David Rohde’s Taliban Captivity

David Rohde

What can Taliban captivity do to a man’s judgment, even to his soul? It made David Rohde root for the CIA’s drone missiles buzzing on the horizon, even when his captors assured him the drones were hunting for them and him, and were going to take his life with theirs:

DR: At first you’re sort of afraid because you don’t know when the strike’s going to happen. There’s no warning. The missile comes down faster than the speed of sound, so you won’t hear the missile that kills you. After a while you sort of get used to them and you don’t pay as much attention to them. But it’s a devastating weapon, and you have no idea when a strike will come. It sort of haunts you.

CL: But what was your fundamental response to the sight and sound of these things in the sky? Was it, “Whew, help is on the way,” or,  “Holy shit, this could take me out too” ?

DR: It changed with time and as my view of my captors changed. I want to be honest: I came to just despise them. I hated them. I hated them for what they were doing to my family. I hated them for the fact that they were essentially making my wife and my parents and my siblings feel like they were just cheap people, and if they could somehow just come up with the millions of dollars they wanted, that my family could save my life.  Kidnapping’s really an incredibly personal crime.  As time went by, if drones were killing Taliban it frankly made me happy. I saw them [my captors] as hypocritical criminals who were doing horrible things to my family. We tried to escape because we were basically ready to die. And we wanted them to get nothing. We wanted our families to not have to suffer like this, and we just completely despised them. So my view of the drones changed over time…

David Rohde, with Kristen Mulvihill, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 25, 2011.

New York Times reporter David Rohde was a prisoner for seven months in 2008 and 2009 of the Haqqani network in the Taliban-run Tribal Areas of Pakistan. This is the same Haqqani network that a generation ago (pumped with Saudi money, Wahhabi theology, American Stinger missiles and CIA generalship) led the charge of the mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The late Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (as in Charlie Wilson’s War) pronounced the Haqqani patriarch, Jalaluddin, “goodness personified.” What should it tell us that a generation later, the Haqqani sons, Badruddin and Sirajuddin, are the point of the Taliban lance against U. S. forces in the region and both seem to have enjoyed overlordship of David Rohde’s kidnapping ordeal. In David’s account with his wife Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer, and in many other versions, I take the large arc of the story to be about the killer mix of fanaticism and firepower that came back to bite us on 9.11 and ever since, and how it is still tearing up the home grounds where the US helped plant the virus thirty years ago. David Rohde knows the details of that story — of our “Frankenstein’s monster,” as he puts it — far better than I do. And still I have to say his thematic question in this book strikes me as stunningly wrong. First with smoke in his nose in Lower Manhattan in September, 2001 and on to the last strokes of this book, he is asking himself “how can religious extremism be contained?” He thinks those drones might actually be part of the answer.

I am presuming in this conversation not just to differ on the drones, but to suggest he “buried the lede” of his own story. He lets me get away with it, perhaps because I’ve watched his work with affection, often with awe, since he interned as a Brown undergraduate with our Ten O’Clock News on WGBH, public television in Boston.

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  • how can religious extremism be contained?

    Not with predator drones, however deadly they are.

    I would say education can help, but Afghanistan seems too primitive–too tribal, too corrupt–for education to gain a foothold. Besides, even in a country like the United States, education (such as it is) is no bulwark against fundamentalism and dominionist politics. Religion thrives on ignorance.

    Ultimately, the only way to contain religious extremism is to reduce religion itself to a minority rather than a majority disease of the mind. In this, some progress has been made, at least in comparison to the rest of human history. But the process is slow, with many backward steps countering our progress forward.

    The real question is, why are we fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban with our military in the first place?

    • Commonwealh

      Don’t be too pessimistic about education. Read the books by Greg Mortensen. He makes a first-hand, very convincing case for the power of education and how much the people of Afghanistan want it, so long as it is not a disguise for propaganda.

      • orangescissor

        I wouldn’t trust Greg Mortensen’s “Stones into Schools” plan for educating Afghanistan all that much. Instead of educating Afghans along “western” models, I would try first not destroying their culture. Maybe we should think more about the impacts of our own actions in Afghanistan for the last few decades before trying to convert people to the American model of how the world should work.

