As US Withdraws from Afghanistan, Nebraskans Reflect on Past 20 Years

Aug. 11, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

Tom Gouttierre
Tom Gouttierre, the former head of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (Photo from Zoom)

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With only a few weeks until the United States military’s speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, Taliban forces continue to steadily reclaim territory across the country. A number of Nebraskans with deep ties to the country are taking those gains personally. There are mixed feelings about just how effective the past two decades have been in Afghanistan and what the future holds for the country.

It was in mid-April when President Joe Biden stood in the Roosevelt Treaty Room in the White House and announced the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, nearly 20 years after President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war in the same room.

“I’ve concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war,” Biden said. “It’s time for American troops to come home.”

Four presidential administrations have had to deal with the war in Afghanistan, two Democrats and two Republicans, and in Tom Gouttierre’s opinion, they’ve all done a poor job.

“We really have, through those four administrations, bungled the planning and management of our presence in Afghanistan,” he said.

The Afghanistan national basketball team with Tom Gouttierre
The Afghanistan national basketball team with coach Tom Gouttierre. (Photo courtesty of Tom Gouttierre)

Gouttierre is the former Dean of the International Studies Program and head of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He retired in 2015, but has a long history with the country, starting in 1965 as a Peace Corp volunteer. He lived in Afghanistan for 10 years and even coached the country’s national basketball team. He said the issue has never been the people of Afghanistan, but instead terrorists, like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and many other affiliates, who have come over the border from Pakistan, where they have been funded and trained.

“Our current administration does not understand this,” he said. “Some of its advisors do fully, some of its military advisors truly do, but it does not at the highest levels, neither did the Trump administration, certainly not the Obama administration and even more so, the George W. Bush administration.”

Gouttierre says the U.S. lost focus about a year after arriving in Afghanistan after American troops invaded Iraq. Since then, he said it’s been a mish-mash of strategies that have changed frequently. And he says, instead of just leaving abruptly, the U.S. should have helped set-up a peacekeeping force to keep things safe during the transition.

“That would have been a more judicious, appropriate way to leave than this kind of immediate departure which has left many, many questions and many, many concerns hanging,” Gouttierre said.

Tony Baker
Tony Baker, a legislative aide for Nebraska Senator Tom Brewer. Baker spent time in Afghanistan as a defense contractor. (Photo from Zoom)

In recent weeks, Taliban forces have taken back territory they had lost over the past 20 years, including a provincial capital in southwest Afghanistan. About a month ago, Taliban forces executed special forces soldiers from the Afghan government that had surrendered. And just last week, Taliban forces killed the head of the government’s media operations. Last month, an Afghan interpreter who had worked with U.S. forces was killed by Taliban forces.

“They are going to be very brutal to anybody who was in any way connected with the Americans or with the Afghan government, anybody,” Tony Baker, a legislature aid for Nebraska Senator Tom Brewer said. Baker spent more than seven years in Afghanistan as a defense contractor and worked alongside Brewer, a retired Army colonel who was injured in an ambush during his service there.

Baker said the U.S. withdrawal is probably the right thing to do, but the swift exit has left the country in a precarious position.

“The Afghans are used to being abandoned and now we can add the United States to the list of countries that they will never trust ever again,”

He said the Taliban’s victories since the U.S. began leaving Afghanistan probably won’t stop and could soon include the country’s capital of Kabul, which relies on diesel fuel to keep the power on.

Sher Jan Ahmadzai
Sher Jan Ahmadzai, Director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (Photo courtesy of UNO)

“When they can shut-off the delivery of fuel to Kabul, you’ll see the country of Afghanistan go back under the control of the Taliban and I that will happen within the next six to eight months,” Baker said.

Last week, a car bomb damaged a building used by UNO’s Afghanistan Studies program. Nobody was injured, but it was the latest example of increased violence as Taliban fighters retake more territory. Sher Jan Ahmadzai is the current director of Afghanistan Studies at UNO and said the decision to leave was based on political pressure here, not the conclusion of a prescribed strategy.

“Our decision to pull-out forces should have been based on very visible goals,” he said. “Is our mission accomplished in Afghanistan? Have we deprived Taliban and other affiliates, Al-Qaeda and others, of the opportunity to congregate? Are we sure if Afghanistan is not going to be back to where it was before 2001? We don’t know that yet.”

Ahmadzai, who was born in Afghanistan and worked for the government for several years, said despite what appears to be a failure there, the U-S presence has changed the country.

“There are significant achievements and there are significant things that we can be proud of,” Ahmadzai said. “Our assistance to Afghanistan is never a waste. We have a friendly country, we have a friendly nation now that we did not have and we helped people get better lives.”

For Tom Gouttierre, the Afghanistan he knew starting in 1965 as a Peace Corps volunteer and for many years afterward is what he wants to remember- a beautifully rugged country, with hard-working, welcoming people.

“The characteristic that I take away most is the whole sense of hospitality, friendliness, welcomeness that one received from the Afghan people,” he said. “They really like Americans, they still do very, very much,”

U.S. troops are expected to be completely out of Afghanistan by the end up the month, in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the terrorist attack that prompted the war in 2001.