Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Rope and a Prayer by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill (Book Review #66 of 2016)

A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill

(I reviewed this book with several others on Americans living in Afghanistan and Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East. See list below.)

If you want to know what it's like to be a hostage in a hostile land, or the wife of a hostage trying to maintain a normal life while also working on whatever channels are available to free your husband, this is your book. If you enjoyed the season of Serial that looked at the captivity of Bo Bergdahl, you might like this book better. This book might be The Taliban Shuffle if a kidnapping had happened.

Rohde was already an accomplished journalist working with the Christian Science Monitor at the time he was kidnapped in 2008 and held for seven months. A decade before, he had been kidnapped by Serbians while reporting on the Balkans war; his reporting gave the world evidence of Milosevic's war crimes. Richard Holbrooke had negotiated his release and once Holbrooke learns he's going to Afghanistan, he almost jokingly cautions him on getting captured a second time. Rohde had been in New York on 9/11, had already made a career reporting on the harsh treatment of US prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo-- making him an ironic kidnapping target. Rohde admits that his ambition got the best of him, he reached out for one great story, one risky interview that would have really made the book he was working on Afghanistan valuable. He had just gotten married and his wife deserves great credit for helping his situation. The proceeds of this book go to and another non-profit, meaning the author did not personally benefit from his (and his employees') captivity, which I greatly respect.

Rohde gives a depressing account of the war in Afghanistan, of the lack of coordination and aid. At some point, President Bush favored a "Marshall Plan" for the country, but this was shot down by Donald Rumsfeld who publicly said the US did not have the resources to engage in nation-building. So, the US would muddle through, particularly after the Iraq invasion began and world attention was diverted elsewhere. USAID had few members (and according to Kim Barker's book there was no central agency coordinating military and civilian efforts). Rohde decries the amount of aid going to Afghanistan as inadequate from 2001-2005. But judging from World Bank statistics over that period, Afghanistan received $2.5 billion in aid in 2005, an ever-increasing amount. Other countries, like the Congo, received similar amounts and perhaps that works to Rohde's point-- Afghanistan was a bigger mission than was funded (Iraq, by comparison, received over $22 billion in foreign aid in 2005). Rohde writes that much of the aid was lost to corruption and to the Taliban-- that's sad but true in just about every war-torn country.

Rohde is kidnapped with his translator Tahir Ludin, and their driver, Asadullah "Asad" Mangal, mostly likely by the Haqqani network. Like Bergdahl's kidnapping, there is a hierarchy the kidnappers are subject to, and whom they want to impress. Pashtun Wali is what keeps the men alive, they are shown hospitality. (See Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor for a similar tale, as well as the similarity of a husband-wife team telling the story from different sides.) Unlike Bergdahl, they were fed well and had electricity, warm water, fruit, etc. The Taliban wanted a prisoner swap, and then millions of dollars.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the story is that multiple news agencies worked together to keep the kidnapping a secret. Wikipedia even agreed to combat efforts to put the news on their pages; the less public the kidnapping, the lower the ransom and the less incentive for others to be kidnapped. Initially, the Taliban wanted to keep it out of the media because they did not want elders to know. The Red Cross does not get involved in negotiations, and Kristen has to work a network of sources while keeping her day job. The US government officially does not negotiate with terrorists but off-the-record encourages families to negotiate. Mulvihill has a love-hate relationship with the newspapers' lawyers, government experts, and others that are helping. She decides to hire a private firm to do the negotiation. They hire a team of ex-military contractors who are supposedly doing scouting on the ground. It's never clear whether the intelligence they are gathering is accurate or whether the family is just being played/extorted by these guys. (The company was later investigated for shady dealings with the military.) Kristen has to keep her hopes up but realistic. Their families offer a great deal of moral support. The Taliban are cheap enough to make a collect phone call in November, 2008. They believe Kristen's family is made of money, like millions of dollars are no big deal for Amerians. Another time, David calls home and leaves a message on the answering machine. There are negotiations and demands. At one point, Mulvihill meets the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and gets a strong word of support.

Rohde ponders a hunger strike as well as fakes a suicide attempt, putting pressure on his guards. A nearby drone strike shows the company is in grave danger and enrages his guards. One night in Pakistan, he and Tahir make their escape, leaving their house ostensibly to use the bathroom and lowering themselves out a window with a rope. David feels bad that they did not inform their driver, Asad, but he also does not know if Asad or anyone is trustworthy. Once they arrive on a Pakistani base, things get tense again as they want the Americans contacted before the ISI can find out-- as they do not trust the ISI since they are so complicitly working with the Taliban. The Taliban guards apparently beat Asad after finding him alone, but he later is able to escape as well. Fears of the ISI are not unfounded, but the men are safely carried away and Rohde is reunited with his family.

It's a good story and the reader is glad that it only lasted months and had a happy ending. While deplorable, the Taliban were much more humane to their guests than, say, ISIS would be. From a 2016 vantage point, there does not appear to be much long-term hope from the international community regarding the country-- we never fixed the problems Rohde identified. Rohde advocates somehow empowering Pashtu moderates in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help counter the extremism of the Taliban. In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Some of the political commentating was perhaps a bit much, but Rohde is as credible a source about what happens there as one can find.
Other books by Americans abroad, in the general region, reviewed in 2016:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (4 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)

Other books on US intervention in Afghanistan/Pakistan related to the review above:
Lone Survivor - Marcus Luttrell
Descent Into Chaos - Ahmed Rashid

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