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A Reporter's Tale Of Ambush And Captivity

New York Times reporter David Rohde was covering Pakistan and Afghanistan in November 2008 when he and two companions were kidnapped by the Taliban and held in the tribal areas of Pakistan for seven months. Rohde recounts the ambush — and his subsequent imprisonment and escape.

44:46

Other segments from the episode on October 27, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 27, 2009: Interview with David Rohde; Review of the new Bob Dylan Christmas album “Christmas in the Heart."

Transcript

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A Reporter's Tale Of Ambush And Captivity

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. While driving through the Afghan
desert last November on his way to interview a Taliban commander, my
guest, David Rohde, was taken hostage by the Taliban. The two people
accompanying Rohde, Afghan journalist Tahir Luddin and their driver,
Asad Mangal, were also captured.

After seven months and 10 days, on June 20th, Rohde and Luddin escaped.
Last week, Rohde wrote a gripping and enlightening series of front page
articles in the New York Times about his captivity and what he learned
about the Taliban while he was moved back and forth between North and
South Waziristan. That’s the tribal frontier area in Pakistan that’s
just across the border from Afghanistan and has become a virtual Islamic
mini-state run by the Taliban. It serves as a training ground for
Islamic extremists. Rohde is a reporter for the New York Times and has
twice won the Pulitzer Prize.

David Rohde, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank goodness you survived, and I’m
so grateful that you were able to do such excellent reporting about the
Taliban during this period when you were a prisoner in that no man’s
land in Waziristan, where reporters really can’t go because it’s much
too dangerous. So…

Mr. DAVID ROHDE (New York Times): Thank you.

GROSS: …welcome to the show and thank you. Let’s start with how you were
kidnapped. You were writing a book about – primarily about Afghanistan
but also a little bit of Pakistan too, yes?

Mr. ROHDE: Yeah.

GROSS: And there was a commander, a Taliban commander you wanted to
interview. Who was he and why was it important to you to talk with him?

Mr. ROHDE: Obviously I’ve thought a lot about this decision in
hindsight. His name was Abu Tayeb. He was a Taliban commander operating
around Kabul. He had fought in Helmond, which is the southern province
that was a large focus of my book, and I had just spent two weeks
reporting in Helmand before I went on this interview, and I was
surprised at the tremendous and rising popular support for the Taliban I
found in Helmand, and that created a sense in me that for the book to be
as fair as possible and as rigorous as possible I really needed to get
the Taliban side of the story.

GROSS: So you set up a meeting, went to meet with him with Tahir Luddin,
the Afghan journalist, and a third person as well, who was your driver.

Mr. ROHDE: Yeah, Asad Mangal accompanied us. One of the recommendations
from the Kabul bureau chief for the Times, who is a close friend of
mine, Carlotta Gall, she recommended that we have a driver to serve as a
lookout during the interview and that we keep it short, no longer than
one hour, and we basically – it was about an hour outside of Kabul. He
was in Logar Province. It would be – we would drive an hour on a paved
road and meet him in a location that was close to a U.S. base.

I had been abducted and held prisoner in Bosnia 13 years earlier for
reporting I was doing there, and I knew kidnapping was a real danger,
but I, to be frank, was in some ways – you know, I should have been more
cautious, obviously. I had been very cautious in the previous 13 years
but decided, you know, to take this risk, you know, for the book to be
as comprehensive as possible.

GROSS: So when did you know that you were a hostage and not being taken
to an interview?

Mr. ROHDE: We drove south, and everything went smoothly. One of our real
fears actually was that, was from criminals at that point, and I think
still today, the primary threat in and around Kabul is criminals, not
necessarily the Taliban.

We made it down the road. I was in Afghan clothes and covered my face so
no one could recognize me, and we basically made it to the meeting point
where we were supposed to meet Abu Tayeb’s men. Tahir’s feeling and my
feeling was if we could make it to Abu Tayeb, we would be safe. Once we
got to him we would be safe, and you know, we just had to avoid
criminals along the road.

We got to the meeting point, and Abu Tayeb told Tahir on the phone that
there was some sort of military operation in the area that morning, and
we needed to go a little farther down the road to meet his men. You
know, Tahir hung up the phone, we were driving down the road, and a few
seconds later and a car blocked the road and we stopped, and then
several men came rushing towards our car with Kalashnikov assault
rifles, they were shouting commands in Pashto at Asad, the driver, and
Tahir, the journalist, who were in the front seats.

