of foreign students over the years. First, at UNO, and more recently at Bellevue University, Psota has been a liaison for international students, many of whom have lived with the couple at their Bemis Park area home, which is filled with artifacts and photographs from their many travels and exchanges. Psota has maintained contact all these years with the village he served and has returned to India four times.
The couple are adoptive parents to two children, now grown, who are foreign-born nationals. Their son, Raj, came from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in New Delhi and their daughter, Shanti, came from an orphan agency in Thailand. He said his reaching out to international youths is his way of repaying a debt he feels he owes those villagers who welcomed him 30-odd years ago. “A lot of this is sort of pay back. The world needs to be more welcoming to each other.” Psota’s wife, Eileen, said she knew as soon as Ron came back from his Peace Corps stint that “I was going to share him with India for the rest of our lives. And, of course, India then became Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand…”
Psota was part of a Peace Corps team working to increase village level food production.
“We were sort of county agents charged with introducing new hybrids, fertilization, land leveling and crop protection measures. We were half that and half snake oil salesmen in a lot of ways,” he said. “We were supposed to get farmers to change. At times it was sort of, ‘God, are they ever going to change?’ We were probably bringing on the future and one of the things we were concerned about was ensuring the future had a human face.”
Despite some resistance and skepticism, Psota said farmers soon saw the benefits of improved methods. “The Indians were like farmers anyplace in the world. They may not have been able to read and write, but they all could count. When they counted the number of bags of rice that came off some of our hybrid areas versus what they got off their own plots, they were going to plant them. The yield was that much greater.” Psota and his team also modernized farming practices by starting a tractor cooperative that brought mechanized plowing and harvesting to the area.
A lasting impression for Psota is how much a spectacle he and his Peace Corps mates were. “We were the best show in town in a lot of ways. We were curiosities. I always felt I was on display. The first month or so after my arrival I lived in a school house with windows on all sides, usually complete with little kids looking in at all hours of the day and night. The villagers were just always there. You’d open your door at 6:30 in the morning to go do your duty in the mulu bushes and four people would fall in on you. You soon learned to play to the crowd.” In his travels back to India he’s found the people “much more in tune with what’s going on and a little more in control over their own lives.”
Peace Corps veterans comprise a special fraternity or, as Peter Tomsen, put it, “a family,” built on shared service abroad. Ron Psota often organizes reunions of returned Peace Corps volunteers. To a man and woman, they describe their volunteering as the most seminal experience in their lives.
Gouttierre said, “My whole life is the product of the Peace Corps. I’m more proud of being a Peace Corps volunteer than of anything else I’ve done. When I find out somebody is a returned Peace Corps volunteer it automatically raises their estimation in my eyes. It still is a very profound experience in terms of what it does to crystallize one’s inner dimensions.”
Tomsen, whose daughter followed him into the Peace Corps, said, “It was the most formative experience I ever had. Do I think I made a difference? Yes, but I think I got more back than the villagers.” Furlong, who was planning to attend the Peace Corp’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. until it was postponed in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, simply said, “It changed me.” Finally, Psota said, the Peace Corps opened up “the wonder of the world for me. Now, I’ve got friends all over the world to see. Yeah, I got a lot out of it.”
- Dealing with reverse culture shock (cnn.com)
- Erica Burman: Celebrate the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary on YouTube (huffingtonpost.com)
- Reader Story: I Quit My Job and Joined the Peace Corps (getrichslowly.org)
- After 50 years, Peace Corps mission remains the same (nj.com)
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 (www.thereader.com).
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
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.”
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.”
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.”
- Afghan president criticizes timeline for U.S. withdrawal (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Market bombing in northern Afghanistan town kills 3 police, 2 civilians, wounds 15 (foxnews.com)
- The Challenge of Training Afghan Troops, Police (cbsnews.com)
- An Old Partnership Takes a New Turn: UNO-Kabul University Renew Ties with Journalism Program (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Afghanistan: U.S. Intelligence Failures Led To Civilian Casualties (huffingtonpost.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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