In the fall of 2008, David Rohde, a reporter for The New York Times, was forty-one years old, newly married, and tiring of the peripatetic life of the war correspondent. Since the September 11 attacks, which he had witnessed from the window of his Brooklyn apartment, Rohde had devoted much of his career to covering the war in Afghanistan and the US military’s increasingly futile efforts to subdue the Taliban. Now he was coming to the end of a book about Helmand province—a conflict-torn corner of the southern “Pashtun belt” that had been largely overrun by the fundamentalist Islamic insurgents. For his last piece of reporting, he had secured, through his translator, the promise of a rare interview outside Kabul with a Taliban commander, known by the nom de guerre Abu Tayyeb.
In the days leading up to the meeting, Rohde had doubts about making the trip. Journalists, aid workers, and other Westerners he knew had been taken hostage by the insurgents with increasing frequency. Many had been held for ransom; a few had been executed. Yet the promise of an interview with the Taliban commander was irresistible for Rohde. After three years based in South Asia, he had transferred to a New York–based investigative unit. “I increasingly worried I was becoming a New York–based journalistic fraud whose book would be superficial and out of date,” he recalls in the first chapter of A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides, cowritten with his wife, Kristen Mulvihill. “I felt I had fallen behind reporters based in the region.” After analyzing the situation—Abu Tayyeb had met other journalists without incident, and the rendezvous spot was in a populated area down a paved road from Kabul, near an American military base—Rohde decided to make the trip.
Early on the morning of November 10, 2008, Rohde, along with an Afghan driver and his translator, the Afghan journalist Tahir Luddin, set out from Kabul. When the trio arrived in the village of Pul-e-Alam, however, they saw no sign of Abu Tayyeb. Instead, the car was surrounded by AK-47-wielding gunmen:
One of the gunmen gets behind the wheel of our car and drives down the road. The other sits in the front passenger seat and trains his rifle on us. Tahir shouts at the men in Pashto. I recognize the words “journalists” and “Abu Tayyeb” and nothing else. The man in the front passenger seat shouts something back and waves his gun menacingly. He is small, with dark hair and a short beard. He seems nervous and belligerent.
I hope there has been some kind of mistake. I hope the gunmen will call Abu Tayyeb. He will vouch for us and quickly order our release….