Mission and History
UNO's Primary hub for academic research and academic capacity development programs and activities on Afghanistan and the region
In 1972, the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) created the world’s only permanent research center devoted entirely to the study Afghanistan’s geography, culture, and people. Initially headed by Christian Jung, professor of geography and geology, the center began exploring project ideas and funding opportunities with federal officials and international aid organizations.
This international endeavor was a bold move for UNO – a relatively small metropolitan university with almost no global activity. Over the years, the Center would become a model for new international pursuits, and the initial partnership with Kabul University would give UNO the experience necessary to establish many other collaborations around the world.
At the time, Afghanistan was a peaceful country. Though poor and facing difficult obstacles to development, there was no war and the future looked bright. No one could foresee the history-making events that Afghans and Nebraskans would share – events they would both mourn and celebrate together.
In 1974, Arthur Paul, an economic advisor to the Royal Government of Afghanistan in the 1960s, donated his private trove of 1,200 books and periodicals on Afghanistan, creating the Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection in UNO’s Criss Library. Over the years, the collection would continue to accumulate materials in English, Dari, Pashto, and 21 other languages, creating the world’s largest and most original collection on Afghanistan outside of the country.
Also in 1974, after professor Jung passed away at the age of only 33, Thomas Gouttierre came to Omaha from Afghanistan, where he had served as a Peace Corps volunteer, the head of the Fulbright Foundation, and coach of the Afghan National Basketball Team. He became the Director of the Center and the Dean of International Studies and Programs at UNO – positions he retains to this day.
Starting in 1975, Jack Shroder, professor of geography and geology at UNO, began collecting and publishing geographic data on Afghanistan. His data-gathering trips in the region went beyond geographic study, as he accumulated deep knowledge of the country’s ethnic groups and cultures.
In 1975, UNO and Kabul University established a formal partnership for student and faculty exchanges. This relationship would become a foundation for many educational projects in the coming decades.
While the war interrupted Jack Shroder’s geographic work and made travel in Afghanistan dangerous, Center staff were able to assist Afghans in areas beyond Soviet control.
They organized more than 1,300 educational sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan and reached 130,000 Afghan refugees with K-12 textbooks and basic education services.
These efforts were largely funded by USAID and involved many stakeholders across Afghan society, including scholars, political leaders, and school officials.
The Center continued distributing textbooks after the Soviets withdrew, ultimately printing more than 14 million copies. However, the U.S. government drastically scaled back its aid to Afghanistan, reducing the Center’s capacity to work in the country.
During the 1990s, funding from the National Geographic Society and various U.S. government agencies brought Jack Shroder’s geographic work into the digital age. Satellite imagery helped him and geologist Michael Bishop measure glacier movements in the mountains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other parts of Central Asia. This work to shed light on the effects of global warming would continue into the new millennium.
In 1997 and 1998, the Center partnered with the energy company UNOCAL to establish a workforce development center in Qandahar and a teacher-training program in Bamiyan.
Unfortunately, many Americans heard about Afghanistan for the first time in the days following September 11, 2001. In the first nine months after the attacks, Center staff gave more than 2,000 interviews and presentations for local, national, and international audiences.
Textbook printing and distribution continued in 2002 and 2003 under funding from USAID, with another 15 million copies reaching Afghan teachers and students. As part of the U.S. government’s rapid response efforts in the country’s educational system, the Center coordinated training for 2,740 teachers, 74 percent of whom were women.
In 2003, Center researchers helped the National Geographic Society publish an authoritative ethno-linguistic map of Afghanistan, showing the locations and concentrations of seven groups throughout the country.
Also in 2003, the Center helped reestablish the Fulbright program in Afghanistan. Fulbright scholarships would enable several Afghan students to study in the United States in the coming years. The Center would also host Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants in Omaha, where they would teach Dari to U.S. students and civilian and military personnel.
From 2002 to 2004, four groups of female Afghan teachers came to UNO for five-week intensive training programs in English and teaching methodology. They observed U.S. classrooms, stayed with host families, and toured the American West, including sites in western Nebraska and South Dakota. One group traveled to Washington DC and met First Lady Laura Bush.
In May 2005, the Center hosted Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and 30 other Afghan officials during their tour through the United States. The Afghan delegation toured the Arthur Paul Collection and UNO’s extensive collection of Central Asian maps. They discussed development issues with Center staff, and President Karzai received an honorary degree from UNO. The delegation also visited a cattle feeding operation in nearby West Point, Nebraska, where they shared a meal with local community members.
In 2006 and 2007, three groups of Afghan school administrators also came to Omaha for computer training and general management training. They returned to Afghanistan and, in collaboration with Center staff and Ministry of Education officials, disseminated these lessons at nine schools, reaching another 357 teachers and administrators, 81 percent of whom were women.
In 2008, the Center began providing training on Afghan history, culture, and language to U.S. Army Human Terrain System teams that were departing for Afghanistan. Since then, the Afghanistan Immersion Seminar has trained more than 600 U.S. civilian and military personnel, as well as staff from nongovernmental organizations, to prepare them for service in Afghanistan.
In 2008 and 2009, a vocational and literacy training project in Paktika, one of Afghanistan’s most remote provinces, trained more than 70 Afghans in basic mechanical skills, including masonry, welding, carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, and auto maintenance. The three-month training sessions incorporated intensive English lessons, making participants more employable in reconstruction projects.
From 2008 to 2010, the Center provided literacy training to 86,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, helping to professionalize the force and to enhance the post-war job prospects of soldiers.
Since September 2010, The Center has engaged Kabul University in a new partnership to upgrade and enhance the training of journalists, who find ample work opportunities in the country’s burgeoning media industry. Center staff and faculty from UNO’s School of Communication have made trips to Kabul, and Afghan journalism faculty have come to Omaha for training in English and internet media.
The Center continues teacher training efforts, now in the provinces of Bamiyan and Ghazni.
Through our various training programs in Afghanistan, CAS has trained more than 8,000 Afghan teachers and contributed tremendously to the capacity building efforts of the Afghan education sector. It has recently implemented a Tansboundary Waters project concerning Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The project’s goal was to academically discuss transboundary waters shared by all three countries and find scientific ways of cooperating and avoiding future conflicts concerning water resources.
Here at home, besides our representational activities through our local and national media outlets, CAS, through its Afghan Immersions Seminars, has trained more than 600 participants who belonged to various military and civilian agencies of the United States of America. CAS continues to offer such opportunities for interesting participants for military and civilian organizations.
Currently, the Center has active partnerships with three major Afghan Universities in assisting them with academic capacity building such as Curriculum Development, Syllabus Development and other components of capacity building and is planning to establish similar partnership with another Afghan university. The current partnerships are implemented with the assistance of the UNL College of Engineering of the UNO College of Communications, Fine Arts and Media.
With a broader scope of not only focusing on Afghanistan but also Center Asia and South Asia, CAS will become UNO’s primary hub for academic research and academic capacity development programs and activities on Afghanistan and the region.
The Center for Afghanistan Studies is part of UNO's International Programs office.