During Washington Ideas Forum (WIF) 2010, international and national security issues were on the table. New York Times reporter David Rohde recounted his kidnapping by the Taliban in harrowing detail.

NYT: 7 Months, 10 Days in Captivity:

"The car’s engine roared as the gunman punched the accelerator and we crossed into the open Afghan desert. I was seated in the back between two Afghan colleagues who were accompanying me on a reporting trip when armed men surrounded our car and took us hostage.
Another gunman in the passenger seat turned and stared at us as he gripped his Kalashnikov rifle. No one spoke. I glanced at the bleak landscape outside — reddish soil and black boulders as far as the eye could see — and feared we would be dead within minutes.

David Rohde, New York Times

It was last Nov. 10, and I had been headed to a meeting with a Taliban commander along with an Afghan journalist, Tahir Luddin, and our driver, Asad Mangal. The commander had invited us to interview him outside Kabul for reporting I was pursuing about Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The longer I looked at the gunman in the passenger seat, the more nervous I became. His face showed little emotion. His eyes were dark, flat and lifeless. I thought of my wife and family and was overcome with shame. An interview that seemed crucial hours earlier now seemed absurd and reckless. I had risked the lives of Tahir and Asad — as well as my own life. We reached a dry riverbed and the car stopped. “They’re going to kill us,” Tahir whispered. “They’re going to kill us.”

Tahir and Asad were ordered out of the car. Gunmen from a second vehicle began beating them with their rifle butts and led them away. I was told to get out of the car and take a few steps up a sand-covered hillside. While one guard pointed his Kalashnikov at me, the other took my glasses, notebook, pen and camera. I was blindfolded, my hands tied behind my back. My heart raced. Sweat poured from my skin.

“Habarnigar,” I said, using a Dari word for journalist. “Salaam,” I said, using an Arabic expression for peace. I waited for the sound of gunfire. I knew I might die but remained strangely calm. Moments later, I felt a hand push me back toward the car, and I was forced to lie down on the back seat. Two gunmen got in and slammed the doors shut. The car lurched forward. Tahir and Asad were gone and, I thought, probably dead.

The car came to a halt after what seemed like a two-hour drive. Guards took off my blindfold and guided me through the front door of a crude mud-brick home perched in the center of a ravine. I was put in some type of washroom the size of a closet. After a few minutes, the guards opened the door and pushed Tahir and Asad inside. We stared at one another in relief. About 20 minutes later, a guard opened the door and motioned for us to walk into the hallway.

“No shoot,” he said, “no shoot.”

For the first time that day, I thought our lives might be spared. The guard led us into a living room decorated with maroon carpets and red pillows. A half-dozen men sat along two walls of the room, Kalashnikov rifles at their sides. I sat down across from a heavyset man with a patu — a traditional Afghan scarf — wrapped around his face. Sunglasses covered his eyes, and he wore a cheap black knit winter cap. Embroidered across the front of it was the word “Rock” in English. “I’m a Taliban commander,” he announced. “My name is Mullah Atiqullah.”

For the next seven months and 10 days, Atiqullah and his men kept the three of us hostage. We were held in Afghanistan for a week, then spirited to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

Atiqullah worked with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of one of the most hard-line factions of the Taliban. The Haqqanis and their allies would hold us in territory they control in North and South Waziristan.

During our time as hostages, I tried to reason with our captors. I told them we were journalists who had come to hear the Taliban’s side of the story. I told them that I had recently married and that Tahir and Asad had nine young children between them. I wept, hoping it would create sympathy, and begged them to release us. All of my efforts proved pointless.

Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.

Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

I had written about the ties between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban while covering the region for The New York Times. I knew Pakistan turned a blind eye to many of their activities. But I was astonished by what I encountered firsthand: a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity.

The Taliban government that had supposedly been eliminated by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was alive and thriving.

All along the main roads in North and South Waziristan, Pakistani government outposts had been abandoned, replaced by Taliban checkpoints where young militants detained anyone lacking a Kalashnikov rifle and the right Taliban password. We heard explosions echo across North Waziristan as my guards and other Taliban fighters learned how to make roadside bombs that killed American and NATO troops.

And I found the tribal areas — widely perceived as impoverished and isolated — to have superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan.

At first, our guards impressed me. They vowed to follow the tenets of Islam that mandate the good treatment of prisoners. In my case, they unquestionably did. They gave me bottled water, let me walk in a small yard each day and never beat me.

But they viewed me — a nonobservant Christian — as religiously unclean and demanded that I use a separate drinking glass to protect them from the diseases they believed festered inside nonbelievers.

My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.

During our captivity, I made numerous mistakes. In an effort to save our lives in the early days, I exaggerated what the Taliban could receive for us in ransom. In response, my captors made irrational demands, at one point asking for $25 million and the release of Afghan prisoners from the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. When my family and editors declined, my captors complained that I was “worthless.”

Tahir and Asad were held in even lower esteem. The guards incessantly berated both of them for working with foreign journalists and repeatedly threatened to kill them. The dynamic was not new. In an earlier kidnapping involving an Italian journalist and his Afghan colleagues, the Taliban had executed the Afghan driver to press the Italian government to meet their demands.

Despite the danger, Tahir fought like a lion. He harangued our kidnappers for hours at a time and used the threat of vengeance from his powerful Afghan tribe to keep the Taliban from harming us.

We became close friends, encouraging each other in our lowest moments. We fought, occasionally, as well. At all times, an ugly truth hovered over the three of us. Asad and Tahir would be the first ones to die. In post-9/11 Afghanistan and Pakistan, all lives are still not created equal.

As the months dragged on, I grew to detest our captors. I saw the Haqqanis as a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious movement. They described themselves as the true followers of Islam but displayed an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed.

Our ultimate betrayal would come from Atiqullah himself, whose nom de guerre means “gift from God.”

What follows is the story of our captivity. I took no notes while I was a prisoner. All descriptions stem from my memory and, where possible, records kept by my family and colleagues. Direct quotations from our captors are based on Tahir’s translations. Undoubtedly, my recollections are incomplete and the passage of time may have affected them. For safety reasons, certain details and names have been withheld.

Our time as prisoners was bewildering. Two phone calls and one letter from my wife sustained me. I kept telling myself — and Tahir and Asad — to be patient and wait. By June, our seventh month in captivity, it had become clear to us that our captors were not seriously negotiating our release. Their arrogance and hypocrisy had become unending, their dishonesty constant. We saw an escape attempt as a last-ditch, foolhardy act that had little chance of success. Yet we still wanted to try.

To our eternal surprise, it worked.

ON Oct. 26, 2008, I arrived in Afghanistan on a three-week reporting trip for a book I was writing about the squandered opportunities to bring stability to the region. I had been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001 and was inspired by the bravery and pride of the people in those two countries and, it seemed, their popular desire for moderate, modern societies.

The first part of my visit proved depressing. I spent two weeks in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, and was struck by the rising public support for the Taliban. Seven years of halting economic development, a foreign troop presence and military mistakes that killed civilians had bred a deep resentment of American and NATO forces.

For the book to be as rigorous and fair as possible, I decided that I needed to get the Taliban’s side of the story.

I knew that would mean taking a calculated risk, a decision journalists sometimes make to report accurately in the field. I was familiar with the potential consequences. In 1995, I was imprisoned for 10 days while covering the war in Bosnia. Serbian authorities arrested me after I discovered mass graves of more than 7,000 Muslim men who had been executed in Srebrenica.

My detention was excruciating for my family. Promising I would never put them through such an ordeal again, I was cautious through 13 subsequent years of reporting.

I flew from Helmand to Kabul on Sunday, Nov. 9, to meet with Tahir Luddin, who worked for The Times of London and was known as a journalist who could arrange interviews with the Taliban.

After making some inquiries, Tahir told me that a Taliban commander named Abu Tayyeb would agree to an interview the next day in Logar Province. We could meet him after a one-hour drive on paved roads in a village near an American military base.

Tahir had already interviewed Abu Tayyeb with two other foreign journalists and said he trusted him. He said Abu Tayyeb was aligned with a moderate Taliban faction based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

The danger, he said, would be the drive itself. “Nothing is 100 percent,” he told me. “You only die once.”

I felt my stomach churn. But if I did the interview, the most dangerous reporting for the book would be over. I could return home with a sense that I had done everything I could to understand the country.

“Yes,” I told Tahir. “Tell him yes.”

That night, I had dinner with Carlotta Gall, a dear friend and the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times, and asked her if the interview was a crazy idea. Carlotta said she had never felt the need to interview the Taliban in person and preferred phone conversations. She recommended that we hire a driver to serve as a lookout and end the meeting after no more than an hour.

I also met with a French journalist who had interviewed Abu Tayyeb twice with Tahir. In the fall of 2007, she spent two days filming him and his men as they trained. In the summer of 2008, she spent an evening with them and filmed an attack on a police post.

She pointed out that I was more vulnerable as an American, but she said she thought Abu Tayyeb would not kidnap us. She said she believed that he was trying to use the media to get across the Taliban’s message.

I slept poorly the night before the interview. I got out of bed early and put on a pair of boxer shorts my wife had given me on Valentine’s Day emblazoned with dozens of “I love you” logos, hoping they would bring good luck.

I left two notes behind. One gave Carlotta the location of the meeting and instructed her to call the American Embassy if we did not return by late afternoon. The other was to my wife, Kristen, in case something went wrong.

I walked outside and met Tahir and Asad Mangal, a friend he had hired to work as a driver and lookout. As we drove away, Tahir suggested that we pray for a safe journey. We did.

Dressed in Afghan clothes and seated in the back, I covered my face with a scarf to prevent thieves from recognizing me as a foreigner. Most kidnappings in and around Kabul had been carried out by criminal gangs, not the Taliban.

