Journalist David Rohde was 27 when he helped expose the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica by orthodox Christians. He was thrown in a Bosnian jail for 10 days working on the story in 1995 for the Christian Science Monitor. Then in 2008, as a reporter for the New York Times in Afghanistan, he was captured again.
Rohde, along with an Afghan driver and translator, was smuggled by the Taliban into a tribal hellhole in Pakistan. He escaped seven months later with his life and a rare perspective of religious extremism. He and his wife lay out the story in their book, “A Rope and A Prayer.”
Rohde, now 46, has German roots in St. Louis. His grandfather graduated from University City High School.
The Post-Dispatch caught up with Rohde (pronounced “road”) after he spoke at a benefit last week for the Refugee Support Program at the nonprofit Places for People. He was introduced there as a “hero” in the Bosnian community because of his stories from Srebrenica. He went on from that assignment to win a second Pulitzer prize for reporting in Afghanistan.
Rohde is now a columnist for Reuters and has given up war reporting.
U.S. troops take comfort in the thought that they are serving in Afghanistan so the war isn’t brought home. What do you think about that statement?
I definitely think their service over there makes people safer here. What I’d like to see is more training of Afghan National Security Forces and government officials. In the end, it’s their fight. They have got to become self-sustaining. The corruption may be too much and the Taliban might win, but the Afghans have to be forced to stand up on their feet and try to handle this on their own.
What do you think the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be?
We should leave some U.S. troops in Afghanistan to serve as trainers and provide military aid so the Afghan forces get paid. But the Afghans have to take over this fight. I think they will do a better job than people will expect. It’s time. It’s been 11 years. There is a presidential election next year. President (Hamid) Karzai is not running. It would be great to have an Afghan leader who would do more to crack down on corruption.
You were kidnapped in Afghanistan. Why did they take you across the border into Pakistan?
The tribal areas of Pakistan are a safe haven that the Taliban have that does not exist anymore in Afghanistan. It acts as a fulcrum where young Pakistanis and Afghans and Uzbeks and Arabs all meet and get training and get brainwashed. It’s incredibly dangerous.
What is the current threat in Pakistan?
There are still young people out joining militant groups.
The drones help. They take out a leader here and there. They prevent them from gathering in big groups. But that Taliban safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan remains a threat to the United States. It’s not as large as it once was, but it’s a real problem.
Why does the Taliban hate us so much?
When I was kidnapped, my guards were absolutely convinced that 9/11 was staged and the U.S. came to Afghanistan to forcibly convert everyone to Christianity. It was this crazy conspiracy theory of Christians using Jews trying to wipe out Islam. They really believed it.
How much of it has to do with their religion?
A very small number of radicals twist Islam and use it to brainwash and give themselves power. The problem isn’t their religion. I am free today because Muslims helped me escape.
If the radicals are motivated by faith, why didn’t your reporting of the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Bosnia help you negotiate release?
Because the Taliban faction that kidnapped me is a criminal organization masquerading as a pious religious group. They say it’s about defending Afghanistan and Islam. In truth, it’s about boosting their own power and making money.
They sound more like drug traffickers.
I feel it’s a real distortion of Islam that has emerged over the past 30 years.
Nonetheless, while you were in captivity, the guards prayed every day and tried to memorize verses of the Quran.
They are taught a very strict interpretation. If they don’t pray the right way, they will go to hell. It’s a very severe, brutal version of Islam that fills these kids with fear and takes them from their families. The vast majority of Muslims are much more tolerant. Any faith can be abused and twisted for political gain. In Bosnia, I saw Christianity taken to an extreme by Serbian orthodox Christians who carried out war crimes. In India, I’ve seen Hinduism taken to an extreme by Hindus who killed Muslims. And then in Afghanistan, I saw Islam taken to a violent extreme.
You described yourself as a “bad Christian” to your captors. Did you ask them to teach you about Islam?
I read an English-language Quran. They were hopeful that I would convert. I didn’t convert.
What were you most surprised to learn about the Taliban after being held so long?
How thoroughly they believed all these conspiracy theories and how they didn’t see the hypocrisy between claiming they were acting as this great religious movement and then acting like criminals.
Yet they never beat you; they treated you pretty well.
It was because they saw me as a valuable commodity. They wanted to keep me alive so they could get a ransom.
You mentioned the problems in Afghanistan being all about nearby India and Pakistan. What do you mean?
A lot of what is happening is about rational moves by countries that surround Afghanistan, not support for jihad. Pakistan, unfortunately, sees the Afghan Taliban as an ally that it can use to stop India from taking over Afghanistan. We have mistakenly provided the Pakistani army $17 billion in aid since 2001. Throwing money at them has not changed this decades-long strategy of protecting some jihadists and using them to counter their archenemy India. We used jihadists against the Soviets and have learned our mistake. Pakistan has not. We created this Frankenstein.
Why do you wear the black bracelet?
This is for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier. He’s one of three Americans being held hostage in the same area where I was. His dad gave it to me. The other two held are Warren Weinstein, a 70-year-old aid worker, and Caitlin Coleman.
When you got back to New York City, what did the U.S. want to know from you about the Taliban?
Everything. Richard Holbrooke, the late U.S. representative to Afghanistan, spent hours and hours and hours with me, asking who are the Taliban, why are they fighting and what do they want. He was incredibly smart to try to understand his adversary.
What was he surprised to hear?
The sad truth is that you should negotiate with the Taliban. Maybe you can split some of the Taliban off and make a political deal with them, but there is also a hard-core element that is just not going to negotiate. They are convinced it’s their duty to establish this very extreme form of Islam at gunpoint across all of Afghanistan and they are going to go to hell if they don’t do it.
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
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