By Ralph Dannheisser
Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington -- With a Midwestern educator acting as their matchmaker, three cities in the midwestern state of Nebraska are forming sister city ties with two cities in Afghanisan, creating special cultural, social, and eventually commercial links.
The largest city in Nebraska, Omaha, is establishing a sister city relationship with the Afghan capital of Kabul while the farming communities of Scottsbluff and Gering in western Nebraska are becoming sister cities with Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
Spurred on by an interest by his fellow Nebraskans in extending a hand to the Afghan people, Thomas Gouttierre, the dean of international studies and programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), returned from a January visit to Afghanistan carrying letters from the country's vice president, Kareem Khalili, to the mayors of the Nebraska cities -- letters in which the Afghan official expressed eagerness to establish the sister city relationships.
Forging links between U.S. and Afghan citizens is nothing new for Gouttierre, or for his university, where he also serves as director of its Center for Afghanistan Studies. One of the first things he did upon coming to Nebraska in 1974 was to establish a sister universities tie between UNO and Kabul University.
Before that, he had lived in Afghanistan for almost a decade, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow and finally as executive director of the Fulbright Foundation's programs there.
Indeed, Goutierre says, plans to link the two cities were in progress as early as the late 1970s, but then "the Communist coup took place and derailed that." With the Communist period followed by the rule of the Taliban, "we didn't have a chance to revisit that again until the Karzai government was established" after the Taliban were routed at the end of in 2001, he notes.
Gouttierre said the new opportunity developed as the result of the U.S. antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan following in the wake of the deadly September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
"There are, I guess, some positive things that may develop from that horrendous event," he said.
Gouttierre -- and Nebraska -- have been quick to seize the opportunity to strengthen ties.
"Almost the day after the war in Afghanistan began, people here in Omaha and in Scottsbluff were calling my office to see how they could be helpful to the people of Afghanistan, and it kind of proceeded from that," Gouttierre reports.
Just last October 13, Afghan women teachers were brought to the United States for a five-week visit. They spent most of their time in Omaha, but also stayed for a week in Scottsbluff, living with local families and visiting schools. Scottsbluff residents say the visit led to strong attachments.
"The real problem here is how do you keep helping them when they get back," one of their Scottsbluff hosts said on their departure.
The official sister cities relationship would put contacts on a more formal and structured basis.
The Washington, D.C.-based Sister Cities International, which certifies and oversees the links, describes itself on its website as "a citizen diplomacy network creating and strengthening partnerships between U.S. and international communities to increase global cooperation at the local level."
The organization says it "works to promote cultural understanding, social development and economic growth" through "every type of municipal, business, professional, educational and cultural exchange or project." And, it adds, it monitors participants' "sustained commitment and success in this mission."
The network includes more than 2,100 communities in 121 countries. But, while there are hundreds of pairings between U.S. cities and partners in Mexico, Japan and various European countries, for example, Afghanistan has never before participated in the program.
That seems to be about to change. Justine Morgan, the group's membership services director, says that not only the Nebraska cities, but also Fremont, California, have inquired about launching sister relationships with Afghanistan.
Omaha already has existing sister city ties with four other communities: Shizuoka, Japan; Braunschweig, Germany; Siauliai, Lithuania; and, just since last year, Naas, Ireland.
Lawrence Uebner, chairman of the Omaha Sister Cities Association, was quoted in December as saying that, given the continuing struggle in Afghanistan just to get a new, democratic society under way, the relationship with Kabul is likely to differ from those others.
"It's not going to be a tourist-goodwill-mission type of relationship. It's going to revolve around aid, charitable support for health and education, things like that," he said.
Gouttierre similarly sees a full-fledged relationship as likely to be a long time in developing.
"What I hope will progress from this is some real education, cultural exchanges that will lead also, eventually, to some commercial and economic opportunities," he says.
But, Gouttierre acknowledges, "Initially, I suspect that it will be relatively modest exchanges. Right now, it's not practical for large numbers of people from the United States to plan to go to Afghanistan as tourists. It may involve a small, select group to start things out, and then maybe receiving some more visitors from Kabul and Bamiyan in both Omaha and Scottsbluff."
In terms of major economic benefits to the Afghan communities, he believes "it may take a decade or so to really get that kind of opportunity under way."
And what lies immediately ahead, in terms of the logistics of setting up the relationship?
First the proposals must be approved by the respective mayors and their city councils. Then approval will be sought from the existing sister cities organization in Omaha and the one in the process of being established in Scottsbluff-Gering, before final registration with Sister Cities International is completed.
Omaha and Kabul are formalizing a sister city relationship after three decades of close interaction and exchanges, Gouttierre said. Those ties were re-emphasized when UNO re-established an office in Kabul soon after the fall of the Taliban.
As for Scottsbluff-Gering and Bamiyan, Gouttierre said those cities have two things in common. One relates to cultural icons: the Nebraska communities are quite close to the national monument at Mt. Rushmore, across the border in neighboring South Dakota, where the heads of four American presidents are carved into the mountain's face. Bamiyan is near the site where, in 2000, the Taliban destroyed two ancient statues of Buddha carved into cliffs. And on a more practical level, he notes, the fact that the Nebraska communities share with Bamiyan the same conditions for highland farming "interests the agricultural people out there."
The linkages "could be very productive for our interests and for the interests and needs of Afghanistan," Gouttierre says.
With arrangements for those U.S.-Afghan links well on their way, Gouttierre suggests that the current effort can be a model for establishing links with other countries where Sister Cities and other U.S. efforts are inadequately represented.
"This is an important way for the United States to reach out to those countries in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, for which there's been a real dearth of connections in the last 30 years and longer," Gouttierre says. "It's just that we've never done it in those areas, really."