Before David Rohde escaped, a flurry of efforts to win his release

The team working to free the New York Times reporter reached out to kidnappers and debated whether to go public.

By , Staff writer , Correspondent

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    New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan seven months ago and escaped his captors last Friday. Here, he's shown interviewing Afghans in southern Helmand Province in 2007.
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On the morning of Nov. 10, New York Times reporter David Rohde set out with an Afghan translator and a driver on a short trip that would turn into a seven-month kidnapping. Mr. Rohde was finishing a book about the history of American involvement in Afghanistan, and a Taliban commander in Logar Province just south of the capital had agreed to meet him. In recent years the area has fairly swarmed with Taliban units as well as kidnap-for-ransom gangs.

For Rohde and his fixer-translator, Tahir Ludin, the ordeal ended Friday after they jumped the wall in the compound in a Pakistani tribal area where they were being held, and escaped to freedom. The driver, Assadullah Mangal, remained behind. (The Times wrote in an early version of its article on the escape that Mr. Mangal decided not to join them, say several journalists who read the report. Later versions did not include this.)

For months the Times had begun working with US officials, private security contractors, and its own staff to try to win Rohde's release, according to several people involved in the effort.

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Abductors made quick contact

The good news for Carlotta Gall, the New York Times Kabul bureau chief, and others working for Rohde's release, was that contact with Rohde's Taliban captors was made within days of the abduction. [Editor's note: Ms. Gall’s name was misspelled in the original version.]

According to Farouq Samim, an Afghan journalist drafted to help with the New York Times' effort and who has also served as a fixer for the Monitor, the Taliban commander Rohde was seeking to meet also called the Times and said Rohde never made it.

Ludin, Rohde's fixer, had met with the man in question on at least five occasions before, and had arranged this interview at Rohde's request.He operates in Logar, Ghazni, and Wardak Provinces and has ties to the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.

The kidnappers' demands were shifting and difficult to fulfill, says Mr. Samim. At first, the captors insisted on no publicity. Later they issued at least two videos of Rohde.

At first, his Taliban captors demanded that five to 15 Taliban fighters be released from Afghan prisons and the US prison in Guantánamo Bay in exchange for the three men's release. "That was something impossible. We always explained that to the Taliban, 'Come on, this is out of our authority,' " says Samim.

At other times there were ransom demands in the tens of millions of dollars. The Times said it paid no money in exchange for Rohde's and Ludin's release.

Debate if kidnapping was fit to print

The Times struggled with the question of if they should go public as the ordeal dragged on.

In preparation for such a step, the Times made a video appealing for Rohde's release that included his father talking about him and footage of Ludin and Mangal's children. "Honestly if anyone could see that video, that was a really convincing video," Samim says.

Former US ally suspected

A few people involved in working on Rohde's release say that during his captivity they feared he was being held by members of the Haqqani network, a group founded by Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani with the support of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan during the in the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Since that war, Haqqani's group became fellow travelers of the Tailban without ever being subsumed into that group's command structure.

Jalaluddin's son, Sirajuddin – believed to have assumed the leadership of the group and deemed by the US military one of the most dangerous warlords in Afghanistan – has a base of operations in the lawless Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, where Rohde was held for much of his captivity.

Multiple efforts to win release

Samim says the team assembled to secure the three men's release were sometimes at cross-purposes. Some reporters working on his release were more inclined to go public, while private security contractors assisting the family and US officials favored a quieter approach.

Cultural factors were also at play, with some Afghans like Samim feeling that the tone of discussions with kidnappers was sometimes overly "American" rather than Afghan.

Only one person would speak through a translator for the team on the phone to the kidnappers at a time. Anyone who wanted something conveyed during the conversation needed to write the suggestion on a piece of a paper that was passed around for multiple approvals. As a result, the dialogue was halting, says Samim.

"I think it would have been good to do it in an Afghan way," he says, for instance by working more often through tribal intermediatries. "Talking as a Westerner with a Taliban who is an abductor creates a feeling of not trusting each other.... If I'm on the phone with somebody and somebody pauses and [then] talks, that makes me worried."

Samim also enlisted the help of Afghanistan's thriving community of local journalists. He convinced some who cover the Taliban to call up their Taliban sources every other day and ask for the three men's release.

"One of my friends actually got very serious about this. He said to the spokesperson of Taliban, 'Hey, man, you've got a journalist, you have to tell your people you have to release them or no one will come cover your operations.' "

Journalists: more valuable as hostages or reporters?

Telling insurgents that journalists should be protected to help get out their side of the story is a traditional, and often successful, tactic in securing their safety.

But Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that modern media is making it harder to make this case.

"Traditionally, if you could convince people that were somewhat unsavory that you were there to listen to their concerns and convey them to the world, that could go a long way," he says.

"But today militant groups have so many alternate means of communication, for instance, the Internet, and the message they want to send is often one of fear and one of terror," he continues. "If that's the case, then holding a hostage is a pretty good way to do it. These groups potentially have no interest in Western media, so the fact that a journalist comes from the West may make them doubly vulnerable."

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