Tahir and Asad were ordered into the back seat with me, and a gunman
jumped behind the wheel. A second gunman jumped into the passenger seat
and was pointing a Kalashnikov at us, and then we sort of sped off down
the road. A second car, a station wagon, drove with us as well, and it
was clear that it had sort of been a well-planned ambush.

GROSS: What went through your mind at that moment when you knew you were
either going to be killed or you’re going to be taken hostage?

Mr. ROHDE: I, you know, I think sort of waves of shame and regret sort
of washed over me. I had needlessly risked, you know, Tahir and Asad’s
life. I had done this to my family for the second time, given my
captivity in Bosnia 13 years earlier, and I had, you know, I had just
been married two months earlier and I had betrayed my new wife.

So I just, you know, was devastated and trying to think as quickly as I
could about how to survive this and hoping that maybe these were
criminals that had us, that if we could still somehow reach Abu Tayeb,
you know, he would free us somehow. You know, I just desperately, you
know, was hoping this wasn’t as disastrous as it seemed.

GROSS: So you were told that the person who had taken you hostage was
Mullah Atiqullah?

Mr. ROHDE: That’s close, yeah.

GROSS: And he said to you, you know, you’re going to see Abu Tayeb?
Well, I’m the commander here now.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes. What happened is Abu Tayeb kidnaps us and then pretends
he’s someone else. He covered his face with his scarf.

GROSS: Yes, but you didn’t know that.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes.

GROSS: I mean, you were – how long were you captive by this person who
was telling you he was Mullah Atiqullah and he was controlling this
territory, not the guy you were going to interview? And it turns out
that this commander, who told you he was in control and who kidnapped
you, he was the guy who you were supposed to interview, but he lied to
you about his identity.

So in addition to nearly killing you, in addition to taking you hostage,
in addition to lying to you about all kinds of other things, he lied to
you about who he was, and the whole thing was a set-up right from the
get-go.

Mr. ROHDE: It’s true, and for the first six weeks or so of the
captivity, I didn’t realize who he was. I thought we had been kidnapped
by, you know, someone named Mullah Atiqullah, who said that, you know,
he had just intercepted us as we came down the road.

You know, I eventually found out – he slipped up on a few things he
said, and then Tahir and Asad had realized this from the beginning, that
in fact Abu Tayeb had invited us to an interview and then kidnapped us.

Tahir and Asad both told me and whispered to me in separate
conversations that, you know, in fact there was no Mullah Atiqullah, in
fact, Abu Tayeb, you know, the person who invited us to the interview,
had betrayed us, and they were both terrified from the very beginning of
the kidnapping, the very first hours, Abu Tayeb had told them they would
be beheaded if they told me the truth about who had kidnapped us.

GROSS: So who is Abu Tayeb really? Like, what does he – what did you
learn he controlled in the area that you were held hostage?

Mr. ROHDE: He was basically, I’d say, a mid-level commander who
commanded a group of Taliban in the area around Kabul. It turned out
that Abu Tayeb was aligned with Haqqani network, which is a much more
hard-line Taliban faction that operates out of Pakistan, out of
Pakistan’s tribal areas, and has very close ties with Arab and Uzbek
foreign militants. They are a much more dangerous and much more
fundamentalist faction of the Taliban.

GROSS: They have ties to al-Qaida too, don’t they?

Mr. ROHDE: Yes. I mean, it’s hard for me to say. I really didn’t have
much contact with people in Pakistan, but yeah, they’re thought to be
close to al-Qaida as well.

GROSS: So did you have any direct contact with the Haqqanis?

Mr. ROHDE: Yes. We were only held in Afghanistan for roughly a week, and
during this time Abu Tayeb tells me that we’re actually driving south,
and he’s taking me down actually to Helmand, where I’d been reporting
before I had talked to him about my book. And you know, I was very, very
determined and trying to portray us as journalists.

Many Taliban commanders think that American journalists are all spies.
So he told me we were headed to Helmand. He told me I would be released
there. He said I’d be flying home out of the main NATO base in central
Helmand, and on the eighth night he announced that we needed to get out
of the car and walk.

There was a large American military base near the road ahead of us, and
the only way to go forward would be to walk. We – I mean, I was very
suspicious and dubious of him, but we got out and walked, and it ended
up we walked for 11 hours, and I later realized, the following morning,
that we had walked into Pakistan, into Pakistan’s tribal areas.

GROSS: And you knew you were really done once you were in the tribal
area.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes, I mean, it’s a place that – where, you know, many people
have been held hostage, both foreigners, Afghans and Pakistanis. You
know, it is – I mean, what I found driving into the main town in South
Waziristan, a town called Wana, was that the Islamic Emirate, which the
Taliban call their government in Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate that
the United States, you know, said it had toppled in 2002, is alive and
well and even thriving in the tribal areas of Pakistan. It wasn’t
eliminated by the American invasion in 2001, it simply moved a few miles
to the east.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is David Rohde, and we’re
talking about his captivity, seven months of captivity by the Taliban.
It start in November of last year, he escaped in June. He’s a reporter
for the New York Times who has been covering Afghanistan and shared in a
group Pulitzer at the Times for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We’ll talk more about his captivity and what he learned about the
Taliban while they were holding him hostage after we take a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, New York Times reporter David Rohde, wrote a front-page
series of articles last week about being held hostage by the Taliban. In
his attempt to convince his captors that he shouldn’t be killed, he told
them he was worth millions in ransom money. Rohde now thinks that was a
mistake; it led his captors to make ridiculous demands.

Mr. ROHDE: The initial demands for our release were – were - and it
varied, and - but they were $25 million, as well as prisoners from
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - which is just, frankly, absurd.

GROSS: And weren’t you thinking, too, at the same time, that your
newspaper, the New York Times, was unlikely to pay for you - or did you
think they would pay ransom?

Mr. ROHDE: I didn’t, and I was, you know, on book leave. I was doing
reporting for the paper at the same time, but you know, I was on book
leave. And you know, I had told Tahir that I, you know, didn’t think the
paper would help us if anything went wrong. I told him this before we
went on the interview, and I assumed throughout this time that it was my
family that was coming under the brunt of the pressure to pay a ransom.
So just felt horrible about everything…

GROSS: And did neither the Times nor your family pay the millions of
dollars because they couldn’t afford it, or because, on principle, they
thought it would be more dangerous to pay?

Mr. ROHDE: They absolutely couldn’t afford it, and they absolutely did
not pay it. There’s been rumors that a ransom was paid. That is
absolutely false. The American government paid no ransom. The Pakistani
government and the Afghan government also paid no ransom. No prisoners
were exchanged, and you know, obviously my family doesn’t have millions
of dollars.

The Taliban believed that, you know, Americans were astonishingly rich
and, you know, any family could pay enormous amounts of money.

GROSS: It must be so odd to be prisoner, and you are – there’s a value
on your head. You are this thing that has a monetary value, they think,
and that’s all you are - outside of all the negative things you are,
like not a Muslim.

Mr. ROHDE: They – yes, I mean, I was, I mean, first of all, they were
much more hostile towards Tahir and Asad, you know, the Afghan
journalist and driver who were with me. And it’s really important, I
think, for Americans to realize that, you know, it’s Afghans and
Pakistanis who face the greatest risks on the ground in Afghanistan and
Pakistan.

They are hated more than Americans themselves. The Taliban in both
countries see them as traitors. They believe there’s no way the United
States could operate in the region without the support of local Afghans
and Pakistanis, and that’s absolutely true, and far more – I mean, at
least five times more Afghans and Pakistanis have died fighting the
Taliban since 2001 than Americans.

There are roughly 885 American soldiers who have died in Afghanistan
since 2001; the total number of Pakistanis - soldiers, police and
civilians as well - is roughly 5,000, and it’s even higher among
Afghans.

So the hostility towards Tahir and Asad was really overwhelming, and
they received much more hostility than I did.

GROSS: In your articles, you wrote that you hadn’t realized how extreme
the Taliban had become. You say that before the kidnapping you viewed
the Taliban as a form of al-Qaida lite, a religiously motivated movement
primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan. What did you see that
changed your mind?

Mr. ROHDE: What I found was that in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which is
where we were held hostage for almost all the seven months, there’s -
it’s really turned into a fulcrum where young Afghans and Pakistanis are
mixing with Arab and Uzbek and other foreign militants, and the young
Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are really committed to something far
broader than simply driving American troops out of Afghanistan.

They spoke to me about creating a hardline Islamic state that spans the
entire Muslim world - and doing that with al-Qaida. That’s very
different from the goals of other Taliban. And I want to point out,
again, that my series and my experience is about what it’s like in
Pakistan’s tribal areas, what it’s like with the Haqqani Network - which
is a Taliban faction based there. It’s not representative of all
Taliban.

I do believe there are some Taliban, particularly local ones in southern
and eastern Afghanistan, that are only focused on getting American
troops out of Afghanistan. Some are simply trying to gain power in their
local areas. The Taliban are a very, very diverse and complex movement.
But what I did find out in the Pakistani tribal areas was, you know,
this broad alliance with a real international focus that went beyond
simply Afghanistan and Pakistan.

