Former Taliban Captive Discusses Sgt. Bergdahl | KUOW News and Information

Former Taliban Captive Discusses Sgt. Bergdahl

Jun 2, 2014
Originally published on June 2, 2014 1:11 pm

David Rohde is a former New York Times journalist who was held captive by the Taliban for seven months.

He says Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was just released after being held for five years by the Taliban, faces a long road ahead, that begins with debriefing by the U.S. military who want to know more about the Taliban.

Rohde speaks to Here & Now’s Robin Young.


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Officials at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany say free prisoner of war Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is in stable condition but requires hospital care after being held for five years by the Taliban. As you've no doubt heard, he was freed in a deal struck by the government of Qatar for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They're required to stay in Qatar but have been seen in pictures in joyous reunions with loved ones.

What might Bowe Bergdahl's homecoming be like? His home town in Idaho never took down the yellow ribbons that were put up in his honor. They were planning an annual remembrance that will go on but now as a celebration of his release. His father grew a beard and began dressing like the Taliban, stayed on Afghan time just to feel closer to his son.

David Rohde knows a little bit about what all are going through. He's the former New York Times journalist held captive by the Taliban in Pakistan for seven months. He was not freed. He escaped.

He writes now for Reuters and is author of the book "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence In A New Middle East." And he joins us now. We want to spend a few minutes with David Rohde. David, welcome.

DAVID ROHDE: Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: And your first thoughts this weekend when you heard that Bowe Bergdahl had been freed?

ROHDE: Joy. I've been in touch with his parents for the last several years. And, you know, none of us frankly thought this day would ever come.

YOUNG: Yeah. What did they ask you? What did they want to know from you?

ROHDE: I primarily met them first just to sort of show them that you can survive this. You can, you know, have a life afterwards. And let me say first at the onset, that's a little presumptuous at my part 'cause when I met them the case hadn't dragged on so long.

I was held for seven months by the Taliban. That's one-tenth of the time Bowe spent in captivity. So I'm not at all trying to minimize what he's been through.

YOUNG: Well, also...

ROHDE: But it's helped me to - I'm sorry, I'm just trying to say, you know, I was treated - they kept me alive because they wanted to trade me. They'll keep him alive, and, you know, someday hopefully he'll be home.

YOUNG: So you were able to say that to his parents. But again, as I know you'd want to say, you were not military. You were media. You were going to do - you were trying to track down a Taliban leader to do an interview with him. You were not tracking them down as U.S. military. And we said, you weren't freed, you escaped.

So a lot of differences. But again, you were held captive. What was that like for you given that you seem to understand - or maybe did you understand at the time that you were being held to trade and that you would not die. Or did you think you would die?

ROHDE: You worried about being killed in the very beginning of the kidnapping. And then it becomes very clear - and in both cases they immediately took me and Bowe out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. And it's a theme that we've all heard about for the last 12 years.

But the Taliban have this safe haven in Pakistan. That's why they were able to hold Bowe Bergdahl for five years. And there's a question about why the Pakistani military couldn't find him or didn't try to find him. This deal happened because the Taliban can hold hostages in Pakistan.

And once I got into Pakistan, it was a different, very stark reality that maybe they're going to hold me for years. It isn't that they're going to kill me. They're going to sort of keep me alive as long as they want to get what they want.

YOUNG: And we've talked. We talked when you came back about just the sheer mental torture that that can be not knowing. You told us that there were good guys and bad guys - sort of a good cop, bad cop that you tried to figure out. There were times when you were trying to sing songs with the Taliban, trying to explain to them songs like the Beatles's "She Loves You." Trying to do what?

ROHDE: You try to humanize yourself. You try to form a bond with these young men who are your guards. Again, I was lucky because I had this courageous Afghan journalist who was kidnapped with me, and he eventually helped me escape. So he and I constantly spoke in English. And it was like a separate kind of support system I had.

You know, Bowe didn't - has not been around an English speaker in five years. You know, his father has mentioned that he's, you know, having difficulty with English now. Apparently, there were some American contractors held by FARC guerrillas in Colombia for several years. They had difficulty speaking English as well when they came home. He bonded, you know, as best he could, I assume, with these young guards. So did I.

