Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
On a Friday night in June 2009, New York Times reporter David Rohde and his translator made a dramatic escape from captivity in Pakistan, climbing over a wall while their Afghan Taliban guards slept. Rohde wore sandals and a traditional salwar kameez, and he had a long beard, grown during his seven-month imprisonment. The two men walked in the darkness of the city, a Taliban ministate, past mud-brick huts, and found their way to a Pakistani military base just minutes away.
Rohde had been a prisoner shared by two competing groups of Taliban fighters, both of which appear to have held him not as a political or military tool in their operations against the US and Afghan governments but for his monetary value as a hostage.
Rohde’s escape was an unexpectedly joyous ending to a harrowing episode for him, his wife, his colleagues and friends. But it was by no means the end of the story.
An Afghan who is well acquainted with several of the participants in the kidnapping has provided The Nation and the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute with new details about the perpetrators, as well as new information about what happened after Rohde’s escape. This source’s account reveals how Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) serves as an arbiter for the various Taliban groups that compete with one another for influence, loot and profits. According to the source, the ISI, acting on behalf of one Taliban faction, took two of Rohde’s guards into custody to interrogate them about how he escaped. Then, despite its knowledge of the men’s role in the kidnapping, the ISI simply set them free.
Though this new information merely lends more substance to already strong suspicions about the ISI’s close relationship with the Taliban, it’s still an explosive allegation: rather than cooperating with US authorities, Pakistan’s intelligence agency essentially became an accessory after the fact to Rohde’s kidnapping.
The saga began on November 10, 2008, when Rohde, researching a book about Afghanistan, was driven to Logar province to meet a Taliban commander with the nom de guerre Abu Tayyeb. Rohde was seized on a stretch of road by gunmen in a well-practiced maneuver and taken into the custody of a heavyset Taliban leader who introduced himself as Mullah Atiqullah, as Rohde details in his soon-to-be-released book, A Rope and a Prayer, which he wrote with his wife, Kristen Mulvihill.
In the months to come, Rohde would learn that Mullah Atiqullah and Abu Tayyeb, whom he had intended to interview, were the same person.
The real name of Rohde’s kidnapper, not reported until now, was Haji Najibullah (Haji, of course, is the honorific for those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca). Najibullah was an ambitious Taliban commander in his 30s, with a swelling reputation. He had made his bones as an aide to the legendary one-legged Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah Lang. Though Dadullah is not a household name in the United States, he certainly is in Afghanistan. One US Army general called him the Taliban’s "functional leader," and noted Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid has called him "the most ruthless Taliban commander after 9/11." Dadullah was killed in a US attack in 2007. Najibullah would be remembered in Taliban circles as one of his minor protégés.
After capturing Rohde, Najibullah quickly saw dollar signs. Realizing that he might have to hold on to Rohde for a long time to shake loose real money in ransom, Najibullah brought him to Pakistan, where the American reporter, his translator and his driver were placed in the custody of the Haqqani network. Rohde, in his forthcoming book, explains how he had made a mistake his second night in captivity: desperate to stay alive, he told Najibullah that he could be traded for "prisoners and millions of dollars."