Kidnapped Journalist's Gripping Account Brings New Light to Afghanistan Debate

David Rohde, held for 7 months in Afghanistan, pushes against the conventional wisdom on how America wages war

This article is from the archive of our partner .

New York Times journalist David Rohde, held for 7 months by Taliban kidnappers in Afghanistan and Pakistan before escaping, is recounting the lessons of his capture all this week on the front page of the Times. His first-person retelling is candid and his analysis is unique for the closeness of its perspective: Rohde lived and talked daily with foot soldiers and officers of the Taliban, watching them operate across two countries. Perhaps as a result, Rohde's view of the Taliban and other aspects of the war in Afghanistan differ significantly from American conventional wisdom. Here, the Wire culls three notable insights from Rohde's account that may have an impact in the ongoing debate over Obama's war in Afghanistan.

  • The Radicalism and Global Ambitions of the Taliban  Rohde describes the Taliban's apparent mission of imposing extremist Islam and warring with the West.
    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. [...]

    My captors railed against the evils of a secular society. In March, they celebrated a suicide attack in a mosque in the Pakistani town of Jamrud that killed as many as 50 worshipers as they prayed to God. Those living under Pakistan's apostate government, they said, deserved it. One commander declared that no true Muslim could live in a state where Islam was not the official religion. He flatly rejected my compromise suggestion that strict Islamic law be enacted in Afghanistan's conservative rural south, while milder forms of Islam be followed in the comparatively liberal north. Citing the Taliban's interpretation of Islam, he said it was every Muslim's duty to try to stop others from sinning. If one person in a village commits a sin, those who witness it and do not stop him will also be punished by God.

    Rohde's description of the Taliban as an ideologically-motivated extremist movement with global aspirations contradicts the prevailing notion that the Taliban is primarily a local political and criminal force. An influential book by journalist Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror, paints the Taliban as little more than a large gang cartel bolstered by the opium trade. Liberals wary of a lengthy entanglement in Afghanistan, and skeptical of Taliban-Qaeda connections, have proposed hiring the Taliban outright or giving them some government power in exchange for cutting off Al Qaeda. For many, the weakening of Al Qaeda has been a cause for optimism. But Rohde's account would seem to suggest that the separation of the Taliban from Al Qaeda would be an impossibility.
  • In Waziristan, a Functioning Taliban State  Driven and marched across Afghanistan to the Pakistani border regions of Waziristan, Rohde marvels at the Taliban's total control over the area. He describes it as "a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity" that boast "superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan."
    The tribal areas were more developed and the Taliban more sophisticated than I expected. They browsed the Internet and listened to hourly news updates on Azadi Radio, a station run by the American government. [...]

    The trip confirmed suspicions I had harbored for years as a reporter. The Haqqanis oversaw a sprawling Taliban mini-state in the tribal areas with the de facto acquiescence of the Pakistani military. The Haqqanis were so confident of their control of the area that they took me -- a person they considered to be an extraordinarily valuable hostage -- on a three-hour drive in broad daylight to shoot a scene for a video outdoors. Throughout North Waziristan, Taliban policemen patrolled the streets, and Taliban road crews carried out construction projects. The Haqqani network's commanders and foreign militants freely strolled the bazaars of Miram Shah and other towns. Young Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members revered the foreign fighters, who taught them how to make bombs.

    This too undermines notions of the Taliban as a small-scale criminal regime. It also calls into question the oft-heard characterization of Waziristan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions as "lawless" and anarchic. Indeed, Rohde describes them as in better shape than areas controlled by the Afghanistan government we seek to bolster. But Rohde's view may lend greater urgency to the fear that Afghanistan's weak and corrupt government is a greater liability than asset.
  • American Efforts Worsening Situation  Rohde describes a Taliban driven and radicalized by American military efforts, especially bombings that inadvertently kill civilians. Meanwhile, good-will American enterprises are ignored. It may be no surprise that the Taliban is "overflowing with hatred for the United States and Israel," but Rohde's report of "rising public support for the Taliban" is striking.
    My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. 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. [...]

    For the next several nights, a stream of Haqqani commanders overflowing with hatred for the United States and Israel visited us, unleashing blistering critiques that would continue throughout our captivity. Some of their comments were factual. They said large numbers of civilians had been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories in aerial bombings. Muslim prisoners had been physically abused and sexually humiliated in Iraq. Scores of men had been detained in Cuba and Afghanistan for up to seven years without charges. To Americans, these episodes were aberrations. To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law. [...]

    A stalemate between the United States and the Taliban seemed to unfold before me. The drones killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties. The strikes also created a paranoia among the Taliban. They believed that a network of local informants guided the missiles. Innocent civilians were rounded up, accused of working as American spies and then executed. Several days after the drone strike near our house in Makeen, we heard that foreign militants had arrested a local man. He confessed to being a spy after they disemboweled him and chopped off his leg. Then they decapitated him and hung his body in the local bazaar as a warning.

    Rohde's assessment of virulent anti-Americanism, spread by our troops and unaffected by infrastructure development, would seem to suggest that American nation building in Afghanistan is a doomed project, as anti-war liberals have long argued. His take on the controversial drone program is especially damning. In a much-discussed New York Times Magazine profile of General Stanley McChrystal, the top allied commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal said that counterinsurgency was designed to bolster support for Americans, reduce civilian deaths, and cut off the Taliban from the populace. David Rohde's account of Afghanistan and Pakistan showed an area where McChrystal's strategy has not yet worked.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.