Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist David Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2008 and escaped in June 2009, spoke at Hampshire College Monday night. He offered insights on the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, personal insight into the current generation and the influence of religion in war.
Rohde said he believes the relative failure of American efforts in Afghanistan can be attributed to the failure of the American civilian ground effort and the role Pakistan’s military has played in harboring the Taliban.
“There’s tremendous resistance on both sides to the American military presence, but I always thought that the key on the ground was getting the civilian side right,” Rohdes said.
He said that the American civilian effort – the effort to spark a stronger economy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to build up stronger institutions with some semblance of democracy in the two countries and the reconstruction efforts – had all failed.
Rohde described how young kids he’d spoken with in Islamabad and Kabul, Afghanistan said they want to be in what they consider are thriving countries like Dubai and Turkey – which they lauded for what they consider to be their open societies that promote religious tolerance and an eagerness to utilize the Internet.
Furthermore, he said that those students reject the idea of Americans with guns forcing, what they considered to be, American style democracy on them.
Rohde said American responsibility needs to be towards these groups of young moderates looking to live in open societies and tolerate people’s religious freedom.
Apart from what he considered to be the failure of these American civilian efforts, Rohde said that Pakistan presents a significant impediment to American efforts in the region.
“I’m kind of biased because of my kidnapping experience, but I really feel that Pakistan’s military has been one of the most destructive forces in the region and one of the primary reasons for the failure of the American effort in Afghanistan,” Rohde said.
Rohde said that after he was kidnapped in Afghanistan, he was held captive at one of many safe havens inside Pakistan that the Taliban used to train.
“The fact that Osama Bin Laden was found so close to [the Pakistani capital of] Islamabad to me confirmed the double game that the Pakistani military has played. Since 2001 we have given at least $10 billion in American military assistance. I think we should have given a lot more of that money to civilian assistance,” Rohde said.
Rohde’s capture came during an interview he set up with a Taliban commander that he’d heard hadn’t captured other journalists. Eager to write the “best possible book” on the war and then get out of the business of war correspondence, Rohde arranged a meeting point an hour outside of largest Afghan city of Kabul with two Afghani drivers that had arranged meetings between journalists and the commander before.
No sooner had they reached the meeting point then two men with assault rifles charged the vehicle, ordered the Afghan driver and passenger into the backseat with Rohde, and drove off into the desert. The date was Nov. 8, four days after President Barack Obama had been elected to office.
Rohde said one of the kidnappers first questions was whether he was American.
“As a journalist I thought it was vital to tell the truth,” said Rohde, who had told when setting up an interview that he was an American.
“Many Taliban believe that all journalists are spies, and I thought that if I lied before or during the kidnapping about my nationality they would think I was a spy,” said Rohde. “I remember the driver of the car as the kidnapping was just 30 seconds old demanding to know where I was from. I decided to say I was American, and he raised his fist in the air and said ‘We will send a blood message to Obama.’”
Arriving at their destinations, the two Afghani’s were taken from the car and beaten, a pattern Rohde said emerged during his time spent in captivity.
“The Taliban were angrier at Afghans that were cooperating with Americans than they were with Americans themselves,” Rohde said.
Rohde and the drivers were blindfolded and driven around Afghanistan for the next six days. Unable to pass an American base by vehicle, they were taken on foot across the mountains and picked up the next day by another truck.
“Our captor kept telling us he we were going to southern Afghanistan,” said Rohde. “I was very afraid he was taking us into Pakistan’s tribal areas and I remember the young man started driving down the left hand side of the road. In Afghanistan they drive down the right side of the road, and in Pakistan they drive down the left side of the road.”
Rohde said that checkpoints had been abandoned by the Pakistani military throughout the area and had been replaced by Taliban soldiers.
“I basically realized that the Taliban regime the United States thought they had toppled in 2001 had basically moved over the border a few dozen miles into Pakistan,” said Rohde.
Rohde described the Taliban captors he got to know during the next seven months.
“I want to be fair, this is the most extreme group of Taliban. There are Taliban that are fighting for their village or their valley inside Afghanistan that are less militant, but in Pakistan’s tribal areas it’s sort of a fulcrum where Arab militants are there mixing with Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban, brainwashing them into young suicide bombers,” Rohde said.
He said the majority of them were poorly educated and that a few of them had gone to high school, some to middle school and most to elementary school. He also described them phonetically sounding out their prayer books with the literacy of a what he considered to be a fifth grade student.
“They brainwash them into believing that the 9/11 attacks were staged by the U.S. to create a pretext to occupy the Muslim world. My guards were convinced that American soldiers were forcibly converting Afghans to Christianity,” Rohde said.
Rohde said they told him the Taliban had blown up girl’s schools because they believed that young Afghan girls were being taught in American built schools how to be prostitutes.
Rohde described six weeks he’d spent with a young man training to become a suicide bomber.
“He was amused by me. He saw all westerners as weak, hedonists focused on earthly relationships and the pleasures of this world,” Rohde said.
“He had all these questions for me about what he’d heard about the west and what he’d heard people were like there,” he added. “He asked me if it was true if all Christians wanted to live for 1,000 years. He’d been told that a neck-tie was a secret symbol of Christianity, and he’d been told that American soldiers hunted down pigs and killed them and served them to their officers.
“He said this world was a burden for any true Muslims,” he continued. “He said that family relationships did not matter to him, and the only relationship that mattered to him was his relationship to God.”
Rohde called on his experiences with Bosnian Muslims a decade and a half earlier to describe what he called a distorted take on Islam that comes from Saudi Arabia, one he’d also heard described talking with commanders in the region.
He described the belief that when there’s a sinner in a village, if all the villagers didn’t stop the sinning, that God wouldn’t punish the individual that committed the sin but punish everyone in the village.
“He literally believed that if he didn’t stop sin across all of Afghanistan he himself would go to Hell,” Rhode said. “It was a completely different view of individual judgment and a kind of Western concept of God judging us as individuals, and this is why he thought it was his religious duty to establish Islamic law across Afghanistan.”
Rohde also described more light-hearted moments from his time in captivity, including the time he sang the verses of The Beatle’s “She Loves You,” and the captors refrained the chorus “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
In explaining his escape, Rohde said one of the drivers that was captured with him was able to keep tabs on their locations by requesting frequent trips to the doctor. At one location the driver realized they were three-tenths of a mile from a Pakistani base.
Rohde and the two drivers found a length of rope, a wrench and other tools, and lowered themselves down from the roof of the building one night when their captors had fallen asleep. Navigating through the desert, they arrived at the Pakistani base, where they negotiated their transport out by emergency helicopter.
Rohde made clear when introducing the lecture that he did not claim to have the answers, that it was mainly impressionistic and designed at sparking a discussion.
Rohde won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his coverage of Srebrenica massacre, which refers to the July 1995 killing of more than 8,000 Bosniaks during the Bosnian War. He shared his second Pulitzer for The New York Time’s 2008 team coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rohde has since retired as a foreign war correspondent, but still makes regular trips to countries abroad, including recent trips to Turkey and China
Rohde suggested to the college audience that they take the opportunity now to travel abroad, and offered a piece of parting advice.
“American’s are largely viewed around the world as two things. Arrogant and ignorant. So learn the language of the place you’re travelling to before you go.”
Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected]