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Prisoner of the Taliban

Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux
The journalist David Rohde interviewing villagers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2007, about a year before he was kidnapped by members of the Taliban and taken over the border to Pakistan

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 “I increasingly worried I was becoming a New York–based journalistic fraud whose book would be superficial and out of date,” he recalls in the first chapter of A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides, cowritten with his wife, Kristen Mulvihill.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….
Instead, our car hurtles down the road, following a yellow station wagon with more armed men in it. The gunman in the passenger seat shouts more commands. Tahir tells us they want our cell phones and other possessions. “If they find we have a hidden phone,” Tahir says, “they’ll kill us.”

Rohde had fallen into the hands of gunmen loyal to Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former US-backed Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a longtime associate of Osama bin Laden, and an ally of the Taliban. He spent the next seven months as a captive of Haqqani’s family and their associates, moving about the tribal areas of Pakistan, while his Taliban captors carried on fruitless negotiations with US- and Kabul-based intermediaries for ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners.

Rohde’s memoir takes its place alongside other harrowing accounts written by former hostages in recent years, including Ingrid Betancourt’s Every Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle (2010)* and the American journalist Jere Van Dyk’s Afghanistan-Pakistan memoir, Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban (2010). Beyond the human drama of Rohde’s experience as a hostage—the tedium broken by moments of terror, the alternating cruelty and compassion of his captors—the book is valuable for the inside knowledge Rohde obtained about the Afghan region. He observed the disturbing degree of cooperation between the Taliban and the Pakistani government and military in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), “a backwater roughly the size of Massachusetts” along the Pakistan–Afghanistan border that has become a principal staging ground for attacks against US forces in Afghanistan.

Rohde’s wife Mulvihill carried on a campaign to get him released, seeing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry—and dealing with a not-entirely-reputable group of consultants and hostage negotiators. A Rope and a Prayer is on one level a portrait of a volatile corner of the world that has been almost totally obscured from Western journalists. It is also the story of Mulvihill’s steadfastness and love for her husband.

Rohde is one of the few journalists to be detained by hostile forces twice. In 1995, while working for the Christian Science Monitor, he uncovered the mass graves of Bosnian Muslim civilians who had been murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in the forests near the United Nations–protected enclave of Srebrenica; afterward, he was taken captive and held in a Bosnian Serb jail for ten days. (He would win his first Pulitzer Prize the following year for his articles about Srebrenica; he shared a second one in 2009 for his reporting for the Times from Afghanistan.) Rohde recalls his despair in the first hours after his kidnapping in Afghanistan, blindfolded and convinced that his colleagues had been shot:

We drive down what seem dirt roads. Waves of regret, remorse, and humiliation wash over me. I have gotten two Afghans killed in my foolish pursuit of a better book. I have betrayed my wife and family. Even if Tahir and Asad stay alive and we all survive, I will be mocked by my peers as a two-time kidnap victim with a judgment problem.

When he evoked the terrifying uncertainty that pervades the first few hours of a kidnapping, his description rang a powerful chord with me. In May 2004, Iraqi insurgents detained me when I ventured into Fallujah, the Sunni militant stronghold, to report on the invasion by US Marines. Accused of being an American spy, I was threatened with execution, told, falsely, that my driver and translator had been killed, and released after nine hours thanks to the intervention of a sympathetic imam and a Palestinian journalist with ties to the insurgency.

After Rohde’s initial fear of execution fades, he holds out the hope that his captivity will be brief. But he has already been identified as a “big fish” by his captors; his rash promise that his family can pay “millions” for his release, he realizes, has not worked in his favor. One week later, he is led on an arduous, eleven-hour hike through a landscape of “low hills covered by orange dirt, an Afghan version of scrub brush, and the occasional tree,” then bundled into a car by his guards. He hopes he is heading into Helmand province in Afghanistan, still nominally under the control of US troops and their Afghan army allies. But his destination is Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region nicknamed “Talibanistan,” where Osama bin Laden has taken refuge—and which is beyond the reach of any government:

A young Taliban driver with shoulder-length hair gets behind the wheel of the vehicle. Glancing at me suspiciously in the rearview mirror, he starts the engine and begins driving down the left-hand side of the road. It is some sort of prank, I hope, some jihadi version of chicken—the game where two drivers speed toward each other in the same lane until one loses his nerve. If he’s not playing a game, which lane he drives down shows what country we are in. If he continues driving on the left, we have crossed into Pakistan. If he drives on the right, we are still in Afghanistan.
A mile down the road, a traffic sign appears in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan.
We’re in Pakistan, I think to myself. We’re dead.

Rohde is brought to Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, a mountainous, undeveloped pocket of mosques, madrasas, and insurgent-filled fortified compounds along the Afghan border. It is here that he will spend five of the next seven months, in the custody of Taliban commanders and a succession of young guards. As a New York Times correspondent, Rohde had visited the region earlier in the decade when it was under nominal Pakistani government control. During these trips, he reported on the systematic takeover of the tribal areas by Uzbek and Arab militants, as well as the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

In Pakistan, the domination by militants became a fait accompli in late 2006, after General Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai, the governor of the Northwest Frontier province, brokered on behalf of the Pakistan government a cease-fire agreement with Islamic districts. Pakistani forces were withdrawn from checkpoints and a military campaign that had begun in the aftermath of September 11 ground to a halt. (In January 2007 I had lunch with Aurakzai at the governor’s mansion in Peshawar, a sprawling colonial-era establishment patrolled by Frontier Corps guards in crisp uniforms; he defended the pact as “good for Pakistan, good for peace.”)

Since then, North Waziristan has been the fiefdom of Jalaluddin Haqqani and his family-run jihadi organization, who have, writes Rohde, “played a central role in brokering the creation of a powerful and unprecedented alliance of Pakistani militant groups—the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan.” Founded in 2007, the coalition now fields five thousand fighters; one of its commanders was Baitullah Mehsud, the South Waziristan–based terrorist responsible for assassinating former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Rohde draws a clear connection between this takeover of the tribal areas and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, while the Bush administration was diverting resources to the Iraq war, farming out training of the Afghan police and army to inept private corporations, and turning a blind eye to the corruption of Hamid Karzai’s government.

The North Waziristan region has been virtually off-limits to Western journalists; anti-American feeling runs deep, intensified by CIA-operated drone attacks in which hundreds of militants—including Mehsud—have been killed. Rohde and his colleagues spend most of their time under heavy guard inside walled compounds, but their rare moments outside give him a close look at the ways that the Pakistani forces have given ground to the militants. At one point, his captors drive him to a remote, snow-covered hillside to shoot a video, in the hope of spurring his family to pay a multimillion-dollar ransom. During the drive, Rohde spots a Pakistani army supply convoy heading toward them. His hopes for rescue are dashed when his captor, Badruddin Haqqani, a son of the militant leader, exchanges friendly greetings with the troops. The cease-fire agreement requires all civilians to step out of their vehicles when an army convoy approaches, but Haqqani explains that Taliban guerrillas are exempt from the regulation. Thus, they can keep their hostages well hidden:

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    See my review in these pages, December 9, 2010. 

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