This is part 3 (of 5).
October 20, 2009
‘You Have Atomic Bombs, but We Have Suicide Bombers.’
By DAVID ROHDE
A NERVOUS-LOOKING Pakistani soldier pointed a rocket-propelled grenade at our pickup truck in late January. The Taliban guard beside me loaded his rifle and ordered me to put a scarf over my face. A group of Pakistani civilians standing nearby moved out of the way, anticipating a firefight.
In the driver’s seat of our vehicle was Badruddin Haqqani, a senior commander of the Haqqani network, one of the Taliban’s most hard-line factions and the group that was holding me and two Afghan colleagues hostage in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Obeying the guard, I covered my face. The soldier was in the lead vehicle of a Pakistani Army supply convoy in North Waziristan. After surveying the road, the soldier got back in his truck, and the convoy rumbled forward.
I hoped that the Pakistanis might somehow rescue us. Instead, I watched in dismay as Badruddin got out of the truck and calmly stood on the side of the road. As trucks full of heavily armed government soldiers rolled by, he smiled and waved at them.
After the convoy disappeared, Badruddin seemed amused.
“Do you know who that was?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, trying to play dumb.
“That was the Pakistani Army,” he said.
He explained that under a cease-fire agreement between the Taliban and the army, all civilians were required to get out of their cars when an army convoy approached. For Taliban vehicles, though, only the driver had to get out. The practice, I realized, allowed the Taliban to hide kidnapping victims and foreign militants from the Pakistani Army.
That morning, Badruddin arrived at the house in Miram Shah where I was being held with Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist, and Asad Mangal, our driver. We had been taken hostage on a reporting trip south of Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2008 and moved to Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Badruddin announced that he was taking us out of town to a snow-covered hillside to shoot the final scene of a video that would be released to the news media. He was determined to make it look as though we were being held in the frigid mountains of Afghanistan, not in a bustling city in Pakistan.
As we continued our journey, we passed a half-dozen checkpoints that had been abandoned by the Frontier Corps, a militia that had been the Pakistani government’s primary security force in the tribal areas until 2001. Badruddin said that under the cease-fire agreement, only unarmed militia members could stand at the checkpoints.
As we drove, I occasionally saw members of the militia standing on the side of the road without guns. Some casually chatted with local tribesmen.
The trip confirmed suspicions I had harbored for years as a reporter. The Haqqanis oversaw a sprawling Taliban mini-state in the tribal areas with the de facto acquiescence of the Pakistani military. The Haqqanis were so confident of their control of the area that they took me — a person they considered to be an extraordinarily valuable hostage — on a three-hour drive in broad daylight to shoot a scene for a video outdoors.
Throughout North Waziristan, Taliban policemen patrolled the streets, and Taliban road crews carried out construction projects. The Haqqani network’s commanders and 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.
Over the winter, I would come to know the reality the Haqqanis had created. Some nights, commanders and their fighters visited the houses where we were being held. Conversations were dominated by their unwavering belief that the United States was waging a war against Islam.
It was a universe filled with contradictions. My captors assailed the West for killing civilians, but they celebrated suicide attacks orchestrated by the Taliban that killed scores of Muslim bystanders. They bitterly denounced missionaries, but they pressed me to convert to their faith. They complained about innocent Muslims being imprisoned by the United States, even as they continued to hold us captive.
Yet in our day to day existence, when commanders were absent, some of our guards showed glimpses of humanity. Those moments gave us hope that we might somehow be able to talk or reason our way out of captivity.
IN early February, our guards told us that Badruddin had sent the video to Afghan and foreign media outlets but that only Al Jazeera had broadcast it. The news frustrated Tahir and Asad, who had hoped that the video would be widely broadcast and stimulate negotiations.
I was not surprised. I had heard before our abduction that the Afghan and foreign news media had struck an informal agreement not to publicize the kidnappings of journalists in Afghanistan if their organization requested it.
The October 2008 kidnapping of a Canadian journalist in Kabul, Melissa Fung, had been kept quiet. Keeping the kidnappings out of the news, it was hoped, would decrease the expectations of hostage-takers that they could garner vast amounts of publicity or ransom for journalists.
After news outlets declined to show the video, we asked our guards to call Abu Tayyeb, the Taliban commander who had abducted us outside Kabul and concealed his identity. He agreed to return to Miram Shah and said he would try to negotiate a ransom with my family.
Tahir, Asad and I had received comforting letters from our families through the International Committee of the Red Cross. But I hadn’t spoken to my wife, Kristen, in three months.
Finally, on Feb. 16, Abu Tayyeb drove me to a remote location and allowed me to call her. The Taliban told me to give her the number of their cellphone and have her call us back. They were demanding $7 million at that point but were too cheap to pay for the phone call.
“This is my last call,” I said to her, repeating what they had told me to say. “This is our last chance.”
Abu Tayyeb promised that he would reach a settlement with my family. Then, as he had many times before, he left without doing so. My conversations with him during his brief visit left me doubtful that he would ever compromise in a case involving an American.
One morning, he wept at news that a NATO airstrike had killed women and children in southern Afghanistan. A guard explained to me that Abu Tayyeb reviled the United States because of the civilian deaths.
One evening, Abu Tayyeb declared that the Taliban treated women better than Americans did. He said women in the United States were forced to wear revealing clothes and define themselves solely as sex objects. The Taliban protected women’s honor by not allowing them to appear in public with their faces unveiled.
My captors saw me — and seemingly all Westerners — as morally corrupt and fixated on pursuing the pleasures of this world. Americans invaded Afghanistan to enrich themselves, they argued, not to help Afghans.
