Peering at the 60-foot-high faces of four of America's most famous presidents, the dozen robed and bearded Afghans drew little attention at the base of Mt. Rushmore in July 1999.
Only bullet and shrapnel scars beneath their heavy attire would be clues that these visitors were militia commanders, some with ties to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.
For the next five weeks, the men were feted at private parties, escorted on tours of other local landmarks, including a school and hospital, and given cash for a shopping mall excursion where most bought scented soaps and silk stockings.
And just as quietly as they had arrived, the Afghans were shepherded back to Afghanistan -- all expenses paid courtesy of the U.S. government and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Since 1986, spanning the early years of post-Soviet occupation to the oppressive regime of the Taliban, the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the Omaha commuter campus has served as a back door for U.S. intelligence efforts to expose Afghan leaders to American ideas and democracy.
Even as the anti-Taliban rhetoric in Washington grew harsher in the 1990s, the university center provided a softer approach to foreign policy, an approach that was often awkward, occasionally controversial and, ultimately, a failure.
The university hosted parties for the Taliban and then filed briefings to the U.S. State Department. School officials distributed thousands of textbooks to Afghan children that reflected a government-approved version of history depicting women as second-class citizens. Encouraged by Washington, the school worked with a U.S. oil company to try to persuade the Taliban to grant valuable oil pipeline rights in Afghanistan.
The goal was to provide Afghan leaders, particularly members of the Taliban, with a taste of America in the hope that they might become U.S. allies.
The Afghans continued their trips to America even after sanctions against the Taliban were implemented by the U.S. and other nations.
In November 1997, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright harshly criticized Taliban leaders as sadistic killers who nailed enemies to village walls and stoned uncovered women.
One month later, eight key Taliban members, including the foreign minister, toured the United States, stopping in Nebraska and Houston, where they visited NASA headquarters.
They also visited Washington, where State Department officials tried to reinforce Albright's views.
"We wanted to take advantage to convey this message to them directly, as well, and that's what we took advantage of these visits for," said Leonard Scensny, public affairs adviser for the State Department's Bureau of South Asian Affairs, which oversaw dozens of trips of Afghan and Taliban leaders.
The trips involving senior Taliban officials did little good, he said. During one meeting with the Taliban leaders, U.S. officials encouraged them to bring peace to Afghanistan and restore human rights.
The Taliban's reply was curt, Scensny said.
"They said this is God's law. This is the way it's supposed to be. Leave us alone," he said.
The trips were little more than a blind wager, said Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. ambassador to Armenia who teaches at the university.
There is no evidence that any of the visitors are assisting U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, and State Department records show that many remain enemies.
$60 million in grants
Since 1986, university and federal records show, the Nebraska center has received more than $60 million in federal grants to launch educational programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to host visits of key Taliban leaders and military commanders.
"We were trying to get a foothold in their country by working one step at a time," said Thomas Gouttierre, dean of the university's international studies program and director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies.
As an example of the approach, Gouttierre said the university planned to get rid of the inflammatory textbooks as the Taliban leadership grew more tolerant. But that day never came, and Gouttierre says the regime must be overthrown.
"I tried to show them that the state and church could coexist peacefully," Gouttierre said. "I think I largely failed."
Gouttierre, 61, spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a Peace Corps volunteer and served as director of the Fulbright scholarship program during the 1960s and 1970s.
"We may have been naive, but it was worthy of a try," Gouttierre said.
UNO Chancellor Nancy Belck said she is "very proud" of the accomplishments of Gouttierre and the Afghanistan center. Administrators have closely monitored center activities, and they are satisfied that the independence of the university was not compromised, she said.
But the Nebraska center's proactive role in molding U.S. policy is rare among universities, and it left a trail of resentment, anger and uncomfortable encounters, according to officials from the State Department and two other federal agencies that directed money to the university.
Shaista Wahab, an Afghanistan native who immigrated to the U.S. in 1981, oversees the university's collection of 12,000 rare books and manuscripts about Afghanistan.
Wahab said she became so uncomfortable with frequent visits by Taliban officials that she would hide in the basement of the library so she wouldn't have to conduct tours.
"Sometimes, they [center administrators] wouldn't tell me they were Taliban because they knew I'd make myself unavailable," she said.
"Most of the time the Taliban ministers would stare at the books for a few seconds, then leave. Most cannot read. They couldn't understand the covers of the books."