  • Contradiction 37b…tragically funny because you can’t make this stuff up! They should create a movie about this and make it like a soft-lighting puritanical soap war docudrama. It would be the perfect way to capture this surreal disconnected but terribly destructive borderless, endless war against an invisible and unknown enemy, “the military efforts are a fools errand I guess you could argue…how we’re going about it is in many ways contradictory and counterproductive but…”

  • Jeech

    David gives the green signal to drone attacks and civilian death with the justification that Taliban killed more people than those drone attacks. I wonder since when does the world give the US the same authority as a terrorist group equivalent to Taliban? I wonder where the sophistication of that civilization has gone!!!

    And believing in “it’s war and it happens in war” is too a doctrine of stone ages. It’s stunning to see such educated people speak like this.

  • sifta

    This was a valuable and sincere exploration of Af-Pak issues. I think that focusing on Rohde’s ‘stand’ on various issues such as drone attacks, the policy of which he does *not* exactly endorse in the interview btw, is missing the point as well. He actually said that his opinion was that the drones are symptomatic of a failed policy.

    Chris’s point that he might have ‘buried the lede’ in the sense of not focusing using the Afghan experience as a way to highlight the inconsistency of American policy was very perceptive. I would describe it as follows: the parasitic relationship between corrupt 3rd-world power-players extracting insurance payments from paranoid American policy-makers, typically on false premises. Perhaps you can cast the Haqqani clan as aspiring to such a position (and not quite getting there).

    More important is the need for a re-examination of America’s rights, responsibilities, and national interests as they concern other nations. And the ways and means towards these. Rohde presented the rationale for the American presence in Afghanistan as the need for the Bush and Obama administration to ‘clean up’ the mess caused by certain policies of the Reagan administration, and perhaps some value to oil pipeline right of ways.

    However, this particular formulation seems to be a quagmire incarnate, and we are then level with the less inspiring view of the policy being hemmed in by fear of negative consequences of any perturbation, and incidentally getting more absurd and expensive all the time (with the current bill at $2B/year to the Pakistanis).

    My own sense is that we are so invested in the region in terms of completely supporting a false economy, that it would be almost viable to just shift the whole thing over to an actual productive economy — making rugs, for instance — and that shipping enough Australian wool there to keep people busy making rugs would be a better way to distribute the wealth (especially if a certain amount of it is used to buy with Australian mutton). Yes, a such a mercantile economy would be random and absurd and even exploitative, but we are already doing now is perhaps even dumber and more cruel.

  • Potter

    Beautiful couple Kristen and David…glad he made it out safely. What an experience. Chris’s questions and comments were very good. I think Rohde really got caught up in war, the rationales for it’s necessity and continuance, but all the while feeling the futility and the harm done–the “counterproductivity” of it, the lunacy. The best reason for being there, he says, is because we messed things up or had a big hand in making the mess. So we are there out of responsibility and the need to make things right. But he says, and we know, that will never happen through our military efforts and presence. I am not naive to think that leaving poses no risk, but there comes a point where that risk is the better choice.

    I believe that Obama deferred to the generals on this one, a real disappointment. He knows better; he did not have the courage. We are there (I think this was intimated and then explicit in the interview) for political reasons: ours here at home. What if we were attacked again? it would be on his watch-Obama would be blamed. This by inference buys into Bush’s “we have to fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” reason.

    I disagree with Rohde that we need to fight the jihadists that want to convert the world. Let them want it. And let Afghani’s and Pakistani’s straighten out their own dysfunction. Our interference ( including the raining drones) helps in recruiting ( manufacturing) more young jihadists. For every important leader that we manage to “eliminate” along with civilian “collaterals”, so many more we know are inspired to vengeance to pick up the fight.

    War also mean jobs, business interests on one side of the ledger and our national debt on the other.

  • Potter


    Thanks to Sifta for saying it better.

    This is my big chance to say “bravo!” a toast to the old 10 O’Clock News…..long may the memory live.