Almost a year ago, New York Times correspondent David Rohde was abducted by the Taliban. I was in Afghanistan at the time and, like many Westerners in the country, I heard about it but agreed not to write about it. Publicity, it was thought, could increase the danger Rohde faced. Even so, over the months that followed, many people figured he would not be seen again — except, perhaps, on a videotape with hooded jihadis ecstatically applying a butcher knife to his infidel throat, as they had to Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
But Rohde survived seven months and ten days in captivity — briefly, in Afghanistan, then in the Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan — before managing to escape. His account of this period, published in The Times last week, is riveting. It is revealing, too — though sometimes in ways Rohde does not articulate and may not even intend.
When Rohde’s captors took him across the border into Pakistan, he was “astonished” to find “a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity. . . . All along the main roads in North and South Waziristan, Pakistani government outposts had been abandoned, replaced by Taliban checkpoints. . . . We heard explosions echo across North Waziristan as my guards and other Taliban fighters learned how to make roadside bombs that killed American and NATO troops.”
These tribal areas, “widely perceived as impoverished and isolated,” in fact had “superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan. . . . Throughout North Waziristan, Taliban policemen patrolled the streets, and Taliban road crews carried out construction projects. . . . foreign militants freely strolled the bazaars of Miram Shah and other towns. Young Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members revered the foreign fighters, who taught them how to make bombs.”
The obvious implication is that the Pakistani government and military were permitting the Taliban to control territory and maintain elaborate bases of operation, safe havens where combatants — Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, Uighurs, and others — could rest, train, and prepare to fight American and Afghan forces on the other side of the frontier.
Has that finally changed? Earlier this month, while I was visiting Pakistan, the Taliban attacked the military’s General Headquarters, the equivalent of the Pentagon, in Rawalpindi. Since then, a major campaign — about 40,000 soldiers supported by helicopters and fighter bombers — has been launched against the Taliban in Waziristan. It’s too soon to say whether the Pakistani military now possess both the will and the capability to clear these areas and hold them for the long run. But perhaps that should be determined before aid to Pakistan is tripled — as envisioned under legislation signed by President Obama this month.
We also can infer this: Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qaeda leaders are not living in caves or suffering severe deprivation as so many have believed. On the contrary, we must now assume they are ensconced in comfortable villas with electricity, running water, plenty of food, as well as guards, servants, and maybe wives to attend them.
Rohde writes that, before his kidnapping, he viewed the Taliban “as a form of ‘Al Qaeda lite,’ a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.” In captivity, however, he learned that “the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. 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.”