On July 9, 1999, the dozen Afghan leaders who had visited Mt. Rushmore gathered in a single room with a tape recorder for a landmark meeting that, for their safety, was to remain confidential.
The group was composed of leaders who worked closely with the Taliban and al-Qaida, but also included Afghan leaders who were bitter opponents of the Taliban, State Department officials said.
They met at the international studies department on the Omaha campus with Gouttierre, who was fluent in their native language, Dari. He would later submit the first of eight classified reports to the State Department.
Limiting their contact
Sensitive to public criticism that they might be seen as embracing a controversial regime, State Department officials tried to minimize direct contact with Afghan leaders, whose government was not recognized diplomatically by the United States or any other major industrialized nation.
Gouttierre moderated the two-hour session, keeping the peace among the men, some of whom carried deep-rooted animosity toward each other as well as toward the U.S., according to transcripts of the session.
A school official agreed to share the transcript with the Chicago Tribune on the condition that the names of the Afghan militia officials not be disclosed, for fear they might face reprisals at home. Some of the Afghan leaders had visited the U.S. without the knowledge of their government.
The session provided insight into the origins of the Taliban and its alliance with Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The officials explained how the Taliban, which began as a movement within Pakistani religious schools, was exported to Afghanistan by Pakistani leaders as a way to gain control of a chaotic, impoverished country ravaged by war.
Dissatisfied with their relationship with the Pakistanis, the Taliban rebelled against them in the mid-1990s. In response, Pakistan angrily withdrew most of its military and financial support from the Afghan government, the Afghan leaders told their Nebraska hosts. Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian idolized as a war hero by thousands of young Muslim men, stepped into the breach, supplying millions of dollars to the Taliban, the militia leaders said.
Seeking a way to express his fear of the U.S. government, which helped the Afghans during the Soviet war but then largely withdrew support, one of the Afghan leaders related a parable.
"Someone saved a sheep from the fangs of a wolf," he said. "Then the person ate the sheep. The sheep's soul was crying out.
"[It] told the person, `I thought you saved me, but you are the real wolf.'"
But there also were indications that the Taliban was divided. The most hard-line faction enforced dozens of new restrictions, particularly involving women, but also required men to wear beards and follow other strict customs. Punishment was uniform: death.
Some of the Taliban were so disturbed by the direction of their government that they were ready to help U.S. efforts to change it, two of the militia leaders said.
Tomsen, the former U.S. ambassador who teaches foreign affairs courses at UNO, said the interviews yielded a rich vein of information that could have helped stunt the growth of Afghan-based terrorism.
A career diplomat who served in Vietnam, China, India and Armenia, Tomsen worked closely with the Afghan resistance efforts against Soviet occupation during the 1980s. He said the university was able to serve as a neutral ground where Afghan leaders of all persuasions could informally pass along information to the U.S. government. Like Gouttierre, he believes the intelligence supplied from the meetings was largely ignored.
"The U.S. government can be like a big dinosaur that just keeps walking along," he said.
A particularly embarrassing chapter for the UNO center involved the distribution of textbooks in Afghanistan.
The $60 million the university received came from the U.S. Agency for International Development, an independent branch of the State Department. The money was for the university to establish educational programs demonstrating the strengths of a democratic society, but that goal never was realized.
The university program, called the Education Sector Support Project, flooded Afghanistan with tens of thousands of school textbooks, set up curriculums for elementary school classes and provided scholarships for older Afghans to study in Nebraska.
Afghan leaders, then representing a loose alliance of seven militias, mandated that textbooks be laced with heavy doses of Islamic fundamentalism and militarism. Moreover, the Afghans sharply limited plans by the United States to educate female students and train female teachers.
In a 1989 briefing report submitted to AID, Gouttierre warned that openly educating women could alienate the Afghan officials who believed women were inferior to men.
"This type of reform must be left to the Afghans to be solved at their own pace," he wrote.
Even when he assigned a male instructor to train five Afghan women as teachers in Peshawar, Pakistan, the instruction had to be done secretly. The women later taught in Pakistani refugee camps.
Soon, concerns about literacy gave way to worries about terrorism. With evidence that bin Laden was linked to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the U.S. halted all government-sponsored aid to Afghanistan.
But even when the AID grant to Nebraska was canceled in 1994, the State Department continued to authorize trips of Afghan officials to the United States as a way to keep some line of communication open, Tomsen said.
Footing the bill for some of these visits was another party with a special interest in Afghanistan: Unocal Corp., a California-based global energy company. Although the United States had banned foreign aid to Afghanistan, the edict did not apply to private companies that initiated education or humanitarian relief efforts.
