- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2011


By David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill
Viking, $26.95, 362 pages, illustrated

In 2008, a daring and ambitious journalist returned to his old stomping grounds in Afghanistan to secure the final interviews for a new book about an all-too-familiar topic: “the failing American attempt to bring stability to the region since 2001.” Instead, David Rohde was abducted by the Haqqani clan, a criminal network allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda; the quick research trip turned into a seven-month odyssey of survival that forced him to reassess his deepest values.

Now, he and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, have produced something much more compelling than his initial project: a book about the pitfalls of U.S. policy in South Asia that also serves as a two-way meditation on the competing obligations of professional excellence and familial bonds.

Kidnapped just two months after his marriage to Ms. Mulvihill, an artist and photo editor for Cosmopolitan magazine, Mr. Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and former co-chief of the New York Times’ South Asia bureau, agonizes over his “reckless” decision to schedule an interview with a Taliban commander, ignoring both the advice of some colleagues and his promise to review such decisions with his new wife.

Years earlier, while covering the war in Bosnia, he was briefly held by Serb authorities. That time also, his professional judgment was questioned, but he was not bound to a spouse with whom he had expected to start a family, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts to establish evidence of ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica.

As his captors traverse the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Rohde employs all his knowledge of the Haqqani clan, jihadist ideology and his captors’ Pashtun tribal roots to secure his survival and that of the two men abducted with him - Tahir, a local journalist, and Asad, their driver.

At the start of his tale, Mr. Rohde recalls the prescient observation of a journalistic forerunner - Winston Churchill - who expressed a qualified appreciation for the Pashtuns’ maddeningly independent ways. Churchill observed that a Pashtun leader’s success would soon be his “ruin” as competing tribal chiefs orchestrated his comeuppance.

“The victors quarrel over the spoil, and the story closes, as it began, in bloodshed and strife,” Churchill wrote in “The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War,” published following his service as an army officer and journalist in an 1897 British campaign to quell resistance among the Pashtun.

Mr. Rohde shares elements of Churchill’s trenchant analysis. But he rejects the assumptions of cultural superiority and imperial dreams that pervade Churchill’s first nonfiction work, published more than a century ago - when the West was vastly more confident of military success in South Asia.

Decades ago, the Haqqani clan and other Pashtun groups applauded U.S. support for the mujahedeen’s fight against Soviet occupation. Now, they repudiate American “hedonism.” Educated in madrassas that often inculcate young Muslims in anti-Western, conservative Wahhabi precepts, they repudiate America’s “atrophied” campaign to rebuild Afghanistan - even as they ignore the Taliban’s systematic efforts to undermine U.S.-funded projects. Contradictions also abound in their efforts to uphold a pious interpretation of Islam, yet they condone the killing of innocents.

The U.S. government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, an indisputable fact that deepens Mr. Rohde’s misery.

Far away in New York, Ms. Mulvihill navigates a “shadow world” of public and private contractors who promise to help win her husband’s release. When his captors make repeated demands for multimillion-dollar ransoms during telephone calls to her home, she is careful to maintain the lines of communication without making promises she can’t deliver.

Prayer forms an unseen bond between the spouses, deepening their understanding and appreciation for marital vows that pledge unwavering love and commitment. The rituals and beliefs of Ms. Mulvihill’s Catholic faith anchor a daily existence that feels increasing surreal as she views “proof of life” videos of her husband, juggles photo shoots and participates in conference calls with her security team.

Mr. Rohde, however, is an agnostic whose skeptical view of faith only intensified during the years he covered religiously inspired violence in Bosnia and South Asia. As he struggles for the words to express his deep regret and his hope that they will be reunited soon, he begins his own halting prayer, “Forgive me.”

Pondering the professional ambitions that prompted his decision to meet with the Taliban commander, Mr. Rohde concludes that he has “wronged” his wife and family. Before the story’s close, he embraces three critical insights: “This world is fleeting,” “I had my chance” and “now everyone else first.”

Mr. Rohde expresses cautious support for the Obama administration’s effort to improve security in Afghanistan and suppress the Taliban and al Qaeda. But his engaging portrait of the social and historic roots of the ongoing conflict makes the dream of a stable, democratic Afghanistan seem more distant than ever.

The inbred patterns of thought that drive one man to make imprudent choices - or that give rise to decades of political violence in South Asia - are not easily understood or altered. “A Rope and a Prayer” confirms this truth with humility and even-handedness.

Joan Frawley Desmond lived with her family in New Delhi while her husband served as Time magazine’s South Asia bureau chief.

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