David Rohde, a New York Times journalist who was kidnapped in Afghanistan and held captive there and in Pakistan for seven months ending in June 2009, described his ordeal to an audience at the Newseum in Washington Friday. His experiences with the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban give insight into the complications and threats in the region.
It was nearly two years ago, in November 2008, that journalist David Rohde was kidnapped outside Kabul, Afghanistan, along with an Afghan reporter and their driver.
Taliban captors held him hostage for seven months, until June of last year, when he and his Afghan colleague managed to flee from a compound in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. Their driver did not escape.
Rohde, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan but ultimately held in Pakistan, told the crowd assembled at the Newseum that the lines between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban are not as clear cut in the border mountains as they are in strategic planning sessions in world capitals. "When I was in my captivity, I saw that the two groups worked seamlessly together. This differentiation between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban is really a false one. We were held in Pakistani Taliban areas and then Afghan Taliban areas, and the cooperation was seamless," he said.
But the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke sees it differently. At that same event, moments after Rohde left the dais, Holbrooke took the stage along with ABC News journalist Christiane Amanpour. U.S. envoy Holbrooke emphasized that the various threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be lumped together.
"It's all these different groups. The Afghan Taliban. The Pakistan Taliban. Al-Qaida, with whom you cannot negotiate. The [Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba] LET whose goal is to provoke conflict between India and Pakistan. And they're all mashed around in this area David [Rohde] was talking about. They overlap, but they have different goals, so it's a uniquely complicated problem," he said.
The United States has repeatedly pressed Pakistan to do more to battle the Taliban and other insurgents within its borders, and the U.S. military has commended Pakistani efforts to do so. Pentagon officials have said Pakistan managed to put more pressure on the Taliban this year than the terror group has experienced in the past several years.
Rohde says this is in part because Islamabad differentiates between the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban. The journalist says that the Pakistani Army has cracked down on the Pakistani Taliban because Islamabad (Central government) views the group as an enemy of the state. Rohde says it appears to him that the Pakistani Army sees Afghan Taliban fighters as proxies it can use against India.
"Unfortunately, I'm sitting here today speaking with you not because I was rescued by the Pakistani Army. Instead, I'm here because our Afghan Taliban captors felt so little threat from the Pakistani Army that they got sloppy. The last house they held us captive in was only three-tenths of a mile [half a kilometer] from the one Pakistani military base in [North Waziristan's main town of] Miran Shah," he said.
Some analysts accuse Pakistan's main spy agency, the ISI, of helping the Taliban in Afghanistan while agreeing to the crackdown on the group inside Pakistan.
Also Friday, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (Democrat-Michigan), stressed that Pakistan needs to do more. "In Pakistan, which is inextricably linked to Afghanistan, officials have taken some steps to rein in extremist groups that threaten stability in Pakistan, but they have so far failed to take the steps needed to address major threats to Afghanistan from within Pakistan," he said.
As for Rohde, in June of last year, he and his Afghan colleague scaled a wall while their guard slept, and they walked to the Pakistani army base, fearing that they would be turned back over to the Taliban. But, Rohde said, the young Pakistani captain they met was not a Taliban sympathizer.
Afghanistan's Taliban has denied any involvement in Rohde's abduction.
Rohde also spoke of U.S. efforts to counter terror threats in the border region. He said drones hovered overhead during most days of his captivity and that the Taliban feared drone strikes. Rhode said the chatter among the guards who held him captive indicated that drone strikes were generally accurate, and that while there were civilian casualties, militants - often foreign ones - were killed in each of the strikes during his captivity.
Rohde also said the Taliban regularly exaggerate civilian casualties in an effort to gain recruits.