As Afghanistan continues its struggle to defeat Taliban insurgents and rebuild its infrastructure, the nation is finding strong support from the middle of the United States, in the state of Nebraska. Since 1973, long before Afghanistan gained world attention, the University of Nebraska at Omaha has hosted the Afghan Studies Program, which has fostered academic, civic and personal ties between the U.S. heartland and Afghanistan. VOA's Greg Flakus has more on the story from Omaha.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha is a home away from home for many Afghans. Since the Afghan Studies Program was founded here in 1973, small groups of students from Afghanistan have come here to study and many scholars from Nebraska have come to know Afghanistan as well.
One Afghan who has made Omaha his home is Abdul Raheem Yaseer. He has worked here for 20 years developing educational materials for use in his native land. He says this has given the University of Nebraska at Omaha a high profile in Afghanistan.
"[It is] very well known, especially for the education services that we have been offering since the early 1970's," said Abdul Raheem Yaseer. "During the years of war there were our textbooks carrying the label of the University of Nebraska and after the fall of the Taliban we printed 15 million textbooks in all languages, grades one through 12, and we distributed them all over Afghanistan."
The main force behind the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Afghan Studies program is its director, Thomas Gouttierre, whose fascination with Afghanistan started when he was a Peace Corps volunteer there in the mid-1960's. He keeps in regular contact with U.S.-sponsored Provincial Reconstruction Teams working on the local level to train teachers and improve community resources.
"Unlike the days when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, we can call people on cell phones, use email and we have excellent communication," said Thomas Gouttierre.
Gouttierre and his staff in Omaha are working long-distance to improve education in Afghanistan.
"What we are doing is trying to provide in-service training to teachers so that there is a kind of standard body of teaching pedagogy that each teacher, regardless of his or her training, is following," he said.
Although Gouttierre visits Afghanistan every year, he says the Taliban guerrillas have made it too dangerous for U.S. students to work there. He says the Taliban threaten Afghans on a regular basis in some border areas.
"They are able to move back and forth across the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan and into villages and pass out night letters suggesting to people that 'we are watching you and if your daughters go to school or your wife teaches school or you work with the Americans, we are going to get you and we are going to get your family," said Gouttierre.
Gouttierre says he thinks the vast majority of Afghans have faith in U.S. efforts to help their country, but they are made uneasy by the fact that Osama bin Laden and others involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 remain free.
"Here, nearly seven years later, he is still at large and not only is he at large, so is Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammed Omar," he said.
Gouttierre draws on his more than 40 years of Afghan experience in his lectures and in special briefings for U.S. government officials. But he says the greatest legacy of the Afghan Studies Program lies in the hearts and minds of people here and in Afghanistan who have come to know each other through it.
"Governments come and go, or administrations, but people, citizens, people-to-people activity, those are the things that have a long-term impact, not only on the Afghans, but on Americans as well," said Gouttierre.