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In the Newsroom

October 23, 2009
Up close and personal with the Taliban

The Times reporter conducting an interview.

Photo: Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Edward Deitch is the consulting producer and head writer at Worldfocus. He looks at how one reporter describes an ordeal in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and what it may mean for U.S. policymakers.

It was unfortunate, even heartbreaking, how David Rohde gained first-hand knowledge of the Taliban. The New York Times correspondent went to Afghanistan last November to research a book, but before getting very far he was kidnapped by a Taliban commander who had invited him for an interview.

Held for more than seven months across the border in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, he lived to write about his experience. It’s the kind of story that no one would have wished for but that few will turn away from.

In a series of Times articles this week, Rohde recounts his experience and those of two Afghan colleagues abducted with him. You can see a related video segment from this Worldfocus partner in tonight’s broadcast.

Rohde’s perspective on the Taliban is particularly relevant. Pakistan is conducting a large-scale offensive against the insurgents in South Waziristan, one of the areas where Rohde was held. And President Obama is pondering whether to commit more troops to the effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

There will most certainly be a book and, inevitably, a movie. But I doubt Hollywood will do justice to the material. Rohde’s ordeal, in his own words, is the kind of story you can’t make up.

There have been countless dispatches on the fight against the Taliban from the American and British points of view. Following the troops in Afghanistan for a few days or weeks is routine for reporters, whether they are from The Times, American television news outlets, or foreign broadcasters such as Australia’s ABC or Al Jazeera English, whose reports we have featured on our program. Al Jazeera English has also provided glimpses into the Taliban side, especially in Pakistan.

By contrast, David Rohde, without a choice in the matter, experienced what might be described as the ultimate embed with the Taliban, and some of his revelations are worth noting as U.S. policymakers confront the growing dangers in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

  • The group that held him “oversaw a sprawling Taliban mini-state in the tribal areas with the de facto acquiescence of the Pakistani military.”
  • U.S. drone attacks on Taliban targets “killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.”
  • The Taliban “were more sophisticated than I expected. They browsed the Internet and listened to hourly news updates on Azadi radio, a station run by the American government. But then they dismissed whatever information did not meet their preconceptions.”

Even the surreal moments are instructive. Rohde was baffled, he tells us, by how his guards liked to sing with him, and their favorite song was none other than “She Loves You” by the Beatles. He recounts how he would sing the first verse and the guards and his fellow captives would join in for the chorus. “’She loves you – yeah, yeah, yeah,’ we sang, with Kalashnikovs lying on the floor around us.” One can only imagine it.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Rohde’s story, with all its twists and turns. It is a thriller set in an unfolding and deepening conflict with no end in sight. It provides a rare and raw look at just what the United States and its allies are up against. It’s difficult to read but hard to put down.

– Edward Deitch

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this war wil never end!


Hi – I found your blog doing a Google search – great site!


“The Taliban browsed the Internet”

Oooooooo I’m gona tell

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