From the car, I sent Carlotta a text message with Abu Tayyeb’s phone number. I told her to call him if she did not hear from me. If something went wrong along the way, Abu Tayyeb and his men would rescue us. Under Afghan tradition, guests are treated with extraordinary honor. If a guest is threatened, it is the host’s duty to shelter and protect him.

We arrived at the meeting point in a town where farmers and donkeys meandered down the road. But none of Abu Tayyeb’s men were there. Tahir called Abu Tayyeb, who instructed us to continue down the road.

Moments later, I felt the car swerve to the right and stop. Two gunmen ran toward our car shouting commands in Pashto, the local language. The gunmen opened both front doors and ordered Tahir and Asad to move to the back seat.

Tahir shouted at the men in Pashto as the car sped down the road. I recognized the words “journalists” and “Abu Tayyeb” and nothing else. The man in the front passenger seat shouted something back and waved his gun menacingly. He was small, with dark hair and a short beard. He seemed nervous and belligerent.

I hoped there had been some kind of mistake. I hoped the gunmen would call Abu Tayyeb, who would vouch for us and order our release. Instead, our car continued down the road, following a yellow station wagon in front of us.

The gunman in the passenger seat shouted more commands. Tahir told me they wanted our cellphones and other possessions. “If they find we have a hidden phone,” Tahir said, “they’ll kill us.”

“Tell them we’re journalists,” I said. “Tell them we’re here to interview Abu Tayyeb.”

Tahir translated what I said, and the driver — a bearish, bearded figure — started laughing.

“Who is Abu Tayyeb? I don’t know any Abu Tayyeb,” he said. “I am the commander here.”

They are thieves or members of another Taliban faction, I thought. I knew that what we called the Taliban was really a loose alliance of local commanders who often operated independently of one another.

I looked at the two gunmen in the front seat. If we somehow overpowered them, I thought, the men in the station wagon would shoot us. I did not want to get Asad and Tahir killed. My arrest in Bosnia had ended peacefully after 10 days. I thought the same might occur here.

One of the gunmen said something and Tahir turned to me. “They want to know your nationality,” he said. I hesitated and wondered whether I should say I was Canadian. Being an American was disastrous, but I thought lying was worse. If they later learned I was American, I would instantly be declared a spy.

“Tell them the truth,” I told Tahir. “Tell them I’m American.”

Tahir relayed my answer and the burly driver beamed, raising his fist and shouting a response in Pashto. Tahir translated it for me: “They say they are going to send a blood message to Obama.”

BY the time I met face to face later that day with Atiqullah, our kidnapper, I still did not know which Taliban faction had abducted us.

A large man with short dark hair protruding from the sides of his cap, he appeared self-assured and in clear command of his men. He also seemed suspicious of us, which worried me. I knew many Taliban believed all journalists were spies.

With Tahir translating, we explained that we had been invited to Logar Province to interview Abu Tayyeb, the Taliban commander. I said I had worked as The Times’s South Asia correspondent from 2002 to 2005. I described articles I had written during the war in Bosnia and told him that Serbian Orthodox Christians had arrested me there after I had exposed the massacre of Muslims.

Atiqullah remained unmoved. He denied our request to call Abu Tayyeb or a Taliban spokesman. He controlled our fate now, he announced. Atiqullah handed me the notebook and pen his gunmen had taken from me and ordered me to start writing.

American soldiers routinely disgraced Afghan women and men, he said. They forced women to stand before them without their burqas, the head-to-toe veils that villagers believe protect a woman’s honor. They searched homes without permission and forced Afghan men to lie on the ground, placing boots on the Afghans’ heads and pushing their faces into the dirt. He clearly viewed the United States as a malevolent occupier.

He produced one of our cellphones and announced that he wanted to call The Times’s office in Kabul. I gave him the number, and Atiqullah briefly spoke with one of the newspaper’s Afghan reporters. He eventually handed me the phone. Carlotta, the paper’s Kabul bureau chief, was on the line. I said that we had been taken prisoner by the Taliban.

“What can we do?” Carlotta asked. “What can we do?”

Atiqullah demanded the phone back before I could answer. Carlotta — the most fearless reporter I knew — sounded unnerved.

Atiqullah turned off the phone, removed the battery and announced that we would move that night for security reasons. My heart sank. I had hoped that we would somehow be allowed to contact Abu Tayyeb and be freed before nightfall. As we waited in the house, I thought Carlotta would be calling my family and editors at any minute to inform them that I had been kidnapped.

I awoke before dawn to the sound of the guards performing a predawn prayer with Tahir and Asad. We had been taken to a small dirt house and then spent the day trapped in a claustrophobic room with our three guards. Measuring roughly 20 feet by 20 feet, its only furnishings were the carpet on the floor and a dozen blankets.

One of our guards introduced himself as “Qari,” an Arabic expression for someone who had memorized the Koran. He later said he was one of the “fedayeen,” an Arabic term the Taliban use for suicide bombers.

Food arrived at mealtimes, and no one was beaten. Yet Tahir grew increasingly worried. “These guys are really religious,” he whispered to me at one point. “They’re really religious. They’re praying a lot.”

Confined to the room for most of the day, I found it increasingly suffocating. By now, I was sure my family had heard the news.

Several hours after sunset, we were hustled into a small station wagon.

“We have to move you for security reasons,” said Atiqullah, who was sitting in the driver’s seat, his face still concealed behind a scarf. Arab militants and a film crew from Al Jazeera were on their way, he said.

“They’re going to chop off your heads,” he announced. “I’ve got to get you out of this area.”

As we drove away, I asked for permission to speak. Atiqullah agreed, and I told him we were worth more alive than dead. He asked me what I thought he could get for us. I hesitated, unsure of what to say. I was desperate to keep us alive.

I knew that in March 2007, the Afghan government exchanged five Taliban prisoners for the Italian journalist after the Taliban executed his driver. Later, they killed his translator as well. My memory of the exchange was vague, but I thought money was included. In August 2007, the South Korean government had reportedly paid $20 million for the release of 21 Korean missionaries after the Taliban killed two members of the group.

“Money and prisoners,” I said.

“How much money?” Atiqullah asked.

I hesitated again.

“Millions,” I said, immediately thinking I would regret the statement.

Atiqullah and one of his commanders looked at each other.

Over the next hour, the conversation continued. Atiqullah promised to do his best to protect us. I promised him money and prisoners.

As we wound our way through steep mountain passes, Atiqullah asked for the names and professions of my father and brothers. I told him the truth. Given the unusual spelling of my last name, I thought he could easily find my relatives online.

My father was a retired insurance salesman, I said. One of my brothers worked for an aviation consulting company. A stepbrother worked for a bank. I thought being forthright was helping convince him that I was a journalist, not a spy.

FOR the next four days, we lived with Qari, the suicide bomber, in another small dirt house. On one afternoon, he allowed us to sit outside in a small walled courtyard.

He even let Tahir play a game on a cellphone. But when Tahir asked for the phone a second time, Qari shouted that we planned to send a text message to the Kabul bureau of The Times. Suddenly enraged and irrational, he denounced us as liars. He picked up his Kalashnikov, pointed it at Tahir’s chest and threatened to shoot him.

Tahir stared back, unmoved. Pashtunwali — an ancient code of honor practiced by ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan — prevented each man from showing fear and losing face.

Asad and I stepped in front of Tahir. We begged Qari to put down his gun. “Lutfan, lutfan,” I said, using a local expression for please. Qari lowered his weapon but motioned for Tahir to step into an outer room.

Through the wall, I heard Tahir begin praying in Arabic. I heard a thump and Tahir cried out, “Allah!” A second thump and “Allah!” Several minutes later, Tahir walked back into the room, crawled under a blanket and began moaning. Qari had beaten him on the back with his rifle.

Qari unnerved me. Earnestly reciting hugely inaccurate propaganda about the West I had seen on jihadi Web sites, Qari seemed utterly detached from reality. Other guards joked that he had mental problems.

In my mind, Qari and Atiqullah personified polar ends of the Taliban. Qari represented a paranoid, intractable force. Atiqullah embodied the more reasonable faction: people who would compromise on our release and, perhaps, even on peace in Afghanistan.

I did not know which one represented the majority. I wanted to believe that Atiqullah did. Yet each day I increasingly feared that Qari was the true Taliban.

The following day, Atiqullah arrived to move us again. During the ride, he said we would be taken to a place where I could receive bottled water and we could call our families. He promised to protect me.

“I will not kill you,” he said. “You will survive.”

I insisted that he promise to save Tahir and Asad as well. “You will not kill the three of us,” I said. “It has to be the three of us.”

Initially, Atiqullah refused. For days, I raised the issue over and over, remembering that under the Pashtunwali code a promise of protection should be ironclad. At one point, I suggested that he cut off my finger instead of harming Tahir and Asad.

Later that day, he finally promised to protect all three of us. “I give you my promise,” he said, as I lay down in the back of the station wagon. “I will not kill any of the three of you.”

Then, he said, “Let’s kill Asad first,” and laughed.

THE following afternoon, a new commander arrived. A bone-thin man with a long beard and one arm, he got into the driver’s seat and guided us through barren, rock-strewn territory, steering the car and shifting gears with lightning-quick movements of his one hand.

At sunset, he stopped the vehicle, and Atiqullah announced that we would have to walk through the mountains. A large American base blocked the path in front of us, he said. The one-armed commander gave me a pair of worn loafers, and another guard gave me his jacket.

As we walked, I understood why Western journalists had grown enamored of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance fighters in the 1980s. Under a spectacular panorama of stars, we wound our way along a steep mountain pass. Emaciated Taliban fighters carried heavy machine guns with little sign of fatigue. Their grit and resilience seemed boundless.

I thought about making a run for it but had not had a chance to talk it over with Tahir and Asad. I also knew that the half-dozen guards would quickly shoot us.