GROSS: In the area that you were held, in northern and southern
Waziristan, because they kept moving you - this is the tribal area in
Pakistan, northwest Pakistan, this is basically controlled by the
Taliban and al-Qaida.

Mr. ROHDE: Yeah, I was shocked. It is an absolute Taliban mini-state.
They completely control the area. There are Pakistani bases throughout
the area, but I saw very little evidence that the Pakistanis were
getting out and doing any patrolling. I mean, it was very clear that the
Taliban totally controlled the area.

At one point a Taliban commander took me on a drive in north Waziristan
for three hours in broad daylight. While we were on that drive, we
actually ran into a Pakistani army re-supply convoy. The vehicle in
front of us, which had local civilians in it, pulled over when they saw
the convoy, and all of the civilians got out of the car.

With our car, we pulled to the side of the road, and suddenly the driver
of the car, who was a well-known Taliban commander, just he got out, and
we stayed in the back seat. Our guard loaded his Kalashnikov rifle and
ordered me to cover my face and to not move. I was thinking, and he
correctly guessed, that maybe Tahir and Asad and I could make a run for
it, and the convoy might save us. But you know, I was amazed to watch
this convoy drive by.

The Pakistani soldiers did look very nervous. They drove by our vehicle
and the Taliban commander driving our car simply smiled and waved hello
to the Pakistani soldiers as this convoy drove past. He was completely
confident and didn’t seem to see them as any major threat.

He then got back in the car and instructed me that that was, in fact,
the Pakistani army that had just driven by. And he explained that under
a truce with the army, all civilian vehicles, you know, have to get out.
All the civilians, you know, as the people did in front of us, have to
get out of their vehicle when the army drives past. But for Taliban
vehicles, only the driver has to get out. And to me, that allowed the
Taliban to transport prisoners around the tribal areas that would never
be seen and also allowed foreign militants to hide in the back seat of
cars and not be seen.

And as we continued to drive that day, we passed many Pakistani
government checkpoints that had basically been abandoned. In their place
were Taliban checkpoints. It is a Taliban mini-state in north Waziristan
that they fully control.

GROSS: So it’s a Taliban mini-state in Pakistan that the Pakistan
government is basically allowing to exist through this truce.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes. To be fair to the Pakistanis, I think it’s a very
difficult and dangerous thing to try to regain control of these areas.
And there’s an offensive going on now in South Waziristan, an area we
were held. But the real issue here is that former Pakistani President
Pervez Musharraf and various members of the Pakistani military did not
see the Taliban - and some say still do not see the Taliban - as a
threat to Pakistan. Instead, the Taliban are viewed as a strategic asset
that Pakistan can use to retain its influence in Afghanistan. And
Pakistan’s primary goal is to prevent India, its main rival in the
region, from gaining influence in Afghanistan.

So in essence the Pakistanis, I think some Pakistanis still see the
Taliban as a proxy force that they can use to keep India out of
Afghanistan.

So you essentially have the India-Pakistan rivalries, you know, leading
to the Taliban being able to operate in these areas. I think as the
attacks on Pakistan itself and the assassination of former Prime
Minister Benazir Bhutto have escalated in the last year or so, there’s a
much more serious realization among Pakistani leaders - in particular,
the Pakistani military - that the Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban in
particular, represent a threat. But the faction I dealt with, which was
a Taliban faction based in Pakistan, it was made up of Afghans, and they
basically only carry out attacks over the border in Afghanistan. You
know, they are left alone.

If you are a Taliban fighter who’s fighting American forces in
Afghanistan, you, you know, you basically get a pass from the Pakistani
military. If you’re a Taliban fighter who’s carrying out attacks inside
Pakistan, then you are seen as an enemy of the state.

GROSS: New York Times reporter David Rohde will be back in the second
half of the show. His series of articles about his capture by the
Taliban and his escape were published in the Times last week. I’m Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with New York Times
reporter David Rohde.

Last November, while driving through the Afghan desert on his way to
interview a Taliban commander, he and two of his Afghan colleagues were
captured by the Taliban and held hostage.

Rohde and Afghan journalist Tahir Luddin escaped in June after seven
months and 10 days in captivity. Rohde's series of articles about his
captivity and escape were published in the Times last week. When we left
off, we were talking about what he saw while being held in Waziristan, a
tribal area in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.

So you were held hostage in an area controlled by the Taliban. What kind
of work are they doing there? This group of Taliban, they want to see an
Islamic caliphate, you know, an Islamic state that spreads around the
whole world. So are they training suicide bombers there? I mean what are
they doing to help forward this mission?

