Countless prefabricated homes equipped with single-car garages intermingle in perfect suburban order. Irrigation canals nurture a lively bloom uncharacteristic of the harsh surroundings. This is not Tucson, but what historian Arnold Toynbee termed “a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape.” Lashkar Gah, which locals once called “Little America,” is the capital city of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province.
The growth of Little America was the result of a bold US campaign from 1946 to 1979 that sought to counter Soviet influence in the area. USAID and Army Corps of Engineers personnel assisted in the construction of more than 1,200 miles of roads and 300 miles of irrigation canals. Peace Corps volunteers taught English and sciences to local children, girls included, with the intent of creating a rising generation of educated leaders and thinkers. The Soviet invasion left American efforts in the region hamstrung.
David Rohde, a journalist who won a 1996 Pulitzer Prize while reporting from Bosnia for the Monitor, first traveled to Little America in 2004 to find many of the same cookie-cutter American homes still standing, albeit insulated by high protective walls. Rohde’s fascination with continued American involvement in Afghanistan became the topic of his intended book, one that sought to answer the pressing question: Can religious extremism be countered?
In an effort to ensure that his book would not become “superficial and out-of-date” Rohde scheduled an interview with a Taliban commander through an Afghan intermediary, hoping to obtain the enemy perspective. Rohde got much more than he bargained for. On Nov. 10, 2008, the very man he intended to interview kidnapped Rohde; his interpreter, Tahir; and his driver, Asad.
A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping From Two Sides continues with alternating chapters by Rohde (who was also held captive by Bosnian Serbs while reporting for the Monitor) recounting the tedium and hopelessness of what became a seven-month sojourn in Pashtun country, and by his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, who details the efforts taken to secure her husband’s release.
The dual story is the gem of this work. Rohde shares the unlikely moments of happiness among captors and captured: the palpable camaraderie after finishing a grueling overnight hike to a safe house; the guard who brings Rohde English-language newspapers from the market so he can stay abreast of world affairs. In bleak circumstances, small gestures have great effect, and are never forgotten.
Rohde passed the slow days of his kidnapping in North and South Waziristan, mountainous tribal regions in western Pakistan. He was amazed by the impunity with which foreign fighters, Arabs, and Uzbeks, among others, flowed into this region to train local Pashtuns how to make explosives.
Mulvihill’s passages are the most welcome because they paint a worrisome picture. After nearly a decade of US military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan, there is very little that even the supposed experts can do to ensure safety. Mulvihill brought all powers to bear in her quest for a rescue: private security consultants stationed in Kabul, personal meetings with the late Richard Holbrooke and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as FBI involvement. These combined efforts contributed to a seven-month morass during which it became clear that no one knew how to bring Rohde home.
Not one of the above agents could ever locate Rohde’s position with certainty, and his confinement in Pakistan prevented the United States from intervening militarily. Thankfully, Rohde and Tahir made a daring nighttime escape, fleeing a mud-walled prison in North Waziristan and navigating to a nearby Pakistani Army outpost.
Rohde’s experience, and its telling, illustrate the deadly double game that Pakistan has been playing since the American invasion in 2001. Rohde’s answer to the question “Is the Pakistani military – the US’s purported ally – covertly aiding the Haqqanis [Rohde’s kidnappers] and other Afghan Taliban as they attack American troops?” is a resounding “yes.” Pakistan does not treat these tribal areas, known as the FATA, as sovereign land, and is more than content to allow the Taliban and its confederates near total sanctuary there.
After this harrowing experience, Rohde remains uncertain if the religious extremism he witnessed can be countered. It is hard to know what the future holds in a land where an enemy is protected by an ally and scheduling an interview is often a dangerous wager.