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NYT reporter David Rohde's kidnapping account: Lessons for Afghanistan policymakers?

New York Times reporter Davide Rohde has recounted his seven months held captive by a Taliban group in Afghanistan, and argues that convincing Taliban militants to make peace with the US and Kabul will be a tall order.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2009

David Rohde of The New York Times interviews Afghans in the Helmand region in this file photo taken in August-September, 2007. Rohde has escaped from his Taliban captors after being held for seven months in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the newspaper reported on its website on June 20, 2009.

Tomas Munita for The New York Times/handout/REUTERS/File


Kabul, Afghanistan

A New York Times series detailing reporter David Rohde's seven-month captivity with the Taliban does not hold many surprises for close followers of the movement. But it could impact the debate over the scope of the war in Afghanistan.

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Some policymakers hoping to craft an exit strategy have pinned hopes on a political settlement with some Taliban groups that would separate many of their fighters from Al Qaeda and other "irreconcilable" groups. A senior Western diplomat said a key element to the success of the new war strategy proposed by US General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, will be convincing some insurgent groups to come in out of the cold.

"We need to identify the leaders who can be flipped," he said, "and then give them a reason to flip by showing them it will benefit them and their followers."

Underpinning that approach is a belief that many Taliban are motivated by group interests and nationalism, not idealistic religious goals. But Mr. Rohde argues against seeing at least one of the Taliban factions as a nationalist force. He said his seven months held captive by the Haqqani network, a hardline Taliban group that has been involved in suicide bombings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, convinced him that many fighters and commanders are deeply intertwined with Al Qaeda and its vision of global jihad.

"Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of 'Al Qaeda lite,' a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan," writes Rohde. But 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."

To be sure, the group that held Rohde has long been viewed as among the most dangerous and ideologically committed of the fighters in the region and the word "Taliban" is now something of a catch-all term for ethnically Pashtun, Sunni fighters opposed to the US-backed government in Kabul.

There are a number of different Taliban networks, with separate command structures, core ideologies, and tactics. The Haqqani network was formed by Jallaludin Haqqani during the 1980s war to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, and at that time enjoyed strong financial backing from the United States. Now run by his son Sirajuddin, the group was one of Osama bin Laden's earliest supporters inside Afghanistan and has long been viewed by the US government as ideologically in line with Al Qaeda's goals. (Here's a breakdown of the different leading Taliban groups.)