Lessons From a Captive

Posted Nov. 08, 2009, at 6:10 p.m.

A New York Times reporter’s account of being kidnapped and held captive by the Taliban for more than seven months is a tale of personal courage, determination, skill and ultimately successful escape. Beyond that, he has helped Americans and their military leaders understand the enemy that now controls increasing areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

David Rohde, who had been reporting in the region for seven years, was in Afghanistan on a three-week reporting trip for a book he was writing. Impressed with the rising public support for the Taliban, he decided he needed to get its side of the story. Through a journalistic colleague, he arranged for an interview with a Taliban commander. Instead of getting an interview, he and his Afghan interpreter and their driver were kidnapped and carried off into the tribal region of adjoining Pakistan.

Before the kidnapping, he had underestimated the Taliban and had not realized how extreme were many of its members. He wrote: “I viewed the organization as a form of ‘al-Qaida lite,’ a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.” What he learned was that the hard-line Taliban and its corps of foreign militants were determined to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with al-Qaida to encompass the entire Muslim world.

Instead of a defeated insurgency, driven underground by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, he found a Taliban government operating openly in the Pakistan border region. Pakistani government outposts along the main roads had been abandoned, replaced by Taliban checkpoints. Former Pakistani militiamen sometimes stood by, but only without their rifles. The Pakistani intelligence services clearly had accepted the status quo and at times were cooperating with Taliban rule.

He found a thriving Taliban ministate with roads and electric service better than in much of Afghanistan. Taliban policemen patrolled the streets and Taliban road crews carried out construction projects.

His guards followed the tenets of Islam requiring good treatment of prisoners. They gave him bottled water, let him exercise in a small yard each day and never beat him. Yet they clearly regarded him as religiously unclean and had him drink from a separate glass to protect themselves from diseases they thought were carried by nonbelievers.

They had many other delusions about Westerners. One of the guards wanted to know whether it was true that the necktie was a secret symbol of Christianity and that Christians wanted to live 1,000 years. Yet much of their hatred of the United States grew out of the deaths of civilians in airstrikes and the American detention of Muslim prisoners held for years without charges.

Above all, they saw themselves as servants of Allah in a holy war against nonbelievers. The guards spent much time listening to radio broadcasts and shouting “God is great” whenever deaths of Afghan and American soldiers were reported.

His observations during that seven-month ordeal raise serious doubts that even segments of the Taliban ever will prefer peaceful coexistence to holy war.

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