Mr. ROHDE: Well, what was amazing was the breath of what the Taliban
were carrying out in the area. I saw road crews, you know, doing road
construction. There were Taliban sort of police patrolling the roads.
People were - when we were driving around, there were farmers working in
fields and soccer games being played and cricket games. I mean it was a
completely functioning state and society.

In terms of militancy, my guards took turns taking bomb making classes
from foreign militants about how to make roadside bombs that would kill
Afghan, American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. I also met and lived
with suicide bombers who were coming out of local religious schools
known as madrases, and clearly there was a lot of ideological
indoctrination going on in local schools, and there were also foreign
militants present even walking around in the bazaars in the local towns
very confident.

And one of the other sobering things about this was that the efforts of
the United States to portray itself in the region as a, you know, trying
to help people in Afghanistan and Pakistan - at least in Waziristan -
have utterly failed. There was a widespread belief that the U.S. was
basically this menacing and duplicitous occupying power bent on stealing
resources and money from the area. And some of their arguments were
exaggerated, but somewhat at least based in fact.

They railed about the killing of Muslim civilians in airstrikes, and I
lived through the Israeli offensive in Gaza last winter and, you know,
at one point I was very worried we were going to be killed in revenge as
the death toll rose to roughly 1,400 Palestinians as compared to 13
Israelis.

They were enraged by civilians being killed in bombing strikes in
Afghanistan as well, and then I met Taliban commanders who said they had
been held prisoner in Guantanamo and the American base in Bagram in
Afghanistan and they essentially said, you know, you - we were held for
years without trial, you know, we were, you know, our families had no
idea where we were, you know, why should we treat any differently? And
that, you know, seems to - there are things that have happened, in
particular also - I'm sorry - the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq.
That was widely cited to me as an example of what was the true nature of
the United States.

I think to Americans, bombing, you know, strikes that kill civilians or
you know, and prisoner abuse are seen as, you know, exceptions and
mistakes and not the sort of rule for American conduct. Abroad, they're
seen as the norm regarding American conduct. At the same time, the
Taliban did exaggerate things. There were sort of some delusional
conspiracy theories that they believed.

They still think that 9/11 was a secret operation carried out by
American and Israeli intelligence to create a pretext to enslave the
Muslim world. They think that Afghan women are being forced to work as
prostitutes on American and NATO military bases in Afghanistan, and they
widely believe that this is in fact a war against Islam, that the United
States is trying to enslave and insult and destroy Muslims and their
culture, and none of, you know, none of those last points are true at
all, but it’s widely believed there.

GROSS: How were you viewed as a Christian, and I think, you know, maybe
a non-practicing Christian at the time you were taken hostage?

Mr. ROHDE: That's correct. I was - I'm going to emphasize that I was
treated very well physically throughout my captivity. I was never
beaten. I was given bottled water. It was Nestle Pure Life bottled water
that was available to my surprise in the tribal areas. They even brought
me English language Pakistani newspapers and let me listen to the BBC on
a shortwave radio to pass the time. And I was also allowed to walk in a
small yard each day.

They said they were following, you know, the practices in Islam that
mandate the good treatment of prisoners and they definitely treated me
very well physically. As our captivity wore on, there was sort of
growing frustration on their part that they weren't getting the demands
that they had hoped for and there was rising pressure to convert me to
Islam. I kept arguing to them that, you know, I couldn't make a
conversion as a prisoner. It had to be a conversion of free will.

They provided an English language Quran for me, which I did read and I
was struck in many ways with many of the similarities in terms of
Christianity, but I was not a practicing Christian at that point. I had,
you know, spent a little time in Sunday school, you know, thanks to my
parents, but I couldn't - at one point they asked me what the 10
Commandments were and I couldn’t tell them. I think I only had maybe
five or six of them. So you know, it was not worthwhile, I thought, to
sort of discuss religion with them because it just tended to be an
acrimonious conversation in the end.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is David Rohde. He's a
reporter for The New York Times whose been reporting on Afghanistan and
Pakistan. He was kidnapped by the Taliban in November of last year and
was held for seven months. He escaped - that’s how he got out. And last
week there was a series of front page articles that he wrote about his
captivity and escape.

We'll talk more about his captivity and also about what he learned being
held hostage by the Taliban, what he learned about the Taliban, after we
take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is David Rohde and last week
he wrote a front page series of articles in the New York Times, where
he's a reporter, about his seven month captivity by the Taliban. He was
held in Waziristan, which is that remote tribal region that is off
limits to everybody except the Taliban and the people who live there,
and it's basically a little Taliban mini-state. He escaped in June.

