After David Rohde’s Escape, a Taliban Feud

After David Rohde’s Escape, a Taliban Feud

After David Rohde’s Escape, a Taliban Feud

Pakistan’s ISI served as an arbiter in the Taliban dispute over the New York Times reporter’s kidnapping.


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." 

The Haqqanis, a mujahedeen clan from Khost province, may be some of the most effective commanders battling US forces. They deploy terrorist tactics—waves of well-trained attackers wearing explosive vests deployed in operations such as the assault on the Kabul guesthouses, the assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a series of large-scale actions against US combat outposts on the border near Pakistan.

The Haqqanis were even more effective against the Soviets in the 1980s, when they worked closely with the CIA. The late former Congressman Charles Wilson famously referred to Jalaluddin Haqqani back then as "goodness personified." A former agency official who used to know Jalaluddin said, "I really regret the fact that we are tangling with him, because he is not a guy to fuck around with."

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, the Haqqanis sided with the Taliban, not Karzai. By 2002 the Haqqanis were almost on the ropes. Jalaluddin was injured in a US bombing raid. So the younger generation took over. Jalaluddin’s son Siraj, trained like his father in the twin arts of paramilitary warfare and charismatic religious leadership, was now in charge.

The Haqqanis are also known to live well. "They do business," The Nation‘s source said. "They’ve done business for years. They are involved in war, but if they find some business opportunity, they do it. They like buying houses and selling them and stuff like that. Now they have trucks and trucking equipment in Peshawar."

Rohde’s kidnapping was in essence a business opportunity. Najibullah, the young commander who first captured Rohde, was not a subordinate of the Haqqanis; but by bringing Rohde to them, he would build up his reputation with the clan, giving him a safe base from which to conduct negotiations. Najibullah and his men brought Rohde across Afghanistan’s border to the Haqqanis to make it easier to hold him for an extended period, according to the source familiar with the kidnapping. In Pakistan, they figured, they were safe from American rescue efforts, since they understood that the Haqqanis had the protection of the ISI.

Many experts say that the Haqqanis are supported by the ISI today, just as they have been for decades. The network has "been on the payroll of Pakistan’s ISI since the 1970s, and the ISI still allows them to operate freely," in the words of Ahmed Rashid.

The ISI denies this. "That is not true," a senior ISI official told The Nation. He spoke on behalf of the agency but insisted on anonymity. "We have attacked Haqqani a number of times. Right now we are not conducting operations against him because primarily we are busy with the TPP [Pakistani Taliban, as opposed to the Afghan Taliban] in South Waziristan, and we do not have the wherewithal to conduct operations against both of them."

Still, even the US government is skeptical of Pakistan’s denials. Indeed, this past summer Gen. David Petraeus underlined the difficulty in "trying to assess what the ISI is doing…in contacts with the Haqqani network or the Afghan Taliban."

* * *

The initial ransom requests issued by Rohde’s kidnappers were wildly aggressive. For Rohde’s release, the Haqqanis wanted $25 million, and they wanted prisoners released from Guantánamo. Then it was $15 million and prisoners released from Pul-i-Charkhi prison near Kabul. Then $8 million.

The Nation‘s Afghan source said that guarding Rohde was a task shared by Najibullah and the Haqqanis, who provided the logistical support, housing and a secure environment in which to operate near Afghanistan. With so much money at stake, each faction was mistrustful of the other. Of Rohde’s three chief guards, one was a Haqqani loyalist and two were Najibullah’s men. So important was this operation to Najibullah that he had his brother Timor Shah act as a full-time guard for Rohde. (These details are corroborated in Rohde’s book.)

Not only were the Haqqanis and Najibullah eager to use Rohde for profit but the main Taliban Shura—the head council that oversees the Afghan Taliban—hoped to get involved as well, according to The Nation‘s source. Afghanistan expert Michael Semple said that has become common in kidnappings. "It is standard practice of Taliban High Command to seek control of kidnapping situations," he told me.

The Taliban often insisted to Rohde that they had noble motives—that he was being held for the cause, not for money. "They told me repeatedly that they were doing this for the jihad," Rohde told me in an interview. "They kept telling me that it wasn’t about them getting rich themselves. But given the size of the ransom they were demanding, I find that hard to believe."

Throughout his captivity, Rohde was well aware of the likely connections between the ISI and the Haqqanis who held him, though he said no ISI agents made themselves known during his captivity. "I didn’t witness any direct contact between the ISI and the Haqqanis." That said, he was living proof, in a sense, that Pakistani authorities gave the Haqqanis full freedom to do as they liked. "What I did see," he emphasized, "was that Pakistan forces never came off their bases, and the Haqqanis were allowed to operate their own Taliban ministate in North Waziristan."