They ignored the fact that the United States helped build hundreds of miles of paved roads in Afghanistan and more than a thousand schools and health clinics. My captors denied widespread news reports that the Taliban burned down scores of newly built schools to prevent girls from getting an education.
I argued that the United States was not the menacing, predatory caricature that they believed. I also tried to counter their belief that all Americans were astonishingly rich. Nothing I said, though, seemed to change their minds.
One day, I received a copy of Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper, that featured an article on the perilous financial state of The New York Times. I saved the newspaper until commanders stopped by for visits.
Showing them the headline “New York Times Struggles to Stay Afloat,” I explained that the American newspaper industry — as well as the American economy — was in a free fall. They listened to what I said and nodded. Then, they ignored me.
WE were held for much of the winter in a building the Pakistani government had constructed to serve as a health clinic. It was part of an American-backed effort to win the hearts and minds of the local population.
Our guards spent their days there listening to radio broadcasts and shouting “God is great!” at reports of the deaths of Afghan and American soldiers.
Most of the guards were Afghan men in their late 20s and early 30s. Some had grown up as refugees in Pakistan. All had limited educations from government schools or religious institutions, known as madrasas. Some did not make it past junior high school. None had seen the world beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They all had relatives or friends who had been killed by Soviet or American troops. They grew up in a culture where teenage boys reached manhood and made a name for themselves by showing their bravery.
I tried to get to know one of the guards, who was preparing to be a suicide bomber. A young man in his 20s with a slim build and brown eyes, he said he had studied engineering in high school. He never attended college but was relatively well educated compared with the other fighters.
When I asked him why he wanted to die, he replied that living in this world was a burden for any true Muslim. Heaven was his goal, he said. Earthly relationships with his parents and siblings did not matter.
He spoke a smattering of English, and my own beliefs seemed to interest and amaze him. During our six weeks together, he asked me a series of questions. Was it true, he asked, that a necktie was a secret symbol of Christianity? Was it true that Christians wanted to live 1,000 years?
As the weeks passed, our captivity became increasingly surreal.
My Taliban guards slept beneath bedspreads manufactured by a Pakistani textile company and emblazoned with characters from the American television show “Hannah Montana” and the movie “Spider-Man.” My blanket was a pink Barbie comforter.
My captors railed against the evils of a secular society. In March, they celebrated a suicide attack in a mosque in the Pakistani town of Jamrud that killed as many as 50 worshipers as they prayed to God. Those living under Pakistan’s apostate government, they said, deserved it.
One commander declared that no true Muslim could live in a state where Islam was not the official religion. He flatly rejected my compromise suggestion that strict Islamic law be enacted in Afghanistan’s conservative rural south, while milder forms of Islam be followed in the comparatively liberal north.
Citing the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, he said it was every Muslim’s duty to try to stop others from sinning. If one person in a village commits a sin, those who witness it and do not stop him will also be punished by God.
After we had been held for months in captivity, my kidnappers demanded that I stop washing the group’s dishes because they did not want to catch my diseases. They believed that problems I was having with my stomach stemmed from my being an inherently unclean non-Muslim, not from unhygienic water.
Their rigidity was the opposite of the tolerant attitudes I had found among the vast majority of Muslims I had met in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pressing me to convert, one commander ordered me to read a passage of the Koran each day and discuss it with him at night. He dismissed my arguments that a forced conversion was not legitimate. He and the guards politely said they felt sorry for me. If I failed to convert, they said, I would suffer excruciating pain in the fires of hell.
At one point, a visiting fighter demanded to know why I would not obey. He said that if it were up to him, he would take me outside and offer me a final chance to convert. If I refused, he would shoot me.
I realized that he and other fighters might be exaggerating their views to frighten me. The virulence I saw among the Haqqani foot soldiers was not as monolithic as it sometimes seemed.
One young fighter showed a different side. He refused to carry out a commander’s order to kidnap a foreigner working in Afghanistan. During one visit, he suggested that I read a passage in an English-language Koran to comfort myself.
“Allah tasketh not a soul beyond its scope,” it said. “For it is only that which it hath earned, and against it only that which it hath deserved. Our Lord! Impose not on us that which we have not the strength to bear! Pardon us, absolve us and have mercy on us, Thou, our Protector, and give us victory over the disbelieving folk.”
DURING our months in Miram Shah, patterns emerged. When certain commanders visited, the atmosphere was tense, and discussions centered on what they saw as Western injustices against Muslims. When we were alone with the guards who lived with us, moments of levity emerged.
They searched for ways to break the monotony. After dinner on many winter nights, my guards sang Pashto songs for hours. My voice and Pashto pronunciation were terrible, but our guards urged me to sing along. The ballads varied. On some evenings, I found myself reluctantly singing Taliban songs that declared that “you have atomic bombs, but we have suicide bombers.”
On other nights, at my guards’ urging, I switched to American tunes. In a halting, off-key voice, I sang Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” and described it as the story of a villager who tries to succeed in the city and support his family. I sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and described it as a portrayal of the struggles of average Americans.
I realized that my guards, too, might have needed a break from our grim existence. But I felt like a performing monkey when they told me to sing for visiting commanders. I knew they were simply laughing at me.
I intentionally avoided American love songs, trying to dispel their belief that all Americans were hedonists. Despite my efforts, romantic songs — whatever their language — were the guards’ favorites.
The Beatles song “She Loves You,” which popped into my head soon after I received my wife’s letter from the Red Cross, was the most popular.
For reasons that baffled me, the guards relished singing it with me. I began by singing its first verse. My three Taliban guards, along with Tahir and Asad, then joined me in the chorus.
“She loves you — yeah, yeah, yeah,” we sang, with Kalashnikovs lying on the floor around us.
Tomorrow: A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope