By CLIFFORD D. MAY
Scripps Howard News Service
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.
But Rohde survived seven months 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, is riveting. It is revealing, too — though sometimes in ways Rohde does not articulate and may not 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….Taliban policemen patrolled the streets.”
The obvious implication is that the Pakistani government and military were permitting the Taliban to maintain elaborate bases of operation, safe havens where combatants could rest, train and prepare to fight American and Afghan forces on the other side of the frontier.
Has that changed? It’s too soon to say. Recently, while I was visiting Pakistan, the Taliban attacked the military’s General Headquarters, the equivalent of the Pentagon. Since then, a major campaign against the Taliban has been launched in Waziristan.
Does the Pakistani military possesses both the will and the capability to clear the region of Taliban forces and keep it clear for the long run? Perhaps that should be determined before aid to Pakistan is tripled as envisioned under legislation signed by President Barack Obama recently.
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.”
In fact, the evidence suggests this is not new. Though groups such as the Taliban — as well as Hezbollah and Hamas — may fight locally, their leaders have always thought globally, viewing their struggles as part of a broader War Against the West.
The claims that these groups are fighting “national liberation struggles,” that their only goal is to free themselves from “foreign occupation,” are talking points to be used when addressing credulous Westerners, of which there never seems to be a shortage.
The happy ending to Rohde’s story is that he and Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist kidnapped with him, escaped late one night while their guards slept. They walked to a nearby Pakistani military base.
Among the questions Rohde does not raise: What arrangement did the Pakistani soldiers on the base have with the terrorists in the surrounding town? Did they know that an American journalist was being held virtually under their noses? Were they just not interested? And what does Pakistani intelligence know now — or what could it learn and share — regarding bin Laden’s whereabouts?
— Former New York Times foreign correspondent Cliff May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.