Book Recounts Terror Inside And Outside Captivity

David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill i i

hide captionNew York Times correspondent David Rohde and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, have written a book about their separate experiences dealing with Rohde's capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Erik Swain/Viking
David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill

New York Times correspondent David Rohde and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, have written a book about their separate experiences dealing with Rohde's capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Erik Swain/Viking

Kristen Mulvihill was married to the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent David Rohde for two months when she received a call in 2008 from David's brother, Lee.

Lee told Mulvihill that David never returned from his last interview in Kabul — a meeting he had arranged with a Taliban commander. It was a meeting Mulvihill knew nothing about.

Rohde was abducted — and for seven months, he and his translator and driver were prisoners of a hard-line Taliban faction that operated out of Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas.

And in June 2009, Rohde and his translator mounted a daring escape.

Now, he and Mulvihill have written A Rope and a Prayer, an account of their separate experiences when Rohde was a prisoner of the Taliban.

Rohde says he realizes now that not telling his wife about the interview he arranged with a Taliban leader an hour outside of Kabul was an "ethical lapse."

"To be honest, I was sure she would tell me to not go to the interview," Rohde says. "And we had just gotten married, and if she had said, 'Don't go to the interview,' I would have abided by her orders. I was in the final stages of this book — I think I lost perspective. I was trying to write something that I hoped would be the culmination of seven years of reporting in the region since 2001. But she was my new wife, and I made a mistake. I should have told her."

Mulvihill says she was a little angry Rohde didn't tell her.

"But I quickly realized that, you know, the blame for the kidnapping is on the kidnappers," she says. "No one suffered more from David's decision to go to the interview than David himself."

The Abduction

Rohde says that on his way to the interview with the Taliban commander, a car suddenly blocked the middle of the road.

"And the driver of our car stops our vehicle, and two men with Kalashnikov assault rifles come rushing up to our vehicle," he says. "They're screaming commands in a local language and pointing the weapons at the driver and translator in the front seats of our car. They order them to get in the back seat with me. One of the Taliban jumped in the front seat behind the steering wheel, another one jumped in the passenger seat, and he was sort of pointing his Kalashnikov at us and, with them at the wheel, we sped off down the road."

They eventually ended up in Miran Shah, Pakistan, which is effectively run by the Taliban.

"I thought we were doomed. I'll never forget," Rohde says. "We were loaded into a car and driving down a highway, and the driver started driving on the left-hand side of the road. And then I saw a road sign in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Foreigners and many more Afghans and Pakistanis have been brought to the tribal areas of Pakistan. And it's a complete safe haven for the Taliban. And I knew we could be held for years or killed there."

During that time, Mulvihill was in New York City, working with New York Times lawyers, investigators and experts on abductions, and the FBI. According to Mulvihill, the family requested to keep the abduction a secret — and The Times honored that.

"I absolutely felt that was the right decision, and would be the right decision in future cases," Rohde says. "My captors were absolutely delusional about what they could get for a Western hostage. The initial demand for our release was $25 million in ransom and the release of 15 prisoners from U.S. detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram air base in Afghanistan. When you're dealing with insurgents and militants that want to defy Western public opinion, publicity just raises their expectations, it doesn't shame them, and it is better to keep the cases quiet."

A Rope and a Prayer

In order to keep the abduction quiet, Times correspondents even went so far as to constantly remove references to it from Rohde's Wikipedia entry, Mulvihill says.

"There was amazing camaraderie among his colleagues," she says.

A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides
By David Rohde, Kristen Mulvihill
Hardcover, 384 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt

"I would add that my captors — you know — people think about the Taliban as people who sort of live in caves. They actually Googled me all the time. They Googled my brother, Lee. He is the president of a tiny aviation consulting company. It has four full-time employees. But my captors found him on Google and announced to me, 'Your brother is the president of an aviation firm that manufactures jumbo jets — and if your brother would just sell one jumbo jet, they could pay the millions of dollars in ransom we want,' " Rohde says.

Rohde says he was surprised at how radical the Taliban were that he faced.

"I think there arguably are some moderate Taliban," he says. "I was in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the most hard-line Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are based there. They worked hand-in-hand with foreign militants and al-Qaida members. I was held in the same place where Faisal Shahzad, the young man who failed to set off a bomb in Times Square, was trained. It's North Waziristan. The U.S. has asked the Pakistani army to go in there, and they have not to date."

The Escape

In the last couple of months, Rohde concluded that escape was the only way out. So he and Tahir Ludin, an Afghan journalist and translator, devised a plan. He says it was a simple plan because they were sure it would go wrong.

"Our guards got lax and our captors moved us to a house that was only roughly three-tenths of a mile from the one Pakistani military base in Miran Shah," he says. "Myself and the Afghan journalist basically agreed that I would get up first and pretend I was going to the bathroom, and see if our guards woke up. We tried to keep the guards up late, actually, playing a board game. And then I sort of got up, and as I crept out of the room, I tugged on Tahir's foot to try to wake him up. And then we went and grabbed a rope that I had found when we moved into the house. We lowered ourselves down the wall that surrounded the house and then walked to this Pakistani military base."

Rohde says he had a beard that was 4-5 inches long, and he and Ludin were nearly shot by the Pakistani guards on the base.

"They thought we were suicide bombers," he says. "They made us take off our shirts. They made us lie on the ground and then finally, after about 15 or 20 minutes, they allowed us into the base."

That's when a young moderate Pakistani captain let Rohde make a phone call to New York.

"And I called, and the answering machine picked up, and I said, 'Kristen, Kristen, it's David, please pick up.' And someone picked up, and this unfamiliar voice said, 'Hello,' and I realized it was actually my mother-in-law. She did an extraordinary job of taking down the name of the base, exactly where we were. And then Kristen did an incredible job of then making sure we actually got off that base to safety."

Rohde says he didn't think the escape plan would actually work.

"I guess we had just gotten so angry with them and disgusted with them that we were ready to take that risk," he says. "I thought they would capture us and that would be it, and we would be punished. The actual moment, the realization that they were actually going to let us on the base, was an extraordinary thing. It was just magical."

Excerpt: 'A Rope and a Prayer'

A Rope and a Prayer
A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides
By David Rohde, Kristen Mulvihill
Hardcover, 384 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $26.95

A BLOOD MESSAGE TO OBAMA

David, November 9–10, 2008

On a Sunday afternoon, the Kabul Coffee House and Café is an island of Western culture in Afghanistan's capital. American and European contractors, aid workers, and consultants sip four-dollar café lattes and cappuccinos. Young, English-speaking Afghan waiters dressed in Western clothes serve chicken quesadillas, fried-egg sandwiches, and cheeseburgers.

I marvel at — and dread — how much Kabul has changed since I first came to the country to cover the fall of the Taliban seven years earlier.  A city I grew to know well has become more and more unfamiliar. Kabul has boomed economically and modernized to an extent I never dreamed when joyous Afghans gouged out the eyes of dead Taliban militants in 2001. At the time, Afghans yearned for a moderate and modern nation and an end to decades of meddling from neighboring countries.

Now, the gulf between the wealthy, westernized pockets of the Afghan capital and the grinding insecurity and endemic corruption that dominate most Afghans' daily lives alarms me. Rivalries between the country's ethnic groups that ebbed after the fall of the Taliban simmer again. Growing mistrust between Afghans and foreigners worries me as well. The American journalists, diplomats, and aid workers who were welcomed here in 2001 are seen by growing numbers of Afghans as war profiteers who do little to aid their country.

