Where Rohde Leads

Posted: Oct 29, 2009 11:24 AM
Where Rohde Leads

Almost a year ago, New York Times correspondent David Rohde was abducted by the Taliban. I was in Afghanistan at the time and, like many Westerners in the country, I heard about it but agreed not to write about it. Publicity, it was thought, could increase the danger Rohde faced. Even so, over the months that followed, many people figured he would not be seen again -- except, perhaps, on a videotape with hooded jihadis ecstatically applying a butcher knife to his infidel throat, as they had to Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

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But Rohde survived seven months and 10 days in captivity -- briefly, in Afghanistan, then in the Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan -- before managing to escape. His account of this period, published in The Times last week, is riveting. It is revealing, too -- though sometimes in ways Rohde does not articulate and may not even intend.

When Rohde's captors took him across the border into Pakistan, he was "astonished" to find "a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity. ... All along the main roads in North and South Waziristan, Pakistani government outposts had been abandoned, replaced by Taliban checkpoints... We heard explosions echo across North Waziristan as my guards and other Taliban fighters learned how to make roadside bombs that killed American and NATO troops."

These tribal areas, "widely perceived as impoverished and isolated," in fact had "superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan. ... Throughout North Waziristan, Taliban policemen patrolled the streets, and Taliban road crews carried out construction projects. ... 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."

The obvious implication is that the Pakistani government and military were permitting the Taliban to control territory and maintain elaborate bases of operation, safe havens where combatants -- Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, Uighurs and others -- could rest, train and prepare to fight American and Afghan forces on the other side of the frontier.

Has that finally changed? Earlier this month, while I was visiting Pakistan, the Taliban attacked the military's General Headquarters, the equivalent of the Pentagon, in Rawalpindi. Since then, a major campaign -- about 40,000 soldiers supported by helicopters and fighter bombers -- has been launched against the Taliban in Waziristan. It's too soon to say whether the Pakistani now military possess both the will and the capability to clear these areas and hold them for the long run. But perhaps that should be determined before aid to Pakistan is tripled -- as envisioned under legislation signed by President Obama this month.

We also can infer this: Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qaeda leaders are not living in caves or suffering severe deprivation as so many have believed. On the contrary, we must now assume they are ensconced in comfortable villas with electricity, running water, plenty of food, as well as guards, servants and maybe wives to attend them.

Rohde writes that, before his kidnapping, he viewed the Taliban "as a form of ‘Al Qaeda lite,' a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan." In captivity, however, he 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."

In fact, the evidence suggests this is not new. Though groups such as the Taliban -- as well Hezbollah and Hamas -- may fight locally, their leaders have always thought globally, viewing their struggles as part of a broader War Against the West.

Almost two years ago, Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud -- killed by an American Predator strike in August -- told al-Jazeera television: "Our primary aim is to finish Britain [and] the US, and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims." Back in 2002, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iranian-funded Hezbollah, declared on al-Manar television that, "Regardless of how the world has changed after 11 September, ‘Death to America' will remain our reverberating and powerful slogan."  And Hamas parliamentarian Yunis al-Astal has promised "Islamic conquests" of both Europe and America.

The claims that these groups are fighting "national liberation struggles," that their only goal is to free themselves from "foreign occupation," are talking points to be used when addressing credulous Westerners, of which there is never a shortage.

Similarly, while sophisticated militants, their spokesmen and apologists emphasize what they hope will be seen as "legitimate grievances," Rohde, during his months as a prisoner, heard many complaints that he could only view as "paranoid and delusional."

For example, "Seven years after 9/11, they continued to insist that the attacks were hatched by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to create a pretext for the United States to enslave the Muslim world. They said the United States was forcibly converting vast numbers of Muslims to Christianity. American and NATO soldiers, they believed, were making Afghan women work as prostitutes on military bases. Their hatred for the United States seemed boundless. ... Americans invaded Afghanistan to enrich themselves, they argued, not to help Afghans."

The happy ending to Rohde's story is that he and Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist kidnapped with him, escaped late one night while their guards slept. They used a car towrope to lower themselves down a 15-foot wall, and then walked to a nearby Pakistani military base where they were given refuge and assistance.

Among the questions Rohde does not raise: What arrangement did the Pakistani soldiers on the base have with the terrorists and insurgents in the surrounding town and region? Did they know that an American journalist was being held virtually under their noses? If they did, why did they do nothing? If they did not, is that because Pakistani intelligence lacked the sources and skills? Or were they not interested? And what does Pakistani intelligence know now -- or what could it learn and share - regarding bin Laden's whereabouts?

One final point: As noted above, for seven months there was a media blackout on Rohde's abduction. No newspaper or television station covered the story. At the request of the Times, even al-Jazeera did not broadcast a video they had of Rohde in captivity. If anyone else had been kidnapped -- say an American soldier or diplomat, or a researcher from a think tank -- would the Times have extended the same courtesy?