As the hike continued, I grew suspicious. Atiqullah — who had promised to carry me if needed — proved to be in poor shape. On one of the steepest parts of the ascent, he stopped, sat on a rock and panted.

Nine hours after we set out, the sun rose and the hike dragged on. Asad approached me when the guards lagged behind, pointed at the way ahead and whispered, “Miram Shah.” Miram Shah is the capital and largest town in North Waziristan, a Taliban and Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. North Waziristan was the home of some of the Taliban’s most hard-line members. If we were headed there, we were doomed.

After 11 hours, our hike finally ended. The guards lighted a fire, and we warmed our hands as we waited for a vehicle to pick us up.

Exhausted and anxious, I told myself that Asad was wrong and Atiqullah was right. I told myself that we were walking into southern Afghanistan, not Pakistan. I told myself we would survive.

Inside the Islamic Emirate

A YOUNG Taliban driver with shoulder-length hair got behind the wheel of the car. Glancing at me suspiciously in the rearview mirror, he started the engine and began driving down the left-hand side of the road.

It was some sort of prank, I hoped, some jihadi version of chicken — the game where two drivers speed toward each other in the same lane until one loses his nerve.

Which lane he drove down showed what country we were in. If he continued driving on the left, we had crossed into Pakistan. If he drove on the right, we were still in Afghanistan.

A mile down the road, traffic signs appeared in Urdu.

We’re in Pakistan, I thought to myself. We’re dead.

Eight days earlier, a Taliban faction had kidnapped me along with an Afghan journalist, Tahir Luddin, and our driver, Asad Mangal, during a reporting trip just outside Kabul. The faction’s commander, a man who called himself Atiqullah, had lied to us. He had said we were being moved to southern Afghanistan and would be freed.

Instead, on Nov. 18, we arrived in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an isolated belt of Taliban-controlled territory. We were now in “the Islamic emirate” — the fundamentalist state that existed in Afghanistan before the 2001 American-led invasion. The loss of thousands of Afghan, Pakistani and American lives and billions in American aid had merely moved it a few miles east, not eliminated it.

Through seven years of reporting in the region, I had pitied captives imprisoned here. It was arguably the worst place on earth to be an American hostage. The United States government had virtually no influence and was utterly despised.

Since 2004, dozens of missiles fired by American drones had killed hundreds of militants and civilians. The Taliban had held Afghan, Pakistani and foreign hostages in the area for years, trading lives for ransom and executions for publicity.

“We’re in Pakistan,” I said out loud in the car, venting my anger.

Atiqullah laughed, and the driver appeared surprised.

“How does he know it’s Pakistan?” the driver asked.

“Because you’re driving down the left-hand side of the road,” I answered.

“How do you know that?” he asked. “When were you in Pakistan before?”

Atiqullah smiled and appeared amused by the conversation. He knew I had been to Pakistan many times on reporting trips.

I was one of dozens of journalists who had written articles detailing how Al Qaeda and the Taliban had turned the tribal areas into their new stronghold after being driven from Afghanistan in 2001. I had watched the Pakistani government, then led by President Pervez Musharraf, largely stand by as the Taliban murdered tribal elders and seized control of the area.

Now, an abstract foreign policy issue was deeply personal. When my wife and family learned that I was in the tribal areas, their distress would increase exponentially. They would expect that I would never return.

We arrived in a large town, and I spotted a sign that said “Wana” in English. Wana is the capital of South Waziristan, the most radical area of the seven administrative districts that make up the tribal areas. We stopped in the main bazaar, and I was left alone in the car with the young driver.

Desperate rationalizations swirled through my mind. Our captors wanted a ransom and prisoners. Killing us got them nothing. The three of us would survive. They were all delusions, of course. Simply getting us this far was an enormous victory for them. We would be held here for months or killed.



Outside the car, dozens of Pakistani tribesmen and Afghan and foreign militants milled around. Each carried a Kalashnikov assault rifle on his shoulder and had a long, thick beard.

A man with a large turban stopped, peered at me in the back seat and asked the driver a question in Pashto. The driver looked at me and said a sentence that I thought included the word for martyr. I told myself the driver had said I was on my way to heaven.

Atiqullah got back into the car, and I felt relief. He had kidnapped us, but more and more I desperately viewed Atiqullah as my protector, the man who would continue to treat us well as other militants called for our heads.

OUR first Pakistani home was in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan. Two large sleeping rooms looked out on a small courtyard. One even had a small washroom, separate from the toilet, for showering.

On the first day there, I went to the bathroom and returned to find Tahir with a fresh cut on his calf. It looked as if someone had drawn a line across his leg in red ink. A local Waziri militant had taken out his knife and tried to cut off a chunk of Tahir’s calf, saying he wanted to eat the flesh of an Afghan who worked with Westerners. One of Atiqullah’s guards had stopped him.

All day, a parade of random Pakistani militants stopped by the house to stare at us. I felt like an animal in a zoo. Among them was a local Taliban commander who introduced himself as Badruddin. He was the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who led the Haqqani network, one of the most powerful Taliban factions in the region. Miram Shah was its stronghold.

Their father was Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan mujahedeen leader whom the United States and Pakistan backed in the 1980s when he battled the Soviets. In the 1990s, the United States ended its relationship with the Haqqanis and many other hard-line Afghan fighters. With Pakistan’s help, the Taliban movement emerged and the Haqqanis joined them.

Badruddin, a tall, talkative man who appeared to be in his early 30s, said he was preparing to make a video of us to release to the media. He smiled as he showed me a video on his camera of a French aid worker, Dany Egreteau, who had been kidnapped a week before us as he walked to his office in Kabul. He was in chains and appeared to have welts on his face. He implored his family and friends to save him.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “I really beg you to pay.”

I asked if Tahir and I could speak alone with Atiqullah, and I told him we should not make the video. The American and Afghan governments were more likely to agree to a secret prisoner exchange, I said, than a public one.

Trying to reduce their expectations, I told him it would be far easier to get prisoners from the main Afghan-run prison outside Kabul, known as Pul-i-Charkhi. If the Taliban demanded prisoners from the American-run detention centers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram, Afghanistan, they would never succeed.

I was not worth that much, I told him, and he should compromise. I did not say it, but I also wanted to spare my family the pain of seeing me in a video. To my surprise, Atiqullah agreed.

“I am one of those kinds of people,” he said at one point. “I am one of those people who like to meet in the middle.”

Tahir, Asad and I would be allowed to call our families that night to prove we were alive, he said. Atiqullah told me to emphasize during the call that he wanted to reach a deal quickly. He continued to cover his face with a scarf. To me, that meant he did not want to be identified because he planned to release us.

I spent the rest of the day nervously scribbling a list of things I wanted to say to my wife, Kristen, whom I had married just two months earlier. I added items and then crossed them out. I wanted to ease my family’s fears that I was being tortured, but I also wanted to do everything possible to free the three of us. I wasn’t sure I would have another chance to speak with her.

LATE that night, Atiqullah and Badruddin drove us out of town. Atiqullah stopped the car in a dry riverbed and turned off the engine. He left the headlights on, and we used them to see the number pad on a small satellite phone. Atiqullah and Badruddin ordered me to tell Kristen that we were being held in terrible conditions in the mountains of Afghanistan. I dialed my wife’s number.

“Hello?” she said.

“Kristen?” I said. “Kristen?”

“David,” she said, “it’s Kristen. I love you.”

She sounded calm.

“Kristen?” I asked.

“Yes?” she said.

“I love you, too,” I said. “Write these things down, O.K.?”

“O.K.,” she said.

She sounded remarkably composed.

“I’m, we are being treated well,” I said.

“Being treated well,” Kristen repeated.

“No. 1,” I said.

“Uh-huh, No. 1,” Kristen said.

“No. 2,” I said. “Deal for all three of us, all three of us, not just me. The driver and the translator also; it has to be a deal for all three of us.”

“Deal for all three of us,” she repeated. “The driver and the translator as well. O.K.”

“Do not use force to try to get us,” I said.

“Do not use force,” Kristen repeated.

“Four,” I said.

“Yes,” Kristen said.

“Make a deal now or they will make it public,” I said. “They want to put a video out to the media.”

Kristen repeated my words back to me.

“It will make it a big political problem,” I said.

Atiqullah told me to tell her that this was my last call.

“They said I can’t call you again,” I said. “They want a deal now and I can’t call you again.”

“You cannot call me again,” she repeated. “I love you. I love you, honey.”

“I love you, too,” I said. “Tell my family I’m sorry.”

“Your family is here, Lee’s here with me,” she said, referring to my older brother.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s going to be all right,” Kristen said calmly. “I love you. I am praying for you every day.”

Kristen said she wanted to make sure she understood what the Taliban wanted.

“What is the deal?” she asked.

Atiqullah told me to tell her that he would call The New York Times’s Kabul bureau with demands. “We are very concerned about you,” Kristen said. “And we love you, and we’re praying for you.”

The satellite phone beeped and abruptly went dead. Kristen was gone.

STANDING in the remote darkness of Waziristan at the mercy of Taliban militants, I felt at peace. I had spoken to my wife for the first time in nine days. I had expected panic or tears, but she sounded collected and confident. Her words “It’s going to be all right” would linger in my mind for months. Her composure would sustain me.

Atiqullah and Badruddin then told me to call The Times’s bureau in Kabul. But instead of ordering me to make specific demands, they instructed all three of us to exaggerate our suffering.

“We are in terrible conditions, Tahir is very sick,” I told Chris Chivers, a close friend and Times reporter, who answered the phone. I was ordered to tell Chris that Atiqullah was not with us — even though he was, in fact, standing beside me.

Tahir then spoke to Chris and asked him to tell his family he was alive and in good health.

“They keep telling me that if things go wrong they will repeat the story of Helmand,” Tahir said, “so I am just afraid they are going to kill me.”

