A Journalist's Taliban Kidnap Nightmare Retold

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Tomas Munita / The New York Times / Redux

David Rohde with villagers in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, in the summer of 2007, about a year before he was kidnapped while working on a book about the region

A Rope and a Prayer by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill (Viking). On sale Nov. 30, 2010

The book that newspaperman David Rohde had been researching when he set off from Kabul one morning in November 2008 was to have been a worthy examination of U.S. failures in southern Afghanistan, characterized by his signature intellectual rigor but of little interest beyond obsessive Afghanistan watchers. The focus of the project changed dramatically when the newly married New York Times correspondent found himself kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for nearly nine months.

Although news of Rohde's kidnapping spread swiftly among friends and colleagues, a Google search of his name at the time turned up only an eight-week-old item in a small Maine newspaper announcing his marriage to Kristen Mulvihill, the photo editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. In order to negotiate for Rohde's freedom outside of the glare of publicity, the Times had used its influence to scrub all mention of its reporter's plight from the Internet. It is a testimony to the power of the Times and the respect that Rohde's colleagues have for him that news of his plight was kept out of the media until the captive and his fixer, Tahir Luddin, shimmied over a wall and escaped to a nearby Pakistani military base.

As a correspondent in Afghanistan, I was glad the Times was looking after Rohde. Still, it struck me as a double standard: we report the kidnapping of businessmen, aid workers, diplomats and soldiers, but when one of our own tribe gets grabbed, the story is off-limits.

Rohde has had the extremely bad luck to get kidnapped twice in his Pulitzer Prize–winning career. His capture by Serbs in the Balkans in 1995 made Rohde preternaturally sensitive to the impact of his risk-taking on his family. He was determined to avoid inflicting this trauma on them a second time and putting his new bride through the horrific experience. But his sense of caution was trumped by his quest to understand why the Taliban was winning in southern Afghanistan. As he set off that fateful morning from Kabul, Rohde avoided telling his wife of the risk he was taking — but he did leave her a note at the Times bureau in Kabul, to be opened in case he failed to reappear.

The drama of the kidnapping is made vivid in the book by being recounted in alternating chapters by both Rohde and his wife back in New York City. They were in love but hardly knew each other before being tumbled into this geopolitical nightmare. "Part of me immediately recognizes that he's thrown us under a bus at month two of marriage," Mulvihill writes. "I haven't even un-packed from our honeymoon."

Mulvihill's work at Cosmo involved coping with challenges like an "environmentally conscious" actress demanding a vegetarian meal and a chauffeur-driven Toyota Prius. Her husband's kidnapping plunged her into a dark new world, dealing with conflicting advice from the FBI, costly security firms, the State Department, the Times' editors and, most harrowing of all, fielding late-night collect calls to her New York City apartment from Taliban kidnappers. But at times, Mulvihill's more personal anxieties — as a late-30-something, she worries over whether she'll ever have children — are jarring next to Rohde's cerebral passages about America's failure to stabilize Afghanistan. (His original book on Helmand province keeps trying to struggle out.)

Rohde's chronicle of his kidnapping is packed with suspense and betrayal: the Taliban commander who promised him the interview turns out to be one of his captors; his driver Asad, realizing that he is likely to be the first executed, befriends the Taliban and turns against Rohde and his fixer, Luddin, bad-mouthing them to the guards, one of whom is an apprentice suicide bomber. (Asad was excluded from their escape plan since Rohde and Luddin feared he would betray them to their captors.) Rohde is unsparing about his own shortcomings. He cannot forgive himself for dragging his Afghan colleagues and his family into this deadly mess.

Rohde's first mistake is telling his captors that he can be traded for "money and prisoners." Greedily, the Taliban set the ransom at $15 million and demand freedom for some Guantánamo inmates. Of course, Rohde's family can't deliver. Rohde fakes a suicide attempt, only to be scolded afterward by Luddin, who tells him that Afghans consider the attempt an admission of guilt to the allegation of being an American spy. "If you want to die," a captor warns Rohde, "this is a very easy place to die."

Even in captivity, Rohde finds moments of surreal humor. The Taliban give them locally made bedsheets emblazoned with the American pop icons Hannah Montana and Spider-Man. A snowball fight breaks out between Taliban guards and two Afghan prisoners. And Rohde leads captors and captives alike in a chorus of the Beatles song "She Loves You."

Rohde muses that his "mind seems to be instinctively drawn to a narrative of survival, not death." He has covered too many "religious" wars to be much of a believer himself yet is amazed to find himself seeking the solace of quiet prayer, an answer to the zealotry of his Taliban captors and to a possible execution.

Aside from the page-turning drama of survival and escape, Rohde's chapters offer a rare insight into how the Taliban faction known as the Haqqani group — his captors — come and go as they please inside the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, while the Pakistani army and intelligence services insist they're doing their best to hunt them down. When Rohde and Luddin tiptoe around sleeping guards and escape over a wall, they realize the Taliban prison is just down the road from a Pakistani army base. Only when Rohde hears the rescue helicopter hovering overhead is he convinced that the Pakistani military won't turn him back to the Taliban. Their escape, after all, is an embarrassment for the Pakistani authorities who have insisted, all along, that Rohde and his companions were being held across the border in Afghanistan. When Rohde finally manages to call Mulvihill in New York City, he tells her, "Please let me spend the rest of my life making this up to you." Their collaboration on A Rope and a Prayer is an auspicious start and a fine read.