I am in the final stretch of conducting research for a book I am writing about the failing American attempt to bring stability to the region since 2001. I hope the book will be the culmination of seven years of reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan for The New York Times. Yet I have become increasingly concerned that I am losing touch with the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground. After serving as the newspaper's South Asia bureau co-chief and living in the region from 2002 to 2005, I moved back to New York and joined the newspaper's investigations unit. Over the last three years, reporting trips sent me back to Afghanistan and Pakistan roughly every six months, but that is a fraction of the time I spent on the ground when based here. During that period, the Taliban have reasserted control over vast swaths of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After privately wrestling with the decision for weeks, I have decided I need to interview a Taliban commander for the book to be as rigorous and thorough as possible. The majority of the population in Helmand — the southern Afghan province that is the focus of my book — appears to now support them. But it's a fraught proposition, one that comes with the kind of extreme risk that I have tried to avoid for years.

Across the table from me at the Kabul Coffee House is Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist I met two years ago who works for The Times of London. Burly, boisterous, and confident, Tahir has short brown hair, hazel eyes, a round face, and a thin brown beard. He is a proud Afghan and prefers wearing local clothes to Western ones. We had met in 2006 but never worked together before. Recommended to me by two correspondents from The Times of London, Tahir is known for having good Taliban contacts and the ability to arrange interviews with them.

Tahir explains that his most trusted contact is a Taliban commander who uses the nom de guerre Abu Tayyeb, or "son of Tayyeb." Abu Tayyeb commands several hundred Taliban fighters in three provinces around Kabul, and has fought against NATO and American troops in Helmand as well. Tahir says he has met him a half dozen times and that Abu Tayyeb has done face-to-face television interviews with two different European journalists without incident. He is aligned with a moderate Taliban faction based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

"Would you be willing to go to Ghazni?" Tahir asks, referring to a dangerous province that is roughly three hours south of Kabul by car.

Tahir says I could interview Abu Tayyeb there. He could be the final character in the book, I think to myself, a Taliban commander who is the vehicle for describing the hard-line movement's reemergence. I had tried for the last two weeks to set up an interview with a Taliban fighter in Helmand but had failed. I was not willing to leave the heavily guarded center of the provincial capital. No Taliban were willing to meet me there. Dozens of other journalists and I have been doing phone interviews with Taliban spokesmen for years. Yet it was impossible to verify whom, in fact, you were speaking to over the phone or their claims, which were often blatantly false propaganda screeds. I could briefly meet Abu Tayyeb in person, verify that he was, in fact, a Taliban commander, and then do follow-up interviews by phone.

From New York, it seemed as if a growing number of foreign journalists were safely interviewing the Taliban face-to-face. Over the last two months, interviews with Taliban had appeared in my old newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, a French magazine, and one of my colleagues had safely interviewed them for my current newspaper's Sunday magazine.  I increasingly worried I was becoming a New York-based journalistic fraud whose book would be superficial and out of date. I felt I had fallen behind reporters based in the region.

At the same time, I knew meeting with the Taliban was perilous. Getting both sides of a story is vital in journalism but hugely dangerous in an armed conflict. In the end, each interview is a judgment call. As we sit in the café, Tahir warns of the danger involved. That spring, an American journalist and a British journalist who ventured into Pakistan's tribal areas to interview militants were kidnapped in separate incidents, Tahir explains. He says the British journalist's family sold their home to pay a ransom for his release. The concept of putting my own family through such an ordeal horrifies me. I had also recently read a story in Rolling Stone by an American journalist who was nearly kidnapped by a rival Taliban faction when he drove to Ghazni to interview a Taliban commander.

"Ghazni is too far," I tell Tahir. "I only want to do a Taliban interview in Kabul."

We part ways and Tahir tells me he will contact another Taliban commander who he believes is in Kabul. He promises to call me later that night. I leave with a sense of dread. I have long viewed journalists who interview the Taliban as reckless. Yet I find myself contemplating doing something I have resisted for years.

Excerpted from A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill Copyright 2010 by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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