Tahir was referring to the 2007 kidnapping of an Italian journalist in Helmand Province that ended in the beheadings of an Afghan journalist and a driver working with him.

Asad then spoke with an Afghan reporter in the bureau.

“I am fine, I am O.K.,” he said. “Tell my family that we are in the mountains but we are O.K.”

The conversation dragged on, with Atiqullah continuing to direct me about what to say. When he ordered me to tell Chris that they would kill the driver and translator first, I refused.

“Kill me first,” I told Atiqullah, “Kill me first.”

Chris overheard me and interrupted. “Nobody needs that, David,” he said. “Nobody needs to die.”

“They are threatening to kill the driver and the translator,” I explained to Chris. “I have to tell you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to tell you.”

“We understand that they are making those threats,” Chris said, “but that will not make our job easier.”

Chris said that if the Taliban killed anyone it would make government officials angry and make any deal even more difficult.

“Please don’t let them kill the driver and the translator,” I said. “Please don’t let them kill the driver and translator.”

“I am sorry about this,” I added. “I apologize to everyone.”

“David, this is not your fault,” Chris said. He urged me to tell Atiqullah to keep calling.

“O.K., all three of us, Chris,” I said as Badruddin and Atiqullah ordered me to end the call. “It’s gotta be all three of us. I gotta go.”

AS Atiqullah drove us back into Miram Shah, I felt relief. Kristen had sounded calm. Chris had said The Times was doing all it could. I felt I had fought for Tahir and Asad.

We arrived at a new house, and I was again surprised by the good conditions. It had regular electricity, and we could wash ourselves with buckets of warm water. I received a new set of clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste and shampoo. Guards allowed us to walk in a yard, and the weather was surprisingly warm. We received pomegranates and other fresh food and Nestlé Pure Life water bottled in Pakistan.

The tribal areas were more developed and the Taliban more sophisticated than I expected. They browsed the Internet and listened to hourly news updates on Azadi Radio, a station run by the American government. But then they dismissed whatever information did not meet their preconceptions.

Atiqullah said he needed to return to Afghanistan, but two of his men stayed behind to guard us. “I will return in 7 to 10 days,” he promised, then disappeared.

That week, to help us pass the time, we received a shortwave radio and a board game called checkah, a Pakistani variation of Parcheesi. To my amazement, the guards even brought me English-language Pakistani newspapers. Delivered to a shop in Miram Shah, the newspapers were only a day or two old. Instead of beating us as I expected, our captors were at least trying to meet some of our needs.

But as in so much of our seven months in captivity, reasons for optimism would be overtaken by harsh realities.

For the next several nights, a stream of Haqqani commanders overflowing with hatred for the United States and Israel visited us, unleashing blistering critiques that would continue throughout our captivity.

Some of their comments were factual. They said large numbers of civilians had been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories in aerial bombings. Muslim prisoners had been physically abused and sexually humiliated in Iraq. Scores of men had been detained in Cuba and Afghanistan for up to seven years without charges.

To Americans, these episodes were aberrations. To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law.

When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?

Other accusations were paranoid and delusional. Seven years after 9/11, they continued to insist that the attacks were hatched by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to create a pretext for the United States to enslave the Muslim world. They said the United States was forcibly converting vast numbers of Muslims to Christianity. American and NATO soldiers, they believed, were making Afghan women work as prostitutes on military bases.

Their hatred for the United States seemed boundless.

TEN days passed, but Atiqullah did not return as promised. Badruddin now seemed to be in charge.

He moved us to a far smaller, dirtier house. The space we were allowed to walk in was the width of a city sidewalk and ringed by high walls. The food was unclean and made me sick.

Our first night there, the Taliban commander who owned the house promised to update us every three days on negotiations for our release. But we would not see him again for months. The guards stopped taking Tahir to a local doctor for digestive and skin ailments.

And it was increasingly clear that Tahir and Asad would be separated from their families for Id al-Adha — a major Muslim holiday that marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to show his devotion to God.

Alarmed by the worsening treatment, Tahir and I began a hunger strike in early December. At first, the guards panicked and begged us to eat. We refused.

After two days, the guards said Atiqullah had called and told them that a deal for our release was nearly complete. He said he was waiting for approval from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who was on a foreign trip. The French aid worker in the video I was shown had been released, they said. We would be next.

Fearing that our continued defiance would anger our captors and scuttle the deal, we began eating again.

Instead of releasing us, Badruddin moved us to yet another house. It was larger than the previous one but felt more like a prison. Twenty-foot-high concrete walls surrounded a small courtyard where I spent my days walking in circles. For the first time in my life, I began praying several times a day, and I found that it centered me.

We started preparing our own meals. The food was cleaner and fresher, but cooking for ourselves gave a worrying sense of permanence to our imprisonment.

Badruddin visited us several days later and promised that negotiations were continuing. But he was increasingly casual. Any sense of urgency about our release seemed to be fading. Before leaving, he told me the Taliban would not kill me.

“You are the golden hen,” he said, clearly expecting me to lay a golden egg.

I asked him to promise not to kill Tahir and Asad. Speaking directly to me in broken English, he said the Taliban had decided to kill Asad if their demands were not met in a week. After he left, Tahir and I decided not to tell Asad.

I panicked over the next two days, frantically trying to think of ways to save our young driver. Since the three of us had arrived in Pakistan on Nov. 18, I had spent hours each day talking politics, religion and survival with Tahir, but I could barely communicate with Asad.

I spoke little Pashto, he spoke little English. I came up with a routine when a newspaper arrived. I showed Asad photos and tried to explain what they were about. He laughed, but I felt like a monster. Asad was an impoverished, hard-working father of two — and I was going to get him killed.

On the third day after Badruddin’s visit, I told one of our guards that I was willing to make a video — or do anything they wanted — to save Asad. The guard said he would check with Badruddin. The following day, the guard announced that it had all been a misunderstanding. There was no deadline to kill Asad. I didn’t know what the truth was but felt enormous relief.

Several days later, Badruddin arrived to make the video. He promised us that it would go only to our families, but what he instructed us to say made me think it would be released publicly. As guards pointed assault rifles at our heads, I called for President Bush and President-elect Obama to meet the Taliban’s demands.

“If you don’t meet their demands,” I said, “they will kill all of us.”

Tahir and Asad then made similar statements. Badruddin departed, and I told myself that our families would at least know we were alive.

As December dragged on, tensions in the house steadily grew. Qari, the guard who had nearly shot Tahir, tore the checkah board to shreds after he repeatedly lost. Then, Tahir and Asad ripped up two other checkah boards out of frustration as well. Qari began spending hours alone reciting the Koran and seemed increasingly distant and unstable. I worried that the situation was slowly spinning out of control.

SEVERAL days before Christmas, Atiqullah finally returned. He announced that he had spectacular news. “We are here to free you,” he said, wearing no scarf over his face for the first time. “We have come here to release you.”

At first, I was euphoric. My confidence in Atiqullah had not been misplaced. Here was a more moderate and reasonable Taliban leader who would persevere and release us.

Then, later that night, the conversation turned menacing.

The American military had mounted an operation to arrest Abu Tayyeb on the morning that we were to interview him, Atiqullah said, referring to the Taliban leader we had been traveling to meet when we were kidnapped.

Shocked, I told Atiqullah I knew nothing about a military operation.

I had sent text messages from my cellphone to Saudi Arabia before the interview, Atiqullah claimed, to tip off the American military about Abu Tayyeb’s location. Again, I told him I had no idea what he was talking about.

Finally, he announced that I was a spy, along with other employees of The Times in Afghanistan. His men had prepared a suicide attack on the paper’s Kabul bureau, he said, which he could set off with a single phone call. His men had nearly kidnapped Carlotta Gall, our bureau chief, but she had left an interview just before they arrived.

“She was probably given information,” he said, seemingly convinced that all journalists were intelligence operatives.

Our imprisonment, I thought, had reached a low point. My colleagues in Kabul were now in danger. Atiqullah’s talk of our imminent release seemed farcical.

The following morning, Atiqullah insisted that there was, in fact, a deal. At one point, he said we would be exchanged within “days.” He toyed with me, asking which flights I would take back to the United States and how many television cameras would be at the airport. He asked me what I would say to my wife when I saw her.

By this point, I began to doubt everything he said. Then I learned that he had lied to us from the beginning.

In conversations when our guards left the room, Tahir and Asad each separately whispered to me that Atiqullah was, in fact, Abu Tayyeb. They had known since the day we were kidnapped, they said, but dared not tell me. They asked me to stay silent as well. Abu Tayyeb had vowed to behead them if they revealed his true identity.

Abu Tayyeb had invited us to an interview, betrayed us and then pretended that he was a commander named Atiqullah.

I was despondent and left with only one certainty: We had no savior among the Taliban.

The World of Young Militants

A NERVOUS-LOOKING Pakistani soldier pointed a rocket-propelled grenade at our pickup truck in late January. The Taliban guard beside me loaded his rifle and ordered me to put a scarf over my face. A group of Pakistani civilians standing nearby moved out of the way, anticipating a firefight.

In the driver’s seat of our vehicle was Badruddin Haqqani, a senior commander of the Haqqani network, one of the Taliban’s most hard-line factions and the group that was holding me and two Afghan colleagues hostage in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Obeying the guard, I covered my face. The soldier was in the lead vehicle of a Pakistani Army supply convoy in North Waziristan. After surveying the road, the soldier got back in his truck, and the convoy rumbled forward.

I hoped that the Pakistanis might somehow rescue us. Instead, I watched in dismay as Badruddin got out of the truck and calmly stood on the side of the road. As trucks full of heavily armed government soldiers rolled by, he smiled and waved at them.

After the convoy disappeared, Badruddin seemed amused.

