The Politics of David Rohde's Story

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If you haven't been reading David Rohde's account of being held by the Taliban, you really should. It comes highly recommended by my colleagues Jeffrey Goldberg and James "Editor of the Year" Bennet, who found it particularly uplifting after the balloon boy fiasco. I must say I began to read it more out of duty than desire. I've read accounts of hostages before--FARC in Columbia, Hezbollah in Iran, crazy lone kidnappers--and I didn't really expect this to be more than the usual grim predictability. We're only up to day two and--without spoiling anything--the moving around, the question of who is actually holding him and what they want is endlessly interesting. It's not self aggrandizing and not self loathing either. It's really quite something.

I'm interested in the politics of it, too. Rohde is a straight-shooter reporter with no political agenda than I can discern. (We've never met, but I have friends who have worked with him at the Times and think the world of him.) But what he's written will, I think, give plenty for left and right to mull over. Keeping in mind that we're only at day two of the five day saga--and there's surely a book to come--here are a few points that struck me:

Was Rohde naive about the Taliban? In the section of the series online where he takes questions from readers, Rohde's defensive of his decision to meet with the Taliban--a risky move that led some Times readers to demand that he pay back the U.S. government for getting him out. Be that as it may, what struck me more was this passage:

"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. I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious ...They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al-Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world."

Is this naive? Did we not already think that the Taliban aspired to more than a local theocracy? I've only been to the region once, and I don't claim expertise, but it seemed reasonable to assume that they were happy to export their vision if not through their own militias then through Al Qaeda. In any event, I can see Dick Cheney reading this series and thinking, "This is what I've been telling these pantywaists! We're dealing with fanatics!"

Still, if you're conservative you have to be taken by how often the Taliban captors cite American killings of civilians in their complaints. Sometimes their claims are ludicrous, like saying that 9/11 was an American plot. But there have been civilian casualties in the American-led effort in Afghanistan just as there have been in Iraq. To deny that is foolish, and to deny that this emboldens those who are predisposed to hate us anyway also seems foolish. Rohde's recollections of his captors harping on this--as well as the detentions-without-end in Guantanamo and around the world at black site prisons--is a reminder of how much damage those policies caused. This is not to blame America first. They hate us for a lot of reasons. Indeed most of the captivity takes place during the Obama age, and the election of our first Muslim president--I kid, I kid--has hardly dulled the seething anger of Rohde's captors. So ending Gitmo and practices that enflamed our enemies won't end the problem, but it's useful to see firsthand how civilian casualties and ill-conceived policies pour gas on the fire.

I guess the final point that left me the most depressed is how freely the Taliban operate within Pakistan. We've all heard about the lawless tribal areas, of course. Rohde's piece made it clear how they really act with utter impunity and no attempt to hide or blend in. The Taliban state exists just a few miles south of where it was in 2001. That is deeply depressing for Americans of all political persuasions. Eager to see what he has tomorrow.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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