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government stuck to the fiction, until late in Rohde’s captivity on its soil, that it believed he wasn’t being held in Pakistan. Rohde said his wife was repeatedly told by Pakistani officials that he was being held in Afghanistan.

The FBI, the CIA and the New York Times worked quietly behind the scenes to secure Rohde’s release, believing that news of his kidnapping could derail their efforts if it became public. But there was much confusion about the circumstances of the kidnapping, both in the United States and in the Taliban camps, before and after his escape.

During the kidnapping, one of the "security consultants" on the case was Duane "Dewey" Clarridge. Clarridge, 78, has a stormy past. Indicted for perjury in the Iran/Contra case in 1991, he was pardoned a year later by the first President Bush. Then Clarridge became an eager supporter of the discredited Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi.

Clarridge boasted to a small group of people that he had a network of sources with rock-solid information about the kidnapping. While Rohde was in captivity, Clarridge circulated information that some of Rohde’s guards were Chechens, that Rohde had been separated from his driver and translator, and that he was held in a specific border village. Many of those claims turn out to have been erroneous, contradicted not just by The Nation‘s source but also by Rohde in his book.

Later, there were news reports that Rohde’s escape had been engineered somehow by the people Clarridge claimed to be working with. ABC News reported that a security firm bribed Taliban guards, and that the Times "used a controversial former CIA official, Duane ‘Dewey’ Claridge [sic], to help plot the escape of Rohde." That theory, though, is contradicted by Rohde, who believes no guards were bribed, as well as by The Nation‘s source. (The claims that his escape was engineered are highly implausible anyway, since it was Rohde’s decision, and his translator’s, to escape that night, and they had no help or contacts.)

Clarridge declined to comment for this article.

* * *

In Pakistan, Rohde’s escape was devastating for the Taliban. Not only had they lost their prize prisoner but the loss caused the Haqqanis and Najibullah to turn on each other. They were both convinced, in a case of mirror imaging, that the other one must have released Rohde as part of a secret arrangement in which they kept the ransom money for themselves. Instead of suspecting incompetence on the part of the guards, they believed someone was cheating and getting rich.

"There was a big problem between Siraj [Haqqani] and Najibullah," the source familiar with the kidnappers told me. "A huge issue. Siraj was blaming Najibullah, that he’s the one who took money from the Americans and let the guy go. 
And [Najibullah] was blaming him, that he did it, because it was his compound."

Even the Taliban Shura in Quetta got involved, the source said. They "thought that Siraj kept the money."

Semple, the Afghanistan expert, also heard about the crisis that hit the Taliban after Rohde’s escape. "There was a witch hunt," he said, "to see who might have taken the money."

To arbitrate the dispute about the kidnapping, the Haqqanis turned to the Pakistan government’s intelligence service, according to The Nation‘s source. Siraj, the source said, turned over the two guards affiliated with Najibullah to the ISI for questioning. "One of them," the source said, "was Najib’s brother Timor Shah."

The guards were allegedly interrogated fiercely and tortured by the ISI. The interrogators demanded to know exactly how Rohde had escaped. Who had let him go, and why? Were the men paid a ransom they had not shared? In other words, the ISI was making sure that the relations between the Taliban factions weren’t destroyed by anyone’s betrayal.

Once the ISI was convinced that there had been no bribes and no ransom, Rohde’s guards were set free. Despite their role in the kidnapping, they were not charged in court or handed over to the Americans. After more than a month in custody, they were let go.

I asked Rohde for his reaction to this information. "It’s very disturbing that the Pakistani authorities would not keep in custody people that were involved in my kidnapping," he said. "If they had two of my guards in their custody and then released them, that seems to fit a broader pattern of the ISI sheltering the Taliban."

The senior ISI official who spoke with The Nation would neither confirm nor deny the report. "I don’t know about it. I haven’t heard about it," he said.

As this case shows, the corruption and profiteering that characterize the Karzai government, propped up by the United States, are often mirrored in the financial dealings of America’s fractious enemies, who are propped up by Pakistan.

As Semple pointed out, "We need to think of Waziristan as this tribal criminal enterprise masking as jihad."

The Nation‘s source put it this way: "There is a lot of money. You have no idea how fragile things are within the Taliban. This is not a small war they are fighting. They are fighting over power. The money goes to whoever has the power."

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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