“Do you know who that was?” he asked me.

“No,” I said, trying to play dumb.

“That was the Pakistani Army,” he said.

He explained that under a cease-fire agreement between the Taliban and the army, all civilians were required to get out of their cars when an army convoy approached. For Taliban vehicles, though, only the driver had to get out. The practice, I realized, allowed the Taliban to hide kidnapping victims and foreign militants from the Pakistani Army.

That morning, Badruddin arrived at the house in Miram Shah where I was being held with Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist, and Asad Mangal, our driver. We had been taken hostage on a reporting trip south of Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2008 and moved to Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Badruddin announced that he was taking us out of town to a snow-covered hillside to shoot the final scene of a video that would be released to the news media. He was determined to make it look as though we were being held in the frigid mountains of Afghanistan, not in a bustling city in Pakistan.

As we continued our journey, we passed a half-dozen checkpoints that had been abandoned by the Frontier Corps, a militia that had been the Pakistani government’s primary security force in the tribal areas until 2001. Badruddin said that under the cease-fire agreement, only unarmed militia members could stand at the checkpoints.

As we drove, I occasionally saw members of the militia standing on the side of the road without guns. Some casually chatted with local tribesmen.

The trip confirmed suspicions I had harbored for years as a reporter. The Haqqanis oversaw a sprawling Taliban mini-state in the tribal areas with the de facto acquiescence of the Pakistani military. The Haqqanis were so confident of their control of the area that they took me — a person they considered to be an extraordinarily valuable hostage — on a three-hour drive in broad daylight to shoot a scene for a video outdoors.

Throughout North Waziristan, Taliban policemen patrolled the streets, and Taliban road crews carried out construction projects. The Haqqani network’s commanders and foreign militants freely strolled the bazaars of Miram Shah and other towns. Young Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members revered the foreign fighters, who taught them how to make bombs.

Over the winter, I would come to know the reality the Haqqanis had created. Some nights, commanders and their fighters visited the houses where we were being held. Conversations were dominated by their unwavering belief that the United States was waging a war against Islam.

It was a universe filled with contradictions. My captors assailed the West for killing civilians, but they celebrated suicide attacks orchestrated by the Taliban that killed scores of Muslim bystanders. They bitterly denounced missionaries, but they pressed me to convert to their faith. They complained about innocent Muslims being imprisoned by the United States, even as they continued to hold us captive.

Yet in our day to day existence, when commanders were absent, some of our guards showed glimpses of humanity. Those moments gave us hope that we might somehow be able to talk or reason our way out of captivity.

IN early February, our guards told us that Badruddin had sent the video to Afghan and foreign media outlets but that only Al Jazeera had broadcast it. The news frustrated Tahir and Asad, who had hoped that the video would be widely broadcast and stimulate negotiations.

I was not surprised. I had heard before our abduction that the Afghan and foreign news media had struck an informal agreement not to publicize the kidnappings of journalists in Afghanistan if their organization requested it.

The October 2008 kidnapping of a Canadian journalist in Kabul, Melissa Fung, had been kept quiet. Keeping the kidnappings out of the news, it was hoped, would decrease the expectations of hostage-takers that they could garner vast amounts of publicity or ransom for journalists.

After news outlets declined to show the video, we asked our guards to call Abu Tayyeb, the Taliban commander who had abducted us outside Kabul and concealed his identity. He agreed to return to Miram Shah and said he would try to negotiate a ransom with my family.

Tahir, Asad and I had received comforting letters from our families through the International Committee of the Red Cross. But I hadn’t spoken to my wife, Kristen, in three months.

Finally, on Feb. 16, Abu Tayyeb drove me to a remote location and allowed me to call her. The Taliban told me to give her the number of their cellphone and have her call us back. They were demanding $7 million at that point but were too cheap to pay for the phone call.

“This is my last call,” I said to her, repeating what they had told me to say. “This is our last chance.”

Abu Tayyeb promised that he would reach a settlement with my family. Then, as he had many times before, he left without doing so. My conversations with him during his brief visit left me doubtful that he would ever compromise in a case involving an American.

One morning, he wept at news that a NATO airstrike had killed women and children in southern Afghanistan. A guard explained to me that Abu Tayyeb reviled the United States because of the civilian deaths.

One evening, Abu Tayyeb declared that the Taliban treated women better than Americans did. He said women in the United States were forced to wear revealing clothes and define themselves solely as sex objects. The Taliban protected women’s honor by not allowing them to appear in public with their faces unveiled.

My captors saw me — and seemingly all Westerners — as morally corrupt and fixated on pursuing the pleasures of this world. Americans invaded Afghanistan to enrich themselves, they argued, not to help Afghans.

They ignored the fact that the United States helped build hundreds of miles of paved roads in Afghanistan and more than a thousand schools and health clinics. My captors denied widespread news reports that the Taliban burned down scores of newly built schools to prevent girls from getting an education.

I argued that the United States was not the menacing, predatory caricature that they believed. I also tried to counter their belief that all Americans were astonishingly rich. Nothing I said, though, seemed to change their minds.


One day, I received a copy of Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper, that featured an article on the perilous financial state of The New York Times. I saved the newspaper until commanders stopped by for visits.

Showing them the headline “New York Times Struggles to Stay Afloat,” I explained that the American newspaper industry — as well as the American economy — was in a free fall. They listened to what I said and nodded. Then, they ignored me.

WE were held for much of the winter in a building the Pakistani government had constructed to serve as a health clinic. It was part of an American-backed effort to win the hearts and minds of the local population.

Our guards spent their days there listening to radio broadcasts and shouting “God is great!” at reports of the deaths of Afghan and American soldiers.

Most of the guards were Afghan men in their late 20s and early 30s. Some had grown up as refugees in Pakistan. All had limited educations from government schools or religious institutions, known as madrasas. Some did not make it past junior high school. None had seen the world beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They all had relatives or friends who had been killed by Soviet or American troops. They grew up in a culture where teenage boys reached manhood and made a name for themselves by showing their bravery.

I tried to get to know one of the guards, who was preparing to be a suicide bomber. A young man in his 20s with a slim build and brown eyes, he said he had studied engineering in high school. He never attended college but was relatively well educated compared with the other fighters.

When I asked him why he wanted to die, he replied that living in this world was a burden for any true Muslim. Heaven was his goal, he said. Earthly relationships with his parents and siblings did not matter.

He spoke a smattering of English, and my own beliefs seemed to interest and amaze him. During our six weeks together, he asked me a series of questions. Was it true, he asked, that a necktie was a secret symbol of Christianity? Was it true that Christians wanted to live 1,000 years?

As the weeks passed, our captivity became increasingly surreal.

My Taliban guards slept beneath bedspreads manufactured by a Pakistani textile company and emblazoned with characters from the American television show “Hannah Montana” and the movie “Spider-Man.” My blanket was a pink Barbie comforter.

My captors railed against the evils of a secular society. In March, they celebrated a suicide attack in a mosque in the Pakistani town of Jamrud that killed as many as 50 worshipers as they prayed to God. Those living under Pakistan’s apostate government, they said, deserved it.

One commander declared that no true Muslim could live in a state where Islam was not the official religion. He flatly rejected my compromise suggestion that strict Islamic law be enacted in Afghanistan’s conservative rural south, while milder forms of Islam be followed in the comparatively liberal north.

Citing the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, he said it was every Muslim’s duty to try to stop others from sinning. If one person in a village commits a sin, those who witness it and do not stop him will also be punished by God.

After we had been held for months in captivity, my kidnappers demanded that I stop washing the group’s dishes because they did not want to catch my diseases. They believed that problems I was having with my stomach stemmed from my being an inherently unclean non-Muslim, not from unhygienic water.

Their rigidity was the opposite of the tolerant attitudes I had found among the vast majority of Muslims I had met in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pressing me to convert, one commander ordered me to read a passage of the Koran each day and discuss it with him at night. He dismissed my arguments that a forced conversion was not legitimate. He and the guards politely said they felt sorry for me. If I failed to convert, they said, I would suffer excruciating pain in the fires of hell.

At one point, a visiting fighter demanded to know why I would not obey. He said that if it were up to him, he would take me outside and offer me a final chance to convert. If I refused, he would shoot me.

I realized that he and other fighters might be exaggerating their views to frighten me. The virulence I saw among the Haqqani foot soldiers was not as monolithic as it sometimes seemed.

One young fighter showed a different side. He refused to carry out a commander’s order to kidnap a foreigner working in Afghanistan. During one visit, he suggested that I read a passage in an English-language Koran to comfort myself.

“Allah tasketh not a soul beyond its scope,” it said. “For it is only that which it hath earned, and against it only that which it hath deserved. Our Lord! Impose not on us that which we have not the strength to bear! Pardon us, absolve us and have mercy on us, Thou, our Protector, and give us victory over the disbelieving folk.”

DURING our months in Miram Shah, patterns emerged. When certain commanders visited, the atmosphere was tense, and discussions centered on what they saw as Western injustices against Muslims. When we were alone with the guards who lived with us, moments of levity emerged.

They searched for ways to break the monotony. After dinner on many winter nights, my guards sang Pashto songs for hours. My voice and Pashto pronunciation were terrible, but our guards urged me to sing along. The ballads varied. On some evenings, I found myself reluctantly singing Taliban songs that declared that “you have atomic bombs, but we have suicide bombers.”

On other nights, at my guards’ urging, I switched to American tunes. In a halting, off-key voice, I sang Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” and described it as the story of a villager who tries to succeed in the city and support his family. I sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and described it as a portrayal of the struggles of average Americans.

I realized that my guards, too, might have needed a break from our grim existence. But I felt like a performing monkey when they told me to sing for visiting commanders. I knew they were simply laughing at me.

I intentionally avoided American love songs, trying to dispel their belief that all Americans were hedonists. Despite my efforts, romantic songs — whatever their language — were the guards’ favorites.

The Beatles song “She Loves You,” which popped into my head soon after I received my wife’s letter from the Red Cross, was the most popular.

For reasons that baffled me, the guards relished singing it with me. I began by singing its first verse. My three Taliban guards, along with Tahir and Asad, then joined me in the chorus.

“She loves you — yeah, yeah, yeah,” we sang, with Kalashnikovs lying on the floor around us.

A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope

TWO deafening explosions shook the walls of the compound where the Taliban held us hostage. My guards and I dived to the floor as chunks of dirt hurtled through the window.

“Dawood?” one guard shouted, saying my name in Arabic. “Dawood?”

“I’m O.K.,” I replied in Pashto. “I’m O.K.”

The plastic sheeting covering the window hung in tatters. Debris covered the floor. Somewhere outside, a woman wailed. I wondered if Tahir Luddin and Asad Mangal, the two Afghans who had been kidnapped with me, were alive. A guard grabbed his rifle and ordered me to follow him outside.

“Go!” he shouted, his voice shaking with fury. “Go!”

Our nightmare had come to pass. Powerful missiles fired by an American drone had obliterated their target a few hundred yards from our house in a remote village in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Dozens of people were probably dead. Militants would call for our heads in revenge.

Outside, shredded tree leaves littered the yard, but the house and its exterior walls remained intact. Tahir and Asad looked worried. No one was hurt, but I knew the three of us might not survive for long.

It was March 25, and for months the drones had been a terrifying presence. Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be immolated without warning.

Our guards believed the drones were targeting me. United States officials wanted to kill me, they said, because my death would eliminate the enormous leverage and credibility they believed a single American prisoner gave the Haqqanis, the Taliban faction that was holding us. Whenever a drone appeared, I was ordered to stay inside. The guards believed that its surveillance cameras could recognize my face from thousands of feet above.

In the courtyard after the missile strike, the guards clutched their weapons and anxiously watched the sky. Fearing a direct attack on our house, they ordered me to cover my face with a scarf and follow them outside the compound. I knew that enraged Arab militants or local tribesmen could spot me once I was outside, but I had no choice.

They hustled me down a hillside to where a station wagon was parked between rows of trees. Opening the rear door, they ordered me to lie inside and keep the scarf on so passers-by could not see my face.

I lay in the back of the car and silently recited the Lord’s Prayer. In the distance, I heard men shouting as they collected their dead. If many people had been killed, particularly women and children, we were sure to die. For months, I had promised myself that if they taped our execution I would remain calm for my family and declare our innocence until the end.

After about 15 minutes, the guards returned to the car and led me back to the house. The missiles had struck two cars, killing a total of seven Arab militants and local Taliban fighters. I felt a small measure of relief that no civilians had been killed. But I knew we were still in grave danger.

Two weeks earlier our captors had moved us from Miram Shah, the capital of the North Waziristan tribal agency, to a remote town in South Waziristan. I had seen on a receipt from a local shop that we were in Makeen, a stronghold of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. The region teemed with Uzbek, Arab, Afghan and Pakistani militants.

For the next two hours, I did my best to placate the guards. I did not walk in the yard. I did not speak unless spoken to. I praised God for saving us.

Later, I learned that one guard called for me to be taken to the site of the attack and ritually beheaded as a video camera captured the moment. The chief guard overruled him.

The Taliban assailed the drone attacks, and my captors expressed more hatred for President Obama than for President Bush. They bitterly criticized the Obama administration for increasing the missile attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the number of American troops in Afghanistan.

A stalemate between the United States and the Taliban seemed to unfold before me. The drones killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.

The strikes also created a paranoia among the Taliban. They believed that a network of local informants guided the missiles. Innocent civilians were rounded up, accused of working as American spies and then executed.

Several days after the drone strike near our house in Makeen, we heard that foreign militants had arrested a local man. He confessed to being a spy after they disemboweled him and chopped off his leg. Then they decapitated him and hung his body in the local bazaar as a warning.

THE house in Makeen was the crudest we had inhabited in Pakistan. Perched on a hilltop, it had no running water, fleas and a courtyard littered with trash.

Makeen was colder than Miram Shah, and frequent rain and frigid temperatures created miserable conditions. Hailstorms were common and viewed as punishment from God by our captors.

I was given daily chores by guards who were half my age. The tasks were demeaning, since elders are treated with reverence in Pashtun culture, but I did not care. The chores helped me pass the time and appeared to give the guards the sense I was loyal.

Twice a day, I filled a barrel in the bathroom with water, which we used to flush the toilet, and methodically swept the dirt floors. It was a Sisyphean task, but cleaning gave me the illusion of control when in reality I had none.

Rarely allowed outside the house, I saw my world shrink to a few dozen square feet. My daily focus simply became survival.

Tahir struggled as well, telling me at times that he could no longer remember the faces of his seven children.

“This is not life,” he said. “I want to die.”

With each passing month, we felt increasingly forgotten and at the mercy of the young guards who lived with us. The chief guard was the younger brother of Abu Tayyeb, the Taliban commander who had abducted Tahir, Asad and me in November after inviting us to interview him outside Kabul, Afghanistan.

He began pocketing some of the money given to him to buy our food and supplies. He dared us to try to escape so he could end our captivity with “one bullet.” He complained that mujahedeen were dying in the drone strikes yet enormous attention was being wasted on one American prisoner.

When I showed him several dozen flea bites on my stomach and arms, he bought a pesticide and suggested that I put it on my sleeping bag. Fearing it would make me sick, I declined. When the bites continued, I showed another guard. His response was to show me his own stomach, which had no bites on it.

“I never get sick while I’m on jihad,” he said.

After long conversations between Tahir and me prompted the guards to accuse us of planning an escape, we spoke less. Some days, we talked only a few minutes. Increasingly, I became lost in my own thoughts, and my memories of the world I had known began to fade.

Trying to stay connected, I listened to the BBC’s shortwave radio broadcasts for hours at a time. The news broadcasts raised my spirits, but they also gave me the sensation of being in a coma. I could hear how the world was progressing but could not communicate with anyone in it.

THE video image was grainy but I immediately recognized the hostage’s face. “Hello, Peter,” an off-camera questioner said. “How are you?”

“Fine,” answered Piotr Stanczak, a soft-spoken 42-year-old Polish geologist kidnapped by the Taliban in September 2008. Two masked militants holding assault rifles stood on either side of him. A black sheet with jihadi slogans hung on the mud-brick wall behind him.

In mid-March, one of our guards arrived with a DVD player. After that, watching jihadi videos became the guards’ favorite pastime. Playing along with his captors in the video, Stanczak called for the Polish government to stop sending troops to Muslim countries and to break relations with the Pakistani government.

I had never met Stanczak but had read about his ordeal in Pakistani newspapers. When I realized the video would end in his beheading, I stood up to leave. I did not want to watch it — or give the guards the satisfaction of seeing me watch it.

“ ‘I would say people of Pakistan is very good, people is very good,’ ” I heard Stanczak say as I walked out of the room.

The videos were impossible to avoid at night, when I was confined to the room the guards were in. They were little more than grimly repetitive snuff films. The Taliban executed local men who had been declared American spies. Taliban roadside bombs blew up Afghan government trucks and American Humvees. The most popular videos documented the final days of suicide bombers.

As I silently watched, the guards repeatedly asked me what I thought of seeing American soldiers killed on the screen in front of us.

“All killing is wrong,” I said.

The guards would watch for hours at a time. Over all, the videos created an alternate, pro-Taliban narrative of the war in Afghanistan. A recurring theme was that the United States and NATO underreported the number of foreign troops dying in Afghanistan.

The videos were not limited to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Images of dead Palestinian, Kashmiri and Iraqi civilians delivered the message that vast numbers of Muslims were being slaughtered across the globe.

The constant images of death seemed to be cynical efforts by Taliban commanders to numb their young foot soldiers to the prospect of sacrificing their lives. Death, the message went, was not a distant fate. Instead, it was a friendly companion and a goal.

The guards knew little of the outside world and had limited education. They shared a book that glorified martyrdom, promising saccharine fruit juices, sumptuous food and 70 virgins in heaven. One of the guards read haltingly, pronouncing each word out loud as if he were an elementary school student.

I feared that the videos were brainwashing our driver, Asad. After we moved to Makeen, he seemed more friendly toward the guards and began carrying a Kalashnikov they had given him. He also stopped smoking, which the guards said was forbidden under Islam. He was only doing what he needed to do to stay alive, I told myself.

IN late April, a surprise visit by Abu Tayyeb, the commander who had kidnapped us, raised our hopes that our freedom was being negotiated. Dressed in an expensive white tunic, he strode into our compound just before dinner.

“Dawood,” he asked, “what would you say if I told you that you could start your journey back to New York tomorrow?”

“That would make me incredibly happy,” I said.

He told me to get a notebook and pen and ordered everyone to leave the room except for his deputy commander, Tahir and me.

“Your family has been very slow,” he said. “Write this down.”

“This is my proof-of-life video,” he dictated. “Maybe another video will come that will be very bad.”

He paused and tried to think of his next line.

“If this message does not help,” he said. “I cannot say what will happen to me.”

I quickly realized that Abu Tayyeb had not shown up to complete a deal. His visit was another effort to extort money from my family. Five months into our captivity, he had refused to lower his demands below a $5 million ransom as well as an exchange of prisoners.

Calmly sitting across the room from me, he dictated more lines.

“If you don’t help me, I will die,” he said. “Now the key is in your hand.”

He paused again for a moment.

“Please save me, I want to go home,” he said. “Don’t you want me to stay alive with you? Hurry up. Hurry up.”