While you were being held hostage, there was a drone attack just a few
hundred yards away from the house that you were being held in at the
time. Dozens of people died. This was March 25th of last year. The
guards believed - your guards believed - that the drones had been
targeting you. Why would the American military want to kill you? Like
what was their theory?

Mr. ROHDE: They believed - and again, this is part of the sort of
alternate universe they exist in - they felt that by having a single
American prisoner they were delivering massive political blows to the
American government every day. And I told them that my case wasn’t even
public and that, you know, this was ridiculous and they should just
compromise and release us. And they said no, and they separately
believed that the drones were targeting us - that the drones wanted to
kill me and eliminate this, you know, vast leverage that the Haqqani
network had by holding an American prisoner.

So they were constantly afraid of the drones, and sometimes they, you
know, would take me out of the house when they felt that there were too
many drones circling overhead. Because there was going to be a strike,
they wouldn’t want me walking the yard at certain points because they
thought the drone cameras could identify my face if I just glanced up at
the sky.

But overall, you know, the drones are a terrifying weapon of war. They,
you know, hover for hours at a time thousands of feet above. You can
hear them, and they fire missiles that have a range of several miles, so
you essentially have this drone hovering overhead and you know that you
can annihilated at any instant but have virtually no warning.

So, and it seemed to me, as these drone strikes occurred, that it was
sort of creating a stalemate in the tribal areas. I mean yes, there were
Taliban leaders and foreign militants in particular being killed in each
drone strike, but sometimes there are also civilians killed, and at the
very least the Taliban would exaggerate the number of civilians killed.
So you would wipe out, you know, some foreign militants and some Taliban
leaders but it created tremendous anger and resentment among, you know,
my young guards that the Americans were carrying out the drone strikes.

The guards all told me how eager they were to carry out suicide attacks
in the United States in revenge for the drone strikes. The hatred
towards the United States was boundless. And one of the surprising
things was that the Taliban told me that they despise President Barack
Obama far more than they hate President George W. Bush. They blamed
Obama for drastically increasing drone strikes in the tribal areas and
that's true. Drone strikes have increased, and they also blame President
Obama for increasing American troop levels in Afghanistan.

GROSS: Now, the guards who were holding you captive - the Taliban guards
- often watched Jihadi videos, and even though you didn’t want to watch
these, you were in a little room with the guards and the videos, and in
some ways you had no choice but to see some of it. So having made videos
yourself, in which you were supposed to be pleading to the New York
Times and to your family to pay ransoms in return for your release, what
was it like to watch these Jihadi videos?

Mr. ROHDE: It was sad. I mean, and it was sad to watch them with our
guards. Our guards were all kind of young men in their late 20s and
early 30s. We essentially lived with the same group. They were close to
and relatives of Abu Tayeb, the Taliban commander who had kidnapped us,
and they, when there was electricity, would spend hours at a time
watching these videos that basically depicted bomb attacks on American
and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, and there were videos that showed
local Afghans who they had declared spies being executed by the Taliban.

And then there was one video that they had obtained that was a video of
a Polish geologist who had been kidnapped in Pakistan in the fall of
2008, and they started playing that video one day when I was sitting in
the room and I - there were a couple videos of the Polish geologist. I
knew about his case. I'd written about it in the Pakistani newspapers
they brought to me.

And what happened was I realized that when they started playing it,
about midway through it, that the video they had gotten was actually the
one where this Polish geologist, Peter Stanczak, was actually
decapitated. So before we got to that scene, I got up and walked out of
the room. You know, I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of
seeing me watch the video.

You know, they were amazing because they, as the guards watched them, to
me they just seemed to numb the young Taliban fighters who watched them
to death. They were almost snuff films. You know, over and over images
of people being blown up and, you know, Americans in Humvees, you know,
Afghan soldiers in pickup trucks, civilians standing in the wrong place
when there's a suicide bombing.

And the oddest thing, and this was a constant theme among them, was that
Taliban, you know, don’t fear death. They accept death. And it's a
constant theme that if you’re truly devout you don’t care about your
earthy relationships. Your parents and your siblings don’t matter to
you. All that matters to you and all that should matter to you is your
relationship with God.

So I saw in these videos a portrayal of death not as something you avoid
and, you know, and in the West we do, you know, avoid and not think
about death, and arguably we do that, you know, too much. But in these
videos death was portrayed as sort of a constant companion and as a
friend and as a goal for these young Taliban fighters.

