A Rope and a Prayer
A Kidnapping From Two Sides
David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill
Viking: 362 pp., $26.95
"A Rope and a Prayer" is not the book David Rohde set out to write when he traveled to Afghanistan in 2008 on leave from his reporter's job at the New York Times. Rohde's plan was to write a book that would open America's eyes to its long Afghan war gone bad, explaining how neglect, hubris and the enduring potency of the Taliban's sting were conspiring to snatch defeat from what was once assumed to be a victory.
Rohde's kidnapping scuttled that. Convinced his book needed the credibility of a face-to-face interview with a Taliban leader, Rohde arranged a meeting with "Abu Tayyeb," purported to be a commander of several hundred fighters in the insurgency outside the capital, Kabul. Instead, Abu Tayyeb took Rohde hostage, along with his Afghan translator and driver, and delivered them into the arms of the feared Haqqani network of fighters in the tribal badlands of Pakistan who are causing the U.S. mission fits. Over the course of seven months in captivity in North and South Waziristan, Rohde got a rare but much-too-close look at the inner operations and the mind-set of the Haqqanis and their Taliban allies waging war against America from bases on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The result is a story of survival, which, rather than languishing on shelves groaning with worthy but little-noticed books on America's war in Afghanistan, may find an audience beyond the specialized tastes of the counter-insurgency crowd.
It's a harrowing read. Rohde is a very good reporter, and he emerges from captivity not only having shown the courage to not crack and the wherewithal to finally escape but the recall to describe the details and dialogue of his experience. His work exposes a Taliban movement with clear short-term motivation — the expulsion of Western forces from Muslim lands — as well as a hatred for the alliance between the West and the corrupt Karzai government in Kabul, a gap that makes the suggestion of peace talks between Afghan factions sound naïve.
Rohde's first account of his kidnapping was published in a five-part series in the New York Times last year, and it was compelling reading. His "access" to the core of the Taliban exposed him in unusually intimate detail to their thinking: radicalism with no room for nuance in their view of the non-Muslim West yet able to articulate a logic for fighting back against America's global "war on terror," motivated by the abuses and hypocrisy represented by Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Escape-from-captivity books have a long tradition (in 1899, a British journalist named Winston Churchill scaled a wall in his own breakout from a Boer stockade and rode the subsequent newspaper series to fame). What gives Rohde's book a 21st century twist on the genre is the way it links his plight to the struggle by his recent bride, Kristen Mulvihill, a New York-based Cosmopolitan magazine photo editor, to free him. The narrative is divided between their experiences of the kidnapping, separated by thousands of miles, and an opaque lack of information. Chapters jump between Rohde's daily calibration of how much humility and defiance toward his captors was the right mix needed to avoid being killed, and Mulvihill's crash course in navigating the global business of hostage release.
Mulvihill is not a strong writer, and at first the decision to tell the couple's story from alternating points of view seems like the concoction of a marketing department with an eye on Oprah's couch (in a passage on her uncomfortable preparations for dealing with the media, Mulvihill writes: "I have no desire to sit across from Matt Lauer. Ever." We'll see.) Mulvihill's prose is, well, a bit Cosmo. News of the kidnapping hit her "like a thunderbolt." Rohde is a "cat with nine lives" (this was the second time in his career he had been kidnapped; the Serbs grabbed him in the Balkans in the 1990s).
But over time, her side of the story becomes compelling and revealing. She is clearly very brave, a fast learner and tough enough to not be pushed around by the FBI, the private contractors hired for advice on kidnap negotiations or the pushy editors of the New York Times with their different strategies and agendas. Mulvihill operates on a gut level, sustained by her Catholic faith and more than a touch of anger at the situation her husband's recklessness has put her in. Some readers will be fascinated and even inspired by her resourcefulness as she works to free her husband.
The couple endures seven months of incongruities bordering on the absurd. She continues to work by day at Cosmo, arranging photo shoots to accompany articles with titles such as "What a Guy's Butt Says About Him," while spending nights taking phone calls from Rohde and his captors or sifting the quality of the paid intelligence on her husband's whereabouts. Meanwhile, Rohde describes surreal scenes in captivity, of nights spent watching jihadist attack videos honoring suicide bombers (he describes them as little more than snuff films) and of singing chorus after chorus of the Beatles "She Loves You" with his captors.
Yet the book suffers from not knowing what it wants to be. It starts down many roads that taper off into unsatisfying conclusions. It riffs on the question of why some reporters are driven to take extraordinary risks, touching on the internal rationalization that occurs as promises made to spouses are broken in the name of ambition. Rohde captures the adrenaline feeling of heading out on a dangerous mission, fantasizing "about the relief I will feel as we drive back to Kabul" when it is over, and acknowledges when it goes wrong that he allowed his competitiveness to get the best of him. Mulvihill calls Rohde's quest for an interview with the Taliban "a bachelor's decision." But the story never pushes deeper into what possesses reporters to pursue personal risk at a cost to themselves and others — loved ones and local fixers alike.
There is no exploration of the debate over the morality of media suppressing the news of journalists who are snatched while continuing to report on kidnapped soldiers, aid workers and diplomats. Mulvihill has no qualms about keeping it secret. She's looking out for her husband's best interests. But it is questionable whether Rohde, a working journalist, should have lent his name to her vow, upon learning that the Huffington Post includes his name in a list of kidnapped journalists still missing, to hold Arianna Huffington personally responsible should anything happen to him.
Nor does the book emerge as a reflection on faith. Rohde was a nonbeliever whose reporting sought to examine the phenomenon of religious extremism. In captivity, he finds solace — though no firm answers — in prayer, a development applauded by his wife. "Your God helped me through this experience," he tells her enigmatically after he is released. But any spiritual awakening from the experience of being held prisoner by religious extremists goes unexplored.
Rohde was clearly unwilling to abandon all the reporting he had done for his original book. He intersperses his narrative with primers on how U.S. engagement in Afghanistan has gone awry at the cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The Afghan war is entering its 10th year, waged almost absent-mindedly by Americans preoccupied by economic pain at home. It is an indictment of that attention deficit that many Americans may discover how badly it is going only through the popular appeal of one man's story of suffering at the hands of the enemy and the courage of the woman who stood by him.
Bruce Wallace is the Times' foreign editor.