Then he told me I would need to cry for the video. I stared at Tahir. If I refused, the Taliban might kill him or Asad to drive up a potential ransom payment. I hated the thought of my wife, Kristen, and my family seeing such a video, but Tahir was the father of seven children, and Asad the father of two. I agreed to make it.

The deputy commander, a man in his 50s, placed a scarf over his face and picked up a .50-caliber machine gun. He pointed it at my head, and one of the guards turned on a camera.

During the filming, I tried to convey that I was reading a prepared statement by intentionally looking down at the pad of paper. I sobbed intermittently but no tears flowed from my eyes.

After the first take, Abu Tayyeb announced that I hadn’t cried enough. He ordered me to read the message a second time. Standing behind the guard holding the camera, Abu Tayyeb waved his hands in the air, as if he were a film director, motioning for me to sob louder.

I tried to cry in an exaggerated fashion so that my family would recognize that none of it was real.

Later that night, Abu Tayyeb announced that the Afghan government had agreed to free 20 prisoners in exchange for our release. The problem, he said, was that my family would not agree to pay the $5 million ransom.

“My family does not have $5 million,” I told him angrily. “Why do you think we have been here for so long? Do you think they’re sitting on $5 million and just playing a game? If they had the money, they would offer it.”

Abu Tayyeb continued. He smiled and told me I was a “big fish.” He said my brother was the president of a company that manufactured jumbo jets. If my brother would sell one plane, he explained, my family could pay the ransom.

He had clearly looked up my family on the Internet. My brother was, in fact, the president of a small aviation consulting company, but it consisted of six people and manufactured nothing.

Abu Tayyeb claimed that the American government paid $10 million for the release of John Solecki, a United Nations worker kidnapped in Pakistan in February. As I had for months, I told him that the American government didn’t pay ransom.

Ignoring me, he said that the head of the F.B.I.’s office in New York had traveled to Afghanistan to secure my release. He vowed to force the United States government to pay the $5 million.

“You know where the money will come from,” he said. “And I know where the money will come from.”

I told him that he was delusional and that he should just kill me. Tahir refused to translate my words. “Don’t provoke him,” he said.

I told Abu Tayyeb we would “be here forever” if he did not reduce his demands.

“You are a spy,” Abu Tayyeb declared. “You know that you are a spy.”

I told him that he was absolutely wrong and that I was a journalist. Then, I tried to shame him in front of his men.

“God knows the truth,” I said. “And God will judge us all.”

ABU TAYYEB disappeared the following morning. We spent the next six weeks in a new house in a remote village in North Waziristan.

Each week, we received bits of information about the negotiations. First, our captors informed us that an agreement had been reached on the 20 Taliban prisoners who would be exchanged for our release. Then they said that not enough money was being offered along with the prisoners. Finally, they told us that only 16 of the 20 prisoners had been agreed upon.

In late May, we were taken back to Miram Shah, where we were informed of a final deal. All that was needed, they said, was for the two sides to agree to where the prisoner exchange would take place. The next day, they announced that there actually was no agreement.

In early June, Abu Tayyeb reappeared and announced that the American government was offering to trade the seven remaining Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for us. I told him that was ridiculous.

For months, Abu Tayyeb had been vastly exaggerating my value. He falsely claimed that the American diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke had freed Serbian prisoners in 1995 to win my release in Bosnia, where I was arrested while reporting on war crimes against Muslims.

He insisted that I was best friends with Mr. Holbrooke, now the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Then why I am still sitting here after seven months?” I asked him.

He smiled. If I made one more video, he said, we would be released. Ashamed of my previous video and convinced that Abu Tayyeb was lying yet again, I refused.

“This is all about you,” I said, raising my voice. “You are demanding millions of dollars so you can make yourself look good to the other commanders. You are the problem.”

He declared that he was doing everything “for the jihad.” Visibly angry, he again told me to make the video and then left the room.

Thirty minutes later, he returned and said that making the video was not a choice but an order. The half-dozen guards in the room stared at me.

Once again, Abu Tayyeb repeated his order, and I said no. I knew it was reckless, but standing up to him felt enormously liberating after months of acquiescing.

Sensing that Abu Tayyeb and his men were about to beat me, Tahir and Asad told me to make the video. “Just do it,” Tahir said.

I finally relented, but I was determined to turn it into an opportunity to console our families, not worry them. No guns were pointed at my head. I refused to cry. I spoke to the camera calmly and said the three of us were well.

At the end of the video, I included a message I had wanted to relay since the day we were kidnapped.

“However this ends, Kristen and all my family and friends should live in peace with yourselves,” I said. “I know you have all done absolutely everything you can to help us.”

A Rope and a PrayerI STOOD in the bathroom of the Taliban compound and waited for my colleague to appear in the courtyard so we could make our escape. My heart pounded. A three-foot-tall swamp cooler — an antiquated version of an air-conditioner — roared in the yard a few feet in front of me. I feared that the guards who were holding us hostage might wake up and stop us. I feared even more that our captivity would drag on for years.

It was 1 a.m. on Saturday, June 20, in Miram Shah, the capital of the North Waziristan tribal agency in Pakistan. After seven months and 10 days in Taliban captivity, I had come to a decision with Tahir Luddin, the Afghan journalist I had been kidnapped with, to try to make a run for it.

By then, we had concluded that our captors — a Taliban faction led by the Haqqani family — were not seriously negotiating for our release. In the latest of countless lies, they announced that the United States would free all the Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for us. We found the statement ludicrous and insulting. As they had a dozen times in the past, our captors claimed that a deal was near. Then nothing happened.

Tahir and I had decided that I would get up first that night and go to the bathroom without asking the guards for permission. If the guards remained asleep, Tahir would follow. Twenty feet away, on a shelf outside the kitchen, was a car towrope we planned to use to lower ourselves down a 15-foot wall ringing the compound. I had found it two weeks earlier and hidden it beneath a pile of old clothes.

Several minutes went by, but Tahir did not come out of the room. I stared intently at the entrance to the living room where we slept side by side with the guards — roughly 15 feet away and directly across the courtyard from the bathroom — and waited for Tahir to emerge. I had pulled his foot to rouse him before I crept out of the room. He had groaned and, I assumed, awakened.

As the minutes passed, I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood in the darkened bathroom and wondered if Tahir had changed his mind. If the guards caught us, they might kill me, but they would definitely kill Tahir. Part of me thought it was wrong even to have agreed to do this. After seven months in captivity, I wondered if we were capable of making rational decisions.

Even if we made it over the wall, we would have to walk through Miram Shah to get to a nearby Pakistani base. The town teemed with Afghan, Pakistani and foreign militants. Whoever caught us might be far less merciful than our current guards. Once on the base, we might encounter Pakistani military intelligence officials or tribal militia members who were sympathetic to the Taliban and would hand us back to the Haqqanis.

Yet I desperately longed to see my wife and family again. And I hated our captors so vehemently that I wanted them to get nothing in exchange for me. I pushed ahead.

Following a backup plan that Tahir and I had discussed that afternoon, I stepped out of the bathroom and picked up a five-foot-long bamboo pole leaning against the adjacent wall. I walked to the living room window and peered inside to make sure the guards were still asleep.

Beside me, the swamp cooler covered up the noise I made. Inside the room, a ceiling fan hummed. I opened the window, pointed the pole at Tahir’s side and poked him. I quickly walked back to the bathroom, leaned the pole against the wall and stepped inside.

Still, Tahir did not appear. I was convinced that he had changed his mind. It wasn’t fair of me, I thought, to have expected a man with seven children to risk his life.

Then, like an apparition, Tahir’s leg emerged from the window. His upper body and head followed and, finally, his second leg. As he stood up, I rushed out of the bathroom to meet him and kicked a small plastic jug used for ablutions. It skidded across the ground, and I motioned to Tahir to freeze, fearing that the noise would wake the guards.

Tahir and I stared at each other in the darkness. No guards appeared from the living room. Taking a few steps forward, I whispered in Tahir’s ear. “We don’t have to go,” I said. “We can wait.”

“Go get the rope,” he said.

INSIDE the living room, Asad Mangal, the young driver who had been taken hostage with Tahir and me, was sound asleep with the guards.

Several weeks earlier, we decided we could no longer trust Asad, who had begun cooperating with the guards and carrying an assault rifle they had given him. That afternoon, Tahir and I made a gut-wrenching decision to leave without him, fearing that he would tell the guards of our escape plans — as he had before.

Our rupture with Asad had become the darkest aspect of an already bleak captivity. Over the many months, the solidarity the three of us shared immediately after the kidnapping on Nov. 10 frayed under the threat of execution and indefinite imprisonment.

In December, Tahir and Asad expressed fury at me for exaggerating what our captors could receive for us in ransom. After being told that crews were on their way to film our beheadings, I had blurted out that our captors could receive prisoners and millions of dollars if we were kept alive.

I repeatedly apologized to Tahir and Asad, saying I had been trying to save us. But they called me a fool.

Over the course of the spring, Tahir said Asad told the guards that Tahir once had encouraged him to escape on his own. He said Asad told the guards that I was an American spy.

Finally, Tahir said he had whispered to Asad “we should escape” one night two weeks earlier. Asad did not respond. Days later, a guard announced that he had heard that Tahir was trying to escape.

Yet I also knew that Asad was under enormous pressure. As the driver, he would probably be the first one killed by the Taliban. He could be cooperating with the guards in order to survive.

Still, I did not trust him. If Tahir and I spoke with Asad about escaping for a second time, he could once more inform the guards. At the very least, we would squander an opportunity we might never have again. At worst, Tahir and I would be killed.

WE had arrived at the Miram Shah compound the first week of June. It was our ninth location in the tribal areas; we had been shuttled by our captors among homes in North and South Waziristan.

As I had done when we arrived in each new place, I swept floors and picked up trash to create a sense of order. It was then that I found the car towrope beside some wrenches and motor oil. The discovery, I thought, was the first stroke of good luck in our seven months in captivity. Thinking we might be able to use the rope during an escape, I hid it under an old shirt and pants.

In the days that followed, I tried to think of ways we could flee. When the guards let us sit on the roof with them at dusk, I noticed that it was surrounded by a five-foot-high wall. If we could hoist ourselves over it, I thought, we could use the rope to lower ourselves to the street.

At the same time, Tahir surveyed the area around the house when the guards took him with them to buy food and watch cricket games once or twice a week. He determined that the compound was closer to Miram Shah’s main Pakistani militia base than any other house we had been held in.

Tahir and I kept our conversations brief about how we could escape, worrying that the guards or Asad would overhear us.

On the afternoon of June 19, electricity returned to Miram Shah for the first time since fighting nearby cut power lines a week earlier. It was a fortuitous development. Electricity meant the swamp cooler and ceiling fan would help conceal any noise we made when we fled.

Already angry at new lies the guards had told us that morning about the negotiations, we agreed to try to escape that night. Tahir would keep the guards up late playing checkah, a Pakistani version of Parcheesi. If they were tired, they would sleep more soundly. Our plans for how to get over the wall were in place. Unfortunately, we disagreed about what to do after that.

Tahir said the Pakistani militiamen who guarded the military base would shoot us if we approached them at night. He said we should hike 15 miles to the Afghan border. I responded that we would never make it that far without being caught. Going to the Pakistani base was a risk we had to take. If we could surrender to an army officer, I said, he would protect us.

As we continued to argue, the guards returned to the room, and Tahir and I had to stop speaking. For the rest of the evening, we were never alone again. Our plan had no ending.

TAHIR kept the guards up late as we had discussed. By roughly 11 p.m., everyone was in bed. I lay awake, trying to listen to the guards’ breathing to figure out whether they had fallen asleep.

I blinked over and over in the darkness but saw no difference when my eyes were open or closed. It was as if I were blind. I turned around at times to look at the orange light on the swamp cooler to make sure I could still see.

Anxious, I tried to calm myself by praying. In February, a Taliban commander who had been pressing me to convert to Islam told me that if I said “forgive me, God” 1,000 times each day our captivity might end. I had done as he had suggested, with no results. But I did not care. The prayers soothed me and passed the time. Each day, I would stare at the ceiling and say “forgive me, God” 1,000 times while the guards took naps. Counting on my fingers, it took me roughly 60 minutes to reach 1,000.


That night, waiting to make sure the guards were sound asleep, I asked God to forgive me 2,000 times. In truth, I expected the escape attempt to fail quickly. I thought a guard would wake up as soon as I tried to leave the room. I would say I was going to the bathroom, walk to the toilet, return a few minutes later and go back to sleep. I would feel better the next morning for at least having tried. Instead, to my amazement, our plan was actually working. After Tahir and I made it to the courtyard, I retrieved the rope and we crept up a flight of stairs leading to the roof. Tahir tied the rope to the wall surrounding the roof. Placing his toe between two bricks, he climbed to the top and peered at the street below.


“The rope is too short,” he whispered after stepping down. I shifted the knot on the rope to give it more length, pulled myself up on the wall and looked down at the 15-foot drop. The rope did not reach the ground, but it appeared close. I glanced back at the stairs, fearing that the guards would emerge at any moment. “We don’t have to go,” I repeated to Tahir. “It’s up to you.” I got down on my hands and knees, Tahir stepped on my back and lifted himself over the wall. I heard his clothes scrape against the bricks, looked up and realized he was gone. I grabbed his sandals, which he had left behind, and stuffed them down my pants. I climbed over, momentarily snagged a power line with my foot, slid down the wall and landed in a small sewage ditch. I looked up and saw Tahir striding down the street in his bare feet. I ran after him.

FOR the first time in seven months, I walked freely down a street. Glancing over my shoulder, I didn’t see any guards emerge from our house, which looked smaller than I had expected.


We headed down a narrow dirt lane with primitive mud-brick walls on either side of us. Makeshift electrical wires snaked overhead in what looked like a densely populated neighborhood. We walked into a dry riverbed and turned right. I kept slipping on the large sand-covered stones and felt punch-drunk. I caught up to Tahir and handed him his sandals.


“My ankle is very painful,” Tahir said, as he slipped them on and continued walking. “I can’t walk far.” A large dark stain covered his lower left pant leg. I worried that he had ripped open his calf on his way down the wall. At the same time, my left hand stung. I noticed that the rope had made a large cut across two of my fingers.


“Where are we going?” I asked Tahir as we quickly made our way down the riverbed, afraid someone would see or hear us.“There is a militia base over there,” Tahir said, gesturing to his left. “I don’t trust them.” Neither did I. Earlier, Tahir had told me there was a checkpoint maintained by a Pakistani government militia near the house. Turning ourselves in there would be a gamble, I thought. I still believed that our best chance was to surrender to a military officer on the Pakistani base in Miram Shah. “We have to go to the main base,” I said.“Impossible,” Tahir said, continuing down the riverbed. “The guards said that Arabs and Chechens watch the main gate 24 hours a day.” The Taliban would recapture us, Tahir believed, before we got to the base. I started to panic. We had made it over the wall but did not know where we were going.


Despite his ankle, Tahir seemed determined to hike 15 miles to the Afghan border. As we walked, we argued over which way to go. “We have to go to the Pakistani base,” I told Tahir. Striding ahead, he didn’t respond. Dogs began barking from one of the walled compounds to our right. “We can’t make it to the border,” I said. “We have to go to the base.” Tahir continued walking, but after a few minutes he complained about his ankle. “There is too much pain,” he said. We stopped and I pulled up his pant leg. His calf had not been cut. The dark stain on his pants was from the sewage ditch we had both landed in outside our compound. “There is another gate,” Tahir said, changing his mind. “Come.”


I waited for Taliban fighters to emerge from the darkness, but none did. Tahir told me to put a scarf I was carrying over my head.“If anyone stops us, your name is Akbar and my name is Timor Shah,” he said. “Act like a Muslim.”

My sense of time was distorted, but it seemed as though we had been walking in the darkness for 5 to 10 minutes. I did not feel free. If anything, I was more frightened. I worried that an even more brutal militant group would capture us. We left the riverbed and walked down an alleyway between compounds for about 50 yards. We arrived at a two-lane paved street.

“This is the main road in Miram Shah,” Tahir whispered.

To our left was a vacant stretch. To our right stood a gas station with four pumps and several shops. Dim light bulbs hung outside and illuminated the area. I silently questioned why Tahir was leading us down the center of the road where we could be easily spotted.

Suddenly, shouts erupted to our left and I heard a Kalashnikov being loaded. Tahir raised his hands and said something in Pashto. A man shouted commands in Pashto. I raised my hands as my heart sank. The Taliban had recaptured us.

In the faint light, I saw a figure with a Kalashnikov standing on the roof of a dilapidated one-story building. Beside the building was a mosque with freshly painted white walls. The building and mosque had concertina wire and earthen berms in front of them.

“If you move,” Tahir said, “they will shoot us.”

Then, Tahir said words I could scarcely believe.

“This is the base.”

We had made it to the Pakistanis.

I held my hands high in the air and dared not move an inch. A nervous Pakistani guard could shoot us dead as we stood in the street. With my long beard, scarf and clothes I looked like a foreign suicide bomber, not a foreign journalist.

Another voice came from inside the building. It sounded as if the guard was waking up his comrades. One or two more figures appeared on the roof and aimed more gun barrels at us.

The Pakistani guard on the roof intermittently spoke in Pashto with Tahir. I heard Tahir say the words for “journalist,” “Afghan” and “American.”

My arms began to burn, and I struggled to slow my breathing. I desperately tried not to move my hands.

“Tell them we will take off our shirts,” I told Tahir, thinking the Pakistani guards might fear that we were suicide bombers who wore vests packed with explosives.

Tahir said something in Pashto, and the man responded.

“Lift up your shirt,” Tahir said. I immediately obliged.

The guard spoke again.

“He is asking if you are American,” Tahir said.

“I am an American journalist,” I said in English, surprised at the sound of my own voice in the open air. “Please help us. Please help us.”

I kept talking, hoping they would recognize that I was a native English speaker. “We were kidnapped by the Taliban seven months ago,” I said. “We were kidnapped outside Kabul and brought here.”

“Do you speak English?” I said, hoping one of the Pakistani guards on the roof understood. “Do you speak English?”

The guard said something to Tahir.

“They are radioing their commander,” Tahir said. “They are asking for permission to bring us inside.”

Tahir pleaded with the guards to protect us under the traditional honor code of Pashtunwali, which requires a Pashtun to give shelter to any stranger who asks. He begged them to take us inside the base before the Taliban came looking for us.

About two or three minutes passed. The Pakistani guards stood behind sandbags on the roof. Above us, stars glittered in a peaceful, crystal clear sky.

For the first time that night, it occurred to me that we might actually succeed. Escape — an ending I never dreamed of — might be our salvation. I held my hands still and waited.

SEVERAL minutes passed, and Tahir and I grew nervous. “Please allow us in the mosque,” Tahir said. “Please let us inside.”

The Pakistani guard on the roof said they were waiting for the senior officer to arrive. Tahir asked what we should do if the Taliban drove down the road. The guard said that we should dive behind the dirt embankment, and that they would open fire on anyone who approached. But they still declined to let us on the base.

Tahir complained to me about the pain in his arms as he held them in the air. His ankle hurt as well.

“Please wait, Tahir,” I said, encouraging him to keep his hands in the air. “Please wait. We’re so close.”

Tahir asked for permission to sit on the ground, and the Pakistani guard granted it. Tahir sat down and groaned. He seemed exhausted.

Soon after, the Pakistani guard said we could walk toward the mosