Another gunman in the passenger seat turned and stared at us as he gripped his Kalashnikov rifle. No one spoke. I glanced at the bleak landscape outside — reddish soil and black boulders as far as the eye could see — and feared we would be dead within minutes.
It was last Nov. 10, and I had been headed to a meeting with a Taliban commander along with an Afghan journalist, Tahir Luddin, and our driver, Asad Mangal. The commander had invited us to interview him outside Kabul for reporting I was pursuing about Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The longer I looked at the gunman in the passenger seat, the more nervous I became. His face showed little emotion. His eyes were dark, flat and lifeless.
I thought of my wife and family and was overcome with shame. An interview that seemed crucial hours earlier now seemed absurd and reckless. I had risked the lives of Tahir and Asad — as well as my own life. We reached a dry riverbed and the car stopped. “They’re going to kill us,” Tahir whispered. “They’re going to kill us.”
Tahir and Asad were ordered out of the car. Gunmen from a second vehicle began beating them with their rifle butts and led them away. I was told to get out of the car and take a few steps up a sand-covered hillside.
While one guard pointed his Kalashnikov at me, the other took my glasses, notebook, pen and camera. I was blindfolded, my hands tied behind my back. My heart raced. Sweat poured from my skin.
“Habarnigar,” I said, using a Dari word for journalist. “Salaam,” I said, using an Arabic expression for peace.
I waited for the sound of gunfire. I knew I might die but remained strangely calm.
Moments later, I felt a hand push me back toward the car, and I was forced to lie down on the back seat. Two gunmen got in and slammed the doors shut. The car lurched forward. Tahir and Asad were gone and, I thought, probably dead.
The car came to a halt after what seemed like a two-hour drive. Guards took off my blindfold and guided me through the front door of a crude mud-brick home perched in the center of a ravine.
I was put in some type of washroom the size of a closet. After a few minutes, the guards opened the door and pushed Tahir and Asad inside.
We stared at one another in relief. About 20 minutes later, a guard opened the door and motioned for us to walk into the hallway.
“No shoot,” he said, “no shoot.”
For the first time that day, I thought our lives might be spared. The guard led us into a living room decorated with maroon carpets and red pillows. A half-dozen men sat along two walls of the room, Kalashnikov rifles at their sides. I sat down across from a heavyset man with a patu — a traditional Afghan scarf — wrapped around his face. Sunglasses covered his eyes, and he wore a cheap black knit winter cap. Embroidered across the front of it was the word “Rock” in English.
“I’m a Taliban commander,” he announced. “My name is Mullah Atiqullah.”
FOR the next seven months and 10 days, Atiqullah and his men kept the three of us hostage. We were held in Afghanistan for a week, then spirited to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.
Atiqullah worked with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of one of the most hard-line factions of the Taliban. The Haqqanis and their allies would hold us in territory they control in North and South Waziristan.
During our time as hostages, I tried to reason with our captors. I told them we were journalists who had come to hear the Taliban’s side of the story. I told them that I had recently married and that Tahir and Asad had nine young children between them. I wept, hoping it would create sympathy, and begged them to release us. All of my efforts proved pointless.
Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
I had written about the ties between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban while covering the region for The New York Times. I knew Pakistan turned a blind eye to many of their activities. But I was astonished by what I encountered firsthand: a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity.
The Taliban government that had supposedly been eliminated by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was alive and thriving.
All along the main roads in North and South Waziristan, Pakistani government outposts had been abandoned, replaced by Taliban checkpoints where young militants detained anyone lacking a Kalashnikov rifle and the right Taliban password. We heard explosions echo across North Waziristan as my guards and other Taliban fighters learned how to make roadside bombs that killed American and NATO troops.
And I found the tribal areas — widely perceived as impoverished and isolated — to have superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan.
At first, our guards impressed me. They vowed to follow the tenets of Islam that mandate the good treatment of prisoners. In my case, they unquestionably did. They gave me bottled water, let me walk in a small yard each day and never beat me.
But they viewed me — a nonobservant Christian — as religiously unclean and demanded that I use a separate drinking glass to protect them from the diseases they believed festered inside nonbelievers.
My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.
During our captivity, I made numerous mistakes. In an effort to save our lives in the early days, I exaggerated what the Taliban could receive for us in ransom. In response, my captors made irrational demands, at one point asking for $25 million and the release of Afghan prisoners from the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. When my family and editors declined, my captors complained that I was “worthless.”
Tahir and Asad were held in even lower esteem. The guards incessantly berated both of them for working with foreign journalists and repeatedly threatened to kill them. The dynamic was not new. In an earlier kidnapping involving an Italian journalist and his Afghan colleagues, the Taliban had executed the Afghan driver to press the Italian government to meet their demands.
Despite the danger, Tahir fought like a lion. He harangued our kidnappers for hours at a time and used the threat of vengeance from his powerful Afghan tribe to keep the Taliban from harming us.
We became close friends, encouraging each other in our lowest moments. We fought, occasionally, as well. At all times, an ugly truth hovered over the three of us. Asad and Tahir would be the first ones to die. In post-9/11 Afghanistan and Pakistan, all lives are still not created equal.
As the months dragged on, I grew to detest our captors. I saw the Haqqanis as a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious movement. They described themselves as the true followers of Islam but displayed an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed.
Our ultimate betrayal would come from Atiqullah himself, whose nom de guerre means “gift from God.”
What follows is the story of our captivity. I took no notes while I was a prisoner. All descriptions stem from my memory and, where possible, records kept by my family and colleagues. Direct quotations from our captors are based on Tahir’s translations. Undoubtedly, my recollections are incomplete and the passage of time may have affected them. For safety reasons, certain details and names have been withheld.
Our time as prisoners was bewildering. Two phone calls and one letter from my wife sustained me. I kept telling myself — and Tahir and Asad — to be patient and wait. By June, our seventh month in captivity, it had become clear to us that our captors were not seriously negotiating our release. Their arrogance and hypocrisy had become unending, their dishonesty constant. We saw an escape attempt as a last-ditch, foolhardy act that had little chance of success. Yet we still wanted to try.
To our eternal surprise, it worked. Read more here.
Part II:Inside The Islamic Emirate
A YOUNG Taliban driver with shoulder-length hair got behind the wheel of the car. Glancing at me suspiciously in the rearview mirror, he started the engine and began driving down the left-hand side of the road.David Rohde answers readers’ questions on his seven months as a captive of the Taliban in Pakistan. Go to the Blog »