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Excerpt: 'A Rope and a Prayer'

A Rope and a Prayer


David, November 9–10, 2008

On a Sunday afternoon, the Kabul Coffee House and Café is an island of Western culture in Afghanistan's capital. American and European contractors, aid workers, and consultants sip four-dollar café lattes and cappuccinos. Young, English-speaking Afghan waiters dressed in Western clothes serve chicken quesadillas, fried-egg sandwiches, and cheeseburgers.

I marvel at -- and dread -- how much Kabul has changed since I first came to the country to cover the fall of the Taliban seven years earlier.  A city I grew to know well has become more and more unfamiliar. Kabul has boomed economically and modernized to an extent I never dreamed when joyous Afghans gouged out the eyes of dead Taliban militants in 2001. At the time, Afghans yearned for a moderate and modern nation and an end to decades of meddling from neighboring countries.

Now, the gulf between the wealthy, westernized pockets of the Afghan capital and the grinding insecurity and endemic corruption that dominate most Afghans' daily lives alarms me. Rivalries between the country's ethnic groups that ebbed after the fall of the Taliban simmer again. Growing mistrust between Afghans and foreigners worries me as well. The American journalists, diplomats, and aid workers who were welcomed here in 2001 are seen by growing numbers of Afghans as war profiteers who do little to aid their country.

I am in the final stretch of conducting research for a book I am writing about the failing American attempt to bring stability to the region since 2001. I hope the book will be the culmination of seven years of reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan for The New York Times. Yet I have become increasingly concerned that I am losing touch with the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground. After serving as the newspaper's South Asia bureau co-chief and living in the region from 2002 to 2005, I moved back to New York and joined the newspaper's investigations unit. Over the last three years, reporting trips sent me back to Afghanistan and Pakistan roughly every six months, but that is a fraction of the time I spent on the ground when based here. During that period, the Taliban have reasserted control over vast swaths of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After privately wrestling with the decision for weeks, I have decided I need to interview a Taliban commander for the book to be as rigorous and thorough as possible. The majority of the population in Helmand -- the southern Afghan province that is the focus of my book -- appears to now support them. But it's a fraught proposition, one that comes with the kind of extreme risk that I have tried to avoid for years.

Across the table from me at the Kabul Coffee House is Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist I met two years ago who works for The Times of London. Burly, boisterous, and confident, Tahir has short brown hair, hazel eyes, a round face, and a thin brown beard. He is a proud Afghan and prefers wearing local clothes to Western ones. We had met in 2006 but never worked together before. Recommended to me by two correspondents from The Times of London, Tahir is known for having good Taliban contacts and the ability to arrange interviews with them.

Tahir explains that his most trusted contact is a Taliban commander who uses the nom de guerre Abu Tayyeb, or "son of Tayyeb." Abu Tayyeb commands several hundred Taliban fighters in three provinces around Kabul, and has fought against NATO and American troops in Helmand as well. Tahir says he has met him a half dozen times and that Abu Tayyeb has done face-to-face television interviews with two different European journalists without incident. He is aligned with a moderate Taliban faction based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

"Would you be willing to go to Ghazni?" Tahir asks, referring to a dangerous province that is roughly three hours south of Kabul by car.

Tahir says I could interview Abu Tayyeb there. He could be the final character in the book, I think to myself, a Taliban commander who is the vehicle for describing the hard-line movement's reemergence. I had tried for the last two weeks to set up an interview with a Taliban fighter in Helmand but had failed. I was not willing to leave the heavily guarded center of the provincial capital. No Taliban were willing to meet me there. Dozens of other journalists and I have been doing phone interviews with Taliban spokesmen for years. Yet it was impossible to verify whom, in fact, you were speaking to over the phone or their claims, which were often blatantly false propaganda screeds. I could briefly meet Abu Tayyeb in person, verify that he was, in fact, a Taliban commander, and then do follow-up interviews by phone.

From New York, it seemed as if a growing number of foreign journalists were safely interviewing the Taliban face-to-face. Over the last two months, interviews with Taliban had appeared in my old newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, a French magazine, and one of my colleagues had safely interviewed them for my current newspaper's Sunday magazine.  I increasingly worried I was becoming a New York-based journalistic fraud whose book would be superficial and out of date. I felt I had fallen behind reporters based in the region.

At the same time, I knew meeting with the Taliban was perilous. Getting both sides of a story is vital in journalism but hugely dangerous in an armed conflict. In the end, each interview is a judgment call. As we sit in the café, Tahir warns of the danger involved. That spring, an American journalist and a British journalist who ventured into Pakistan's tribal areas to interview militants were kidnapped in separate incidents, Tahir explains. He says the British journalist's family sold their home to pay a ransom for his release. The concept of putting my own family through such an ordeal horrifies me. I had also recently read a story in Rolling Stone by an American journalist who was nearly kidnapped by a rival Taliban faction when he drove to Ghazni to interview a Taliban commander.

"Ghazni is too far," I tell Tahir. "I only want to do a Taliban interview in Kabul."

We part ways and Tahir tells me he will contact another Taliban commander who he believes is in Kabul. He promises to call me later that night. I leave with a sense of dread. I have long viewed journalists who interview the Taliban as reckless. Yet I find myself contemplating doing something I have resisted for years.

Excerpted from A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill Copyright 2010 by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill