Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer
What was meant to be an interview with a Taliban commander became a seven-month kidnapping.
To keep up with the competition in journalism, David Rohde wanted to interview a Taliban commander for a book. His opportunity came Nov. 10, 2008.
But when he, Afghan journalist Tahir Ludin and their driver Asadullah “Asad” Mangal arrived at the Logar province for the meeting, the Taliban commander told them he changed the location farther down the road.
A black car was blocking the road ahead. Then two gunmen with Kalashnikov rifles ran toward their car from both sides. Ludin and Mangal moved to the back seat with Rohde, and the gunmen got in the car and continued driving.
“My head was spinning,” Rohde said during Friday’s morning lecture. “I hoped that this was all some kind of mistake — that they had maybe seen me in the back seat and saw a Westerner.”
The driver insisted he did not know who they were and drove Rohde and his colleagues to a desert. Ludin and Mangal were taken out of the car and beaten. Rohde said the gunmen hated the two Afghans accompanying him, because they felt they were betraying the Muslim faith.
“Throughout the kidnapping, I always felt that Tahir and Asad were in more danger than I was,” he said.
Rohde was blindfolded, and the three men were separated. Ludin and Mangal were put in one car, while Rohde went in another. They arrived at a house, where Rohde met the Taliban commander. He was the gunman who drove the car but had lied about not knowing the journalists and their driver.
Ludin and Mangal had met the commander during previous interviews, but they were told they would be beheaded if they told Rohde the truth.
Rohde, a foreign affairs columnist for Reuters, was the last speaker of Week Eight, themed “Radicalism.” He shared what he learned about the radical views of the Taliban during his kidnapping experience.
When Rohde first wanted to have an interview with a Taliban commander, he knew of other journalists who had done it. A French journalist who had conducted two interviews with the same commander warned him.
She told him: “You’ll be in more danger as an American, but I think you’ll be all right. I think he’s trying to use the media to get across the Taliban’s point of view,” Rohde said.
A few days after he met the commander, Rohde and his colleagues stayed in small houses throughout eastern Afghanistan. After a two-day drive and a 10-hour walk through the mountains, the commander had led them to the tribal areas of Pakistan. They were taken to a town called Miranshah.
“What shocked me, though, as we moved into this area of Pakistan was that it was unquestionably a Taliban mini-state,” Rohde said.
The town had no Pakistani government presence, and the Taliban had re-paved roads, conducted school and had police patrols.
Government check posts were abandoned, leaving the Taliban in charge of them. Young men with Kalashnikov rifles would stop cars to ask for a Taliban password. If the password was wrong, people could not continue.
Though the United States thought the Taliban was toppled in 2001, it had really moved a few miles east into Pakistan, Rohde said.
Guards would take classes to learn how to make roadside bombs. As part of the class, they would set off explosions. But there was no evidence of Pakistani forces investigating what was happening, Rohde said.
Young men in the town would also watch videos that glorified suicide bombing and fighting Americans, he said.
After his kidnapping, Rohde wrote five stories about his experience for The New York Times. Each story was accompanied with a video to show the Pakistan’s tribal areas. Rohde showed one of them at the morning lecture.
In the video, Rohde said he learned much about the Taliban culture through the videos that were shown to the young men. Though death is avoided in Europe and the U.S., it is a way of life for the Taliban, he said.
“My guards were young men in their 20s who had been brainwashed into believing they were defending Afghanistan from an attack by a vast alliance of non-Muslim countries,” he said in the video.
Videos the guards enjoyed most were ones in which suicide bombers were preparing themselves for attacks, he said. They would also tell Rohde they wanted to visit the U.S. to commit suicide attacks.
“My guards revered suicide bombers the way a young American might idolize a sports hero or movie star,” Rohde said in the video.
War movies were a source of entertainment, and when the guards played video games, they would shoot Americans even if they were allies in the game.
They believed Americans are weak, fear death and are obsessed with worldly pleasures and riches, Rohde said in the video.
“They said if I truly believed in God, I would accept death,” he said.
One guard training to be a suicide bomber lived with Rohde while he was held captive. The young man believed the neckties Afghans were wearing in Kabul after U.S. forces invaded were a secret sign of Christianity, Rohde said.
The guard would ask Rohde if the stories he had heard about Christianity were true.
