In the hands of the Taliban
As Barack Obama continues wrestling with decisions about a war that could define his presidency, veteran reporter David Rohde’s account of his seven-month ordeal as a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes for some compelling reading. Along with two Afghan colleagues, Rohde was kidnapped in November 2008 while attempting to meet a Taliban commander for an interview. This June, upon reading the surprising news of his escape to freedom — the kidnapping had been kept quiet by the New York Times and other media organizations out of fear for Rohde’s safety — I was anticipating the narrative account surely to follow.
Months later, Rohde’s retelling does not disappoint. In an ongoing five-part series in the Times, his dispassionate tone combines with thoughtful attention to detail to give the reader confidence that, although some of his recollections may be imprecise, his harrowingly close view of America’s elusive enemy was also a profoundly revealing one. In political terms, Rohde’s subsequent analysis cuts in several directions.
In the first installment of the series, war hawks will find some forceful affirmation in Rohde’s seasoned assessment of the enemy:
Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
For those who decried the Bush administration’s conduct of its so-called war on terrorism, there is also persuasive evidence here. “My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners,” Rohde writes. “But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.”
From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, this would come back to haunt Rohde directly — a consequence of which many intelligence and military leaders had long warned. In the second installment out today, Rohde describes how his pleas for release were rebuffed:
When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?
Among the dramatic turns in Rohde’s tale is a remarkable deception perpetrated by his primary captor. (Also see Monday’s piece.) More than just a gripping account, though, his writing further illuminates a Gordian conflict with no end in sight — and on the eve perhaps of some momentous choices in Washington. It’ll be interesting to see what more perspective Rohde offers as the series continues through Thursday.
UPDATE: Some New York Times readers are taking issue with the presentation and placement of the Rohde series (titled “Held by the Taliban”). As I make clear above, I’m with executive editor Bill Keller on this one:
When David Rohde escaped after more than seven months in captivity, it was clear even as we celebrated that his experience was one more window into a long and complicated war. No other journalist, as far as I know, has had such an experience of the Taliban from the inside. As I hope the series makes clear, this is not a story about David Rohde, it is a story about the character, strength and organization of the people the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It provides detailed insights into the minds and motives of the Taliban’s footsoldiers. It also reveals the extent to which the Taliban has, with impunity, colonized a swath of Pakistan. Yes, it is a hell of a story, but it also adds rich detail to our understanding of the Taliban.
Part three of the series is now available here.