GROSS: The series that you had last week on the front page of the Times
about your captivity by the Taliban was among other things really well
written. And I just want to give our listeners a sense of your writing.

So I think my favorite sentence in that series has to do with you
listening to the shortwave radio that they allowed you to hear the BBC
on, and you were talking about that and you write: The news broadcasts
raised my spirits, but they also gave me the sensation of being in a
coma. I could hear how the world was progressing, but could not
communicate with anyone in it. That’s terrific writing in a great sense
of just what it was like to listen to that.

At what point did you know that - did you figure that you weren’t going
to be released? That all the stories they were telling you about how you
were just - they were really close to a negotiated agreement or to
getting what they wanted and any day now - at what point did you realize
that they weren’t negotiating, that it was all lies and that you weren’t
getting out, so therefore you were going to try to escape?

Mr. ROHDE: In early June, the Taliban commander who kidnapped us
announced that the American government was willing to trade all
remaining Afghan prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for us, and he then
asked me to make yet another video, you know, pleading with my family to
meet their demands. And we just found this insulting and absurd and
ridiculous. We knew that the American government would never release
every remaining prisoner in - you know, Afghan prisoner in Guantanamo
for us. And at that point, we really started to actively try to plan an
escape.

GROSS: And you escaped by doing what?

Mr. ROHDE: We moved into another house in early June, and in every
house, I would actually sweep and clean and it was just something I did
that gave me an illusion of control. And I found there was debris all
over this house, cloths and backpacks and rugs and all this equipment
that have been used by an office by some kind of militant group. And I
found on one shelf a car tow rope next to some wrenches and motor oil.
And I took some old cloths and threw them on top of the rope to cover it
up and thought that potentially we could use that rope if we try to
escape at some point.

GROSS: And you did. That’s how you escaped, was with the rope.

Mr. ROHDE: What happened is about two weeks later, power comes back on
for the first time in about a week. There’d been some fighting that had
cut a power line. So the power came back on that night in Miranshah, the
town we were in. The guards had lied to us that morning yet again about
negotiations. We were particularly anger about it. And Tahir and I
agreed on a plan that I had been thinking of about trying to make our
way out of the house we were held in at night, while our guards slept. I
do feel, you know, astoundingly lucky that we escaped. You know, we were
able to use that rope to, you know, get over a wall and then walked to a
Pakistani militia base. And instead of shooting us, the guards there
brought us inside the base.

We did not tell Asad, our driver, of the plan to escape. He had, it
seemed, been growing more and more close with the Taliban and started
carrying a gun and been given keys to the locked main door there at
times. And we had talked to him about escaping in the past, and he had
told the guards. So it was a gut-wrenching decision, but we - you know,
we chose to make an escape without Asad, our driver.

GROSS: My impression is that you don’t like to give opinions about
policy. You want to report of not being an opinion person. But I am
wondering how this experience changed your sense of what’s going on in
Afghanistan and Pakistan and what the U.S. might do – I mean, and what
the U.S. can do and what maybe it can’t do.

Mr. ROHDE: I think the vital thing remains to empower moderate Afghans
and Pakistanis to confront this threat. I mean, Americans can’t solve
these problems. We also can’t just sort of walk away from the region.
One of the main things that shouldn’t happen, I think - I mean, is to -
you know, the United States and moderate Muslims cannot sort of cede
Islam to the Taliban. I mean, the Islam they practiced that I saw, you
know, is a just completely distorted version of the religion. And they
shouldn’t be allowed to sort of portray themselves as the true defenders
of that faith.

I mean, constant statements and reactions I had from Afghan and
Pakistani friends was we’re so sorry you were kidnapped. You know,
kidnapping civilians, you know, and sending suicide bombers into
mosques, you know, that is not jihad. That is not Islam. And so it’s
vital to sort of, you know, for the United States to remain committed in
the region, but to let, you know, Afghans and Pakistanis to take the
lead in confronting this problem politically and militarily and in other
ways. And another big take away was the sense that corruption is just a
cancer on particularly the Afghan government, but also the Pakistani
government.

The Taliban sort of promise rule of law and a lack of corruption among
local police and officials, and that’s, in a sense, why they’re popular
in some areas. I think average Afghans just want for stability and an
effective government, and whoever produces that, in the sense, will win
their loyalties. And again, I - there is a base. A vast majority of
Afghans and Pakistanis are moderates. It’s not too late to stabilize
both countries, but it is going to take time. And I - you know, I think
a tremendous amount of training and support to the Afghans, who – and
Pakistanis who so desperately oppose the Taliban, as well.

GROSS: Well, David Rohde, thank you so much for talking with us. And
thank you for the great reporting you’ve done from Afghanistan and from
the tribal area of Pakistan, where you were held hostage. And thank
goodness you survived and escaped. Be well. Thank you very much for
talking with us.

Mr. ROHDE: Thank you so much.

GROSS: David Rohde is a reporter for the New York Times. His series of
articles about being held hostage by the Taliban was published in the
Times last week. Since his return home, Rohde spoke on the phone with
his driver, Asad Mangal, who told Rohde he was able to escape five weeks
after Rohde and Tahir Luddin escaped.

Coming up: Bob Dylan’s musical surprise - an album of Christmas
standards. Ken Tucker has a review after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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Is Dylan’s Heart Really In This ‘Christmas’?

TERRY GROSS, host:

The news that Bob Dylan was releasing an album of Christmas songs came
as a surprise to many people. Now that “Christmas in the Heart,” all of
whose profits go to charity, has been released, critics and Dylan fans
are divided. Is the album an earnest effort or one big put on?

Rock critic Ken Tucker has his opinion.

(Soundbite of song, “Winter Wonderland”)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Wonderland, winter wonderland. Wonderland.

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight,
walking in a winter wonderland. Gone away…

KEN TUCKER: It’s the worst album Dylan has released since 1970’s “Self
Portrait.” It’s a total ear-bleeder. It’s a hoax.

These are just a few of the critical judgments that have already seen
print about “Christmas in the Heart.” There’s nothing like a mixture of
sincerity, self-deprecating humor and an appreciation for unfashionable
aspects of the past to get people in full-bore sarcastic-cynicism mode.

(Soundbite of song, “Silver Bells”)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday
style. In the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas. Children laughing,
people passing, meeting smile after smile. And on every street corner
you hear: Silver bells, silver bells. It’s Christmas time in the city…

TUCKER: In the criticisms of “Christmas in the Heart,” there’s the odd
complaint that Dylan’s voice sounds awful. I’m sorry, have you not been
listening to Dylan for the past decade, or for most his entire career?
An imperfect vocal instrument is at once characteristic and a limitation
that Dylan has frequently turned to his advantage. As far as the idea
that covering songs such as “Christmas Island,” and “Here Comes Santa
Claus,” is cornball, well, the flip-side of cornball is amusement in
context.

Dylan, producing himself under the name Jack Frost, is surrounded by
sweet choral voices and arrangements straight out of a 1960’s middle-of-
the-road or Countrypolitan album. It’s just that instead of hearing
Johnny Mathis or Eddy Arnold crooning, you have Dylan croaking with both
solemnity and a wink.

(Soundbite of song, “Christmas Island”)

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing) Aloha-ay, aloha-ay, aloha-o-ah-
ay.

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) How'd ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas
Island? How'd ya like to spend the holiday away across the sea?

TUCKER: Come on, that’s fun, in the manner of other Christmas songs
ranging from Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” to the Waitresses’ “Christmas
Wrapping.” So is this polka-rhythm version of “Must Be Santa,” with help
from Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on accordion.

(Soundbite of song, “Must Be Santa”)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Who’s got a beard that’s long and white?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Santa’s got a beard that’s long and white.

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Who comes around on a special night?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Santa comes around on a special night.
Special night, beard that’s white, must be Santa, must be Santa, must be
Santa, Santa Claus.

TUCKER: Yes, indeed there are some lousy clunkers on this album. I don’t
think anyone is capable of making “Little Drummer Boy” endurable, and,
yes, I do remember the campy, sincere Bing Crosby-David Bowie
collaboration from years ago. And Dylan does make his slow, deliberate
version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” sound more like a threat than a
promise.

(Soundbite of song, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree. Christmas Eve…

TUCKER: As is consistent with current Dylan, the album operates as a
further exploration of American popular song in all its forms, no matter
how uncool. In the same spirit as his satellite radio show, Dylan
presides over “Christmas in the Heart” with some put-ons, some
sincerity, some goofy humor and some deep dives into the mystery of what
it means to celebrate the birth of Christ in both Latin and kitsch.

(Soundbite of song, “Adeste Fideles”)

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes. Venite, venite
in Bethlehem. Natum videte…

TUCKER: Proceeds from this album will go to a charity, Feeding America.
What can I say? This holiday season, while trimming the tree, I am just
as likely to put on “Christmas in the Heart” as frequently as I do Phil
Spector’s great album “A Christmas Gift For You.” Ho-ho-ho.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. You can
download podcasts of our show on our Web site FRESHAIR.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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