YOUNG: You learned Pashto, too. You learned Pashto, too.

ROHDE: I did, not as well as - yes. And obviously, not...

YOUNG: Yeah.

ROHDE: ...As well as he did in five years. But this is the world he, you know, has had to survive in.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, as you well know, you've been following this story. There is a question as to why Bowe Bergdahl was even captured, that he may have deserted, gone AWOL. On his unit's Facebook page, people are being vicious about this - enraged that he might have gone AWOL, but also they claim troops were killed looking for him.

We know that there are lawmakers who might have been joyous at his being freed but are concerned about this, you know, perception of negotiating with terrorists and that it may lead to more being - more U.S. soldiers being snatched.

David, your thoughts about this sort of second day as the jubilation is somewhat wearing off for some. Your thoughts about these questions, even about Bowe Bergdahl.

ROHDE: First, in terms of, you know, what happened and did he leave the base, his parents don't know what happened. And, you know, and let's say he did make a mistake and he went off that base on his own - but listen, there' a small chance that maybe he was tricked by Afghans to go into a nearby town. No one knows what Bowe knows.

So arguably he may have made a terrible mistake. He's paid an enormous price for that through the last five years. You know, and we should, I think, wait to hear from him what happened and why he did that.

In terms of the agreement and the release of the Taliban prisoner, we seem to have decided as a country that we're ending the war in Afghanistan. We're pulling all American troops out of Afghanistan. There's concerns that these commanders when their released could harm American soldiers. If they're held in Qatar for a year, you know, there will be very little overlap.

I mean, if we are ending the war in Afghanistan, you have a prisoner exchange, you know, as one of the rationales for what's happened. So, you know, it's a very complex situation. But I just think if we're going to leave Afghanistan, do you leave them there and do you hold these Taliban commanders who've been in Guantanamo Bay for 12 years? Do we just continue holding them forever when we're no longer at war in Afghanistan?

YOUNG: Well, now others have questioned comments that he, Bowe Bergdahl, made in videos, emails said to be from him about the U.S. and about the effort in Afghanistan. It's interesting. You were working on a book about what you saw as a failed effort there. Well, you know, that criticism that there was something - I mean, his family has rushed to say, others have rushed to say he was under stress, he was under direst. Of course he's going to say what they want him to say. Your thoughts about that.

ROHDE: I met many soldiers who were really frustrated with how the war was waged in Afghanistan. It was a very inconsistent effort. We kind of came in there and were very committed to, you know, toppling the Taliban and creating a new Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.

And then we shifted to Iraq. There was a surge again under President Obama. But it was a sort of frustrating and somewhat erratic American effort. You know, I - he's free to express his frustrations. The whole issue is why did he leave the base.

YOUNG: Yeah.

ROHDE: And I don't know why. I don't know if his frustrations led him to leave the base or something else.

YOUNG: Well, we just got about a minute and a half left. But you've said that you thought that crying and showing humility would be a good thing to demonstrate to the Taliban. But in fact, it backfired.

ROHDE: Yes, and I'm sorry. I thought - there were some emails he sent his parents before he was captured. Anything he said after he was taken in captivity should be completely ignored. It's a total statement under direst. You know, I had machine guns, you know, pointed at my head. You're making this sort of video you hope people understand is completely under direst. So I don't hold any of his statements that he made in the Taliban videos to be truthful. I don't think that's fair to him.

YOUNG: And, David Rohde, I know in the few seconds we have, you want to reminded us there are other captives - Warren Weinstain in Pakistan, a 72-year-old aide worker, Jim Foley, Austin Times reporter's in Syria. There's more to think about.

ROHDE: There is, and there's no unified approach to this by different countries. Israel traded a thousand prisoners for one soldier a few years ago.

YOUNG: Yeah.

ROHDE: European governments, particularly France, they pay ransoms. The U.S. doesn't. We need, you know, to figure out how to deal with these kidnappings in a consistent way...

YOUNG: David...

ROHDE: ...Across the...

YOUNG: David Rohde, thank you so much, former captain. Thank you so much for speaking with us. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.