“In particular, one was that Christians are so enamored with the pleasures of this world that every Christian wanted to live for 1,000 years,” he said.
From the guard’s perspective, true Muslims saw the world as a burden, Rohde said. Young men are told their relationships with families and friends do not matter — all that matters is their relationship with God, he said.
“What amazed me as well about my guards is how little they knew about the outside world,” Rohde said.
The guards did not know of the world beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. When a gunman opened fire on an immigration center in upstate New York in spring 2009, the guards were celebrating, Rohde said. But when they found out the gunman was Vietnamese American, they were confused and asked if he was Muslim.
“It was sort of shocking what they saw, and what they believed about us, and what was going on,” he said.
They also believed all Americans were rich and that Afghan women were forced to work as prostitutes at American military bases, Rohde said.
Because of their belief that all Americans are wealthy, the Taliban were asking for $25 million in ransom and the release of 15 prisoners in Guantanamo, he said. But the demands dropped to $8 million and eight prisoners.
When Rohde met a young boy, he said, he asked the boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. His three answers were a suicide bomber, a mujahideen and a Muslim.
Rohde saw a pattern of Muslims teaching young Muslims to hate all non-Muslims, he said.
“The guards didn’t want me touching the dishes, because they felt I had diseases festering inside me,” he said, “and I was inherently unclean as a non-Muslim. “
Ludin, the Afghan journalist who was with Rohde, was a religious Muslim with a different interpretation than the guards. Though he was terrified and thought he would be killed, he prayed every day and was able to see Rohde as a human being, Rohde said.
Because Ludin was working with a Western journalist and did not share the same views as the others, he was viewed as a traitor of his religion.
By watching the process of radicalism, Rohde noticed many of the young men were from small villages and looking for a purpose.
“Being part of this greater jihad, it gave them a sense of mission, and it gave them a sense of identity,” he said.
An issue that needs to be addressed is giving those men opportunities, identities and hopes for the future, Rohde said. In Saudi Arabia, there is a program designed to undo radicalism in young men who have been jihadists by forcing them to live with their families to make them focus on their other relationships, he said.
Throughout the seven months of captivity, Rohde and his colleagues moved from house to house. In June 2009, they moved to a house close to the Pakistani military base. He and Ludin agreed they were going to try to escape. At the time, Asad had begun to switch sides.
One night, Rohde went to the bathroom in the middle of the night. To wake up Ludin, he needed to poke him with a bamboo stick through the window looking into the room where the guards were sleeping.
The two walked up a stairwell and to a flat roof with a parapet wall, and they climbed down the wall with a rope. Ludin thought the rope was too short, so when Rohde went down, he got down on all fours and let Ludin step on his back.
“I remember hearing him kind of scrape as he went down the wall,” Rohde said, “And I stood up and he was gone, and I was sort of terrified that the guards were going to wake up and come see me.”
Ludin was so afraid he forgot his sandals, so when Rohde looked up, he could see him running with his bare feet, Rohde said.
They went to the Pakistani military base, and Ludin used a local tribal tradition to request protection from the guards. Rohde was given one phone call, and he used it to call home to say he had escaped. His mother-in-law had picked up, and a Pakistani helicopter took both him and Ludin home within hours of the initial phone call.
A tribal delegation was sent with $10,000 with the help of The New York Times to help Mangal return home. He was home six weeks after the other two.
“I’m incredibly lucky that all three of us survived,” Rohde said.
Through his experiences with the Taliban, as well as Bosnia, India and Sri Lanka, Rohde has seen radicalism in every faith, he said. But the issue is not that one religion is more radical than another.
“The real danger in terms of radicalism and humanity is our ability to rationalize; our ability to justify what we’re doing; our ability to see ourselves as the victims of some dark and dangerous conspiracy to eliminate our faith, our way of life, from the face of the earth,” Rohde said.
Rohde said he believes the U.S. has allies in the Middle East because there are moderates, such as Ludin. He defines a moderate as someone who embraces democratic norms and respects human, minority and women’s rights.
Moderates do not want American soldiers to tell them how to live or American invasions to occur, but they also do not want radical Islam to tell them how to live either. Rohde said they want a third way.
To Rohde, the Arab Spring is a positive uprising due to globalization and the use of technology. Members of the Syrian opposition have been able to get information from Syria through the use of technology, which has allowed them to record human rights violations.
A key mistake the U.S. has made, Rohde said, is being too focused on the military, as too much money has been spent.
“We need to find a way to consistently back moderates across the region with technology, with education and with private investment,” he said.
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity.
Q: You promised early in your talk that you’d be willing to reflect on what it was like to be in a zone where there was the constant presence of drones and of their attacks. Do you want to share those experiences with us?
A: The drones are amazing. They sound sort of like a Piper Cub or a normal airplane kind of circling overhead. You hear them very clearly, and you can see them — they’re sort of specs in the sky — and they do work. I mean my basic position on the grounds is they should be used as a last resort. There’s a strange situation where Pakistan will not go in and confront these militants, so the U.S. should use drones there. I think the Obama administration has gone too far, and they’re using drones too often. And they kill civilians at times, and that just helps the Taliban recruit more young men. And another mistake is that we should be making these drone strikes public. Everyone knows that they happen, and journalists report on them. Keeping them secret and having the CIA do them is a mistake. We need a sort of counter narrative about why this compound was targeted, who was killed and why we did it. And in the end, the drones just create a sort of stalemate. We’ll sort of, they say, decapitate an organization, we’ll take out a few leaders — so we do weaken them, they do have an effect. But then they will bring in new recruits, and so it’s this sort of deadlock, stalemate between the CIA and the radicals in the tribal areas.
Q: This question has to do with the safety of journalists. Can you speak to the criticism some made that The New York Times kept your abduction quiet, understandably to help you, but does not necessarily hold back information when the lives of non-journalists are endangered? It’s a point of view.
A: It’s true, and people mention this. There’s a new policy after my case where if a family — if there’s a kidnapping and the family requests that it be kept secret, then it will be kept secret. It shouldn’t be an exclusive thing that was done for journalists. My case wasn’t the first one to be kept quiet. There were two journalists from CBS News, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, that were kidnapped, and they kept the news quiet. A Canadian journalist was kidnapped in the weeks before my case. We have become targets, because we’re seen as a way to get instant publicity and lots of ransom by these insurgents. And the advice from security experts was to keep it quiet, because when they see these news reports, the captors just get more excited about all the money they’re going to make. So The New York Times should have the same consistent pattern of all news organizations. If they’re going to keep journalists’ cases quiet, they should keep everyone’s cases quiet.
Q: While captive, was there any talk about the Palestinian-Israeli situation/issue?
A: There was. And I don’t think pre-2001 many Afghans were really focused on Israel-Palestine; I think that al-Qaida has sort of tried to use that to garnish support. But there’s a general sense that Muslim lives are not valued as much as Christian lives. When I was in captivity, it was during the Israeli attack on Gaza, when I believe roughly 10 Israelis died over the course of that engagement and 1,000 Palestinians did. And it did infuriate my guards. They said, “Here is your example of your hypocrisy.” They’re looking for our hypocrisy at all times. They always talked about Guantanamo Bay, and they had seen the Abu Ghraib pictures. That did tremendous damage to our reputations, and that’s why I think we need to follow these international laws ourselves. We’re not going to intimidate these guys. They’re not going to say, “Oh I’m not going to go fight the Americans, because look at the terrible jump shoots in Guantanamo.” They say, “Look how these arrogant Americans are.” There’s a deep tradition in Islam of treating prisoners respectively, and we should be abiding by those norms, not violating them ourselves.
Q: Are the Taliban leaders well-educated, and do the Taliban recruits learn English during their training?
A: The Taliban leaders are not educated. I really hated them most because of what they were sort of putting my wife and family through. And then for sort of brainwashing these young guys who, as I described, knew so little about the outside world. I had one, in terms of the hatred of Obama, I had one Taliban commander — again, I was treated very well; they actually brought me English-language Pakistani newspapers that were a few days old and would let me read them. And I remember sitting there one night after dinner, and the commander was looking through, and there was a picture in January 2009 of Barack and Michelle Obama dancing at one of the inaugural balls. And the commander spit on the picture of Obama. And this is the more secular, liberal Pakistan that you don’t know about, or maybe you do after the education earlier this week, where women don’t wear veils. And they hated these newspapers, because they had all these ads for cellphones and everything else. Kentucky Fried Chicken is very popular in Pakistan. We don’t tell you that in the media, and we should. There’s McDonald’s. And the young guards would go burn the newspapers after I read them, because they thought they were inherently unclean, because they had these images of women with their heads uncovered.
Q: I admire your forgiveness of Asad’s betrayal. How did you achieve this?
A: I remember we were on the base, and we got to the captain’s office, and I can’t remember if I had made the phone call yet or not, but to hear him burst into tears, because he felt so bad that Asad was still there. Asad — and I’m in communication with him as well — he was, the guards slept through the night, they got up the next morning at dawn to pray, and they saw Tahir, Asad and I were gone. And they panicked, and they immediately accused Asad of having known about the escape but not telling them. And they ran outside, and they saw the rope hanging from the wall, and Asad ended up being detained in like a jail and beaten, and they ended up, you know, clearly, he didn’t know about it, or he would have told them or come with us. But it wasn’t very hard for me to forgive him. And I’ll always feel bad about — you know, I was responsible, I had to go to my big interview. So I put Tahir and Asad in this difficult position, and I’ll always regret the seven months and what he went through and his family went through.
Q: Would you explain the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaida, and then would you also comment on what you think we as a country should be doing to interact with the Taliban? Is it possible, and if so, what steps could be taken to moderate their radicalism?
A: That’s a great question. So al-Qaida is really weak. The death of Osama bin Laden was a great achievement. And I was at 9/11; I covered it, I covered the buildings as they fell. And that was a step forward. The Taliban are a local Afghan group that’s focused much more on ruling Afghanistan. And the interesting thing and the important thing about again this spot and the tribal areas is that it’s a place where young Afghans mix with all these Arabs. And the Arabs sort of tell them — and some of my guards would talk about — liberating the holy cities in Saudi Arabia. They hated the Saudis. So what we don’t want is sort of more and more Taliban buying into al-Qaida’s kind of international ideology that they have to spread Islam all over the face of the Earth. The way we’re doing that is through, there are negotiations with the Taliban, I support those negotiations with the Taliban, and it’s a way to force the Taliban — if they’re really interested only in sort of power in Afghanistan or parts of Afghanistan, they should make a deal with us and the Karzai government. And even if all the Taliban won’t agree to a deal but we can get some of them to agree to some kind of peace settlement, it’ll weaken them if we can split them. And it will isolate al-Qaida. And I don’t know exactly how they would split what the Taliban believe, but I think talks are a positive thing.
Q: Do you have much knowledge about how your captors reacted after your escape? And specifically, did they come looking for you?
A: They did. We were still sitting on the base because the helicopter hadn’t come yet, and the captain told us there was all this activity in the town. And they were driving all over the town trying to figure out where we had gone. I have an issue with Pakistan’s intelligence service and Pakistan’s military. I do not have an issue with the Pakistani people. And I believe weakening the military in Pakistan is the way forward. And strengthening civilian parties and the middle class there and human rights groups is the way to do this. But again, with the Pakistani military after we escaped, there were all these conspiracy theories among the guards about what had happened. There was the kidnapper who had grabbed me, and his family, a couple of the guards, one was his brother, and there were the Haqqanis — which is a much more powerful Taliban faction, and they work very closely with Pakistani military and intelligence. All of the guards were detained after we escaped. And the Haqqanis accused the family of the commander who invited me and kidnapped me. They said, “You made a secret deal with The New York Times, you got all this money, and you gave them the rope.” And guards said, “That’s ridiculous, we don’t have any of that.” And then the family said back to the Haqqanis, “No, you got lots of money secretly, and you gave David and Tahir drugs that they put in our food, and that’s why the brother of the kidnapper didn’t wake up” — when we walked out of the room. There’s a big feud then in the Taliban, and the Pakistani intelligence comes in, detains them all. I was told that they tortured the chief guard — the younger brother of the commander who kidnapped me — to find out whether or not a ransom was paid. And then Pakistan’s intelligence service, our ally, settles the feud. They certify no, there was no ransom paid. And they knew about my case, they knew the FBI was looking for my kidnappers. Pakistan’s intelligence service had my guards in their custody, and then they simply let them go.
Q: Do you think had you not escaped, would the efforts that your wife was employing, would they have worked? Do you have a sense of what the outcome would have been absent an escape?
A: If could raise your hands, how many of you have heard the name Bowe Bergdahl? Maybe a half dozen of you. Bowe Bergdahl is the only American soldier that is in Taliban captivity. He has been held exactly where I was held. The Haqqanis have him; he’s in Miranshah, North Waziristan, or some outlying village. They have had him for three years. They captured Bowe Bergdahl a few weeks after our escape. I think I would still be there today because of the failure of the Pakistani military to eliminate these safe havens. They can hold an American prisoner there as long as they want. They are demanding prisoners to be released from Guantanamo Bay for Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom. I’m in touch with his family. They’ve been through hell; they have not been very public about his case, because they don’t think it will help. But it’s a tragedy. And to just explain, the reason Pakistan backs the Taliban is their — and you’ve heard this in the earlier lectures — their obsession — the Pakistani military’s, the Pakistani nationalist — obsession with India. They can use the Taliban to control Afghanistan; they’re terrified; they always thought the U.S. would be sort of feckless and spoiled — as I talked about the Westerners earlier — and give up quickly in Afghanistan. That we would leave. So they are not going to abandon the Taliban, because they are Pakistan’s military’s way to keep India out of Afghanistan. And they have this crazy idea that they can continue to use militancy as a tool, and remember, who taught them to do this? We did. We brought militancy into Afghanistan in the 1980s and used it to train young men to kill Soviet soldiers. And we now finally have recognized the Frankenstein that militancy is. And the Pakistani military unfortunately hasn’t. But there’s a rational reason they’re doing this. And the Pakistani military, they’re not jihadis who secretly like al-Qaida either. They just want to dominate Pakistan, and they’re sort of obsessed with India, and they say they’re not going to give up these jihadis.
Q: I’ve heard there is a group of U.S. grandmothers planning to go to Waziristan to protest the drones. Do you have an opinion about that?
A: Don’t go to Waziristan. I’m dead serious, and I’m happy. If somebody wants to talk to me later, I’ll talk to that group. Another captive, while I was in captivity, was a woman named Beverly Giesbrecht. She was a Canadian journalist who had converted to Islam, who was running a website documenting American crimes against Muslims around the world, and she was very kind of pro-jihadi. And she went in for an interview, and they abducted her. And this was a different faction, this was a Pakistani-Taliban faction — you know, there are all these faction. And she had some very serious health issues — she was in her late 50s — and no one knows for sure, but the Taliban refused to release her, they had these astronomical demands for ransom, and it’s my understanding that Beverly Giesbrecht died in captivity. And this is my hatred of these Taliban commanders. Not the young men, but you know this sort of radicalism, they don’t see the humanity of other human beings. And again, it’s not Islam, it’s radicalism. And if they would let this woman die in captivity so they could get their money or their prisoners, and then simultaneously they’re sending off these young boys to die — I just, they should not go. It’s very dangerous.
Q: Did you experience post-traumatic stress syndrome from your experience, and can you describe, if not, how you did deal with the remaining stress once you were released?
A: I had trouble sleeping when I got back. I thought I would wake up and I’d be back there, and this would all be a dream. I’ve talked to a counselor since I’ve gotten back. But I generally feel great. The fact that we survived has made a huge difference. The fact that Tahir and Asad survived. If either of them had died, I think I would be a complete wreck. And I wasn’t ever physically abused; I think that helped. And then it was incredibly, I mean, I never thought this escape would work. I thought is was like this dumb thing, and we’d do it, and I’d feel better the next day about having tried, because I just felt so bad about what my wife and family was going through, and it was so empowering. It was an outcome I never thought would happen. Tahir told me later that he pretty much assumed we would be caught and shot, that he saw it as sort of a suicide attempt. And I knew that was a possibility. I really hated my captors so much. There was so much hypocrisy, and Tahir showed me how they were not being true Muslims. This was about kidnapping civilians, and the prophet never did that. This was about demanding money and getting rich. The prophet lived very simply, and didn’t care about worldly possessions and allowed other religions to coexist. And so I just hated them, and I wanted them to get nothing from our captivity. So all those things combined, I think, helped me to deal with coming home. But it’s just wonderful. Like, I get to go to the bathroom without asking someone’s permission. So it’s been easier than you’d think in many ways to come home from captivity.
—Transcribed by Jessica White