Reporters go to war to document the human and humanitarian tragedies that otherwise would go largely unnoticed or misunderstood: concealed by the governments that commit them, eclipsed by the battles that perpetuate them, too complex to carry cable-news appeal. Determined to tell stories from extremity, we rely on our research, our guides and our gut assessment of what is safe and what is not. Most of the time we return from assignments in one piece, and on time.
“A Rope and a Prayer” is a firsthand account of one war-zone assignment gone devastatingly wrong.
In this book David Rohde, a correspondent for The New York Times, and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, take turns recounting in meticulous detail his 7 months and 10 days in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and her harrowing negotiations for his release. Their intertwined stories reflect two intensely personal consequences of myopic, lopsided international meddling in the brutalized and neglected region that straddles the border between Central and South Asia.
On Nov. 10, 2008, Mr. Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner, set off to interview a Taliban commander in Afghanistan for a book he was writing about the failing American war effort. It was a fraught move, he knew. But without a Taliban commander’s voice to illustrate the movement’s resurgence, Mr. Rohde, ever thorough, believed his book — a result of seven years spent chronicling the escalating war in Afghanistan and the radicalization of Pakistan’s tribal areas — would be incomplete.
The interview was a trap. The Taliban commander who had agreed to speak to Mr. Rohde had him kidnapped. After being marched, at night, across the mountainous frontier Mr. Rohde spent the rest of his captivity in Taliban safe houses in western Pakistan. At the time of the kidnapping he and Ms. Mulvihill had been married two months.
Three main narratives converge in “A Rope and a Prayer.” Mr. Rohde’s methodical reconstruction of his confinement and escape alternates with Ms. Mulvihill’s scrupulous and often surreal account of juggling her effort to free Mr. Rohde and her work as the photography director at Cosmopolitan magazine. In one chapter Ms. Mulvihill sets up a Malibu beach photo shoot for a vegetarian actress who will be chauffeured only in an environmentally friendly car — and on the next page she composes a letter to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the commander of her husband’s kidnappers. She addresses him, at the suggestion of one of her security advisers, “Dear Brother Mujahid.”
But by far the most valuable part of this volume, for foreign-policy watchers and the general public alike, is the book Mr. Rohde had set out to write before he was kidnapped. “A Rope and a Prayer” is, above all, an important and timely resource for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of violence during the last decade in a region that has been ravaged by war almost incessantly for millennia.
In his signature studious fashion Mr. Rohde explains how “the fundamentalist Taliban state the United States purportedly toppled in 2001 is alive and thriving” in Pakistan today. Among the reasons he gives are the shortsighted support Washington extended, during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to religious fundamentalists who later helped form the Taliban; the United States’ role in the erosion of west Pakistan’s tribal system; and its failure to recognize early on the scope of Islamic militancy along the border.
Mr. Rohde’s story exhaustively demonstrates that Pakistan, the United States’ supposed ally, turns a blind eye to Islamic extremism on its western frontier, granting sanctuary to militants (including Mr. Rohde’s captors) and thereby handicapping the stabilization of Afghanistan. The book also offers glimpses into the rarely reported life of rank-and-file Taliban fighters, who attend bomb-making classes (taught by Uzbek fighters, who have found refuge in the area), watch pickup volleyball games before sundown, use sophisticated radio equipment to converse and listen to electronic gadgets to memorize Koran verses — all precious, granular peeks at Taliban life that are largely missing from Western coverage.
Some of these insights we never would have learned had it not been for Mr. Rohde’s ordeal. But the expected human story of two people in captivity — one physically imprisoned by the Taliban, the other held emotional hostage to her husband’s kidnapping — mostly gets lost in the couple’s effort to document the minutiae of their experience.
Mr. Rohde is such an impeccable journalist that we never really find out what it is like, in trenchant psychological detail, to be a prisoner of the Taliban. His commitment to abide by the traditional newspaper rule of rigid impartiality is so rigorous that he delivers his blow-by-blow account of what probably was one of the pivotal periods of his life in an incongruously detached, impersonal manner. He relies on journalistic shorthand to describe his surroundings (“we drive through a barren mountainous area”), his physical state (“after spending nearly 24 hours straight lying in the back of the car, I am exhausted”), even his deep remorse for jeopardizing his marriage (“I have betrayed my wife and family”). It seems as though the reporter is embarrassed that he has become the subject of his own story.
(Determined that his work not inflict further trauma on his family, Mr. Rohde, who had spent 10 days in Bosnian Serb detention during the war in Bosnia in 1995, disavowed war reporting after his escape from the Taliban.)
Ms. Mulvihill’s account of navigating the strange world of the F.B.I., the State Department and security firms, and taking calls from Mr. Rohde’s kidnappers while retaining her job at a glossy lifestyle magazine injects the narrative with the kind of dark humor war reporters often use to get through emotionally taxing assignments. But these interludes are written in the same restrained, inelegant prose and read like a series of news updates, a body of text that was rushed to print on stringent newspaper deadline.
Then again, kidnappings and war are inelegant. Underwhelming delivery does not negate the urgent significance of this unprecedented examination of the Taliban, obtained at a tremendous personal cost, as Afghanistan and western Pakistan plunge deeper into bloodshed, trapping millions of civilians in mass violence.
Mr. Rohde may be stingy about sharing his emotions. But he generously uses everything he has learned to inform us with the distinctive evenhandedness and honesty we have learned to expect from his journalism.
This review is written by Anna Badkhen and is published in The New York Times.