Saturday, October 31, 2009

Capture and escape

Clifford D. May

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 last week, is riveting. It is revealing, too, though sometimes in ways Mr. Rohde does not articulate and may not intend.

When Mr. 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.... 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.... Taliban policemen patrolled the streets ... foreign militants freely strolled the bazaars of Miram Shah and other towns."

The obvious implication is that the Pakistani government and military were permitting the Taliban to maintain elaborate bases of operation, safe havens where combatants - Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and others - could rest, train and prepare to fight American and Afghan forces on the other side of the frontier.

Has that changed? Earlier this month, 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. It's too soon to say whether the Pakistani military possesses 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 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 and running water as well as guards, servants and maybe even wives to attend them.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 where they were given refuge and assistance.

Among the questions Mr. 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? Or were they not interested? And what does Pakistani intelligence know now - or what could it learn and share - regarding bin Laden's whereabouts?

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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