Visions of oil
By 1997, the Taliban was firmly in control of the country, and energy companies long interested in Afghanistan as a possible location for oil and natural gas pipelines were beginning to make overtures.
Unocal officials envisioned a pipeline that would tap into rich reserves held by former Soviet republics around the Caspian Sea, then course south for 1,000 miles through the mountains of Turkmenistan and the deserts of Afghanistan, snake through Pakistan and into the cargo holds of U.S.-bound tankers anchored in the Arabian Sea.
In 1997, the only roadblock to the company's plans were the Taliban.
Unocal, along with a consortium of international energy companies and investors, had secured pipeline rights for Afghanistan's northern neighbor, Turkmenistan. In November 1997, Unocal officials enlisted the support of the Afghan studies center in Omaha to help them form a business relationship with the Taliban.
The company gave the university nearly $1 million to establish job training programs in Afghanistan that would be overseen by the Taliban, said Raheem Yaseer, the Omaha center's program coordinator.
"The oil company wanted to generate good will with the Taliban without actually negotiating with them," said Yaseer, who is an Afghan native and a Muslim religious leader at an Omaha mosque.
In December 1997, Unocal -- with State Department approval -- obtained U.S. visitor visas for eight Taliban officials and a Pakistani intelligence officer.
"The U.S. government was encouraging our engagement there to bring stability to the country," Unocal spokesman Barry Lane said.
State Department officials confirmed that the agency supported Unocal's efforts.
The Taliban visitors included Afghans who at the time held important positions in the government: Mullah Mohammad Ghaus, Afghanistan's foreign minister; Ahmed Jan, minister for mines and industry; Amir Muttaqi, minister for culture and education; and Din Muhammad, minister of planning.
As guests of Unocal, the Taliban officials were flown to the company's Houston offices for four days of meetings. They also toured NASA headquarters south of Houston, spent several hours at a shopping mall and attended a party at the mansion of an oil company vice president. The group spent two days at the University of Nebraska.
Back in Afghanistan, the university was building its training program on a 56-acre plot in Kandahar that had once been used by the State Department as an outpost for AID.
Once the Taliban approved the plan, the university rebuilt more than a dozen one-story buildings that had been destroyed during the Soviet occupation into classrooms to teach wiring, carpentry and welding skills, Yaseer said.
Even though Unocal said the initiative was a humanitarian effort, criticism of the program was voiced at the company's annual stockholder meeting in Los Angeles in 1999. Led by the Feminist Majority Foundation, several women's rights groups staged protests and accused Unocal of cutting secret deals with the Taliban.
"We were suspicious that women's rights would be sold out for oil," said Beth Raboin, spokeswoman for Feminist Majority, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit women's rights group formed in 1981.
Yaseer said the goal of the center's program was "training people to be pipeline workers if it was ever built." He estimates the university provided 450 men with a trade that allowed them to become independent and earn a living.
Recognizing that the country was politically unstable, Unocal also used the university to reach out to anti-Taliban groups of the Northern Alliance.
Yaseer said the United Nations supplied a cargo plane for transportation to rebel areas near the city of Baniyan, where a class was conducted for 25 women who wanted to be teachers. While the Taliban would not permit women to be trained, the rebel groups had no such restrictions.
Unocal withdrew from the international consortium in late 1998 following the bombings of the two U.S. Embassies in Africa.
The terrorist attacks, which killed more than 200 people, also were linked to bin Laden, who was being harbored by the Taliban.
Lane said Unocal tried to educate many factions in Afghanistan about the financial benefits of oil and gas pipelines. No deals were ever made because the country was too unstable, he said.
No longer receiving money from AID or the oil company, the Omaha center closed its programs in Afghanistan. The center still has an office in Peshawar with 12 employees whose salaries average about $150 a month. In addition, the center pays the salaries of three guards to patrol the Kandahar compound.
From his second-floor office in the Arts and Sciences building at UNO, Gouttierre said he hopes to return to a country he has never really left.
Despite the sometimes-awkward alliances with the Taliban, the university reached thousands of Afghan residents with the hint of a better life through education, he said.
The center has been unable to track the whereabouts of most former visitors from Afghanistan, Gouttierre said. In fact, he is not sure whether the Kandahar compound is still standing since the U.S. bombardment.
"I've always felt the university could conduct education programs and be a partner with our government," he said. "If I were not involved in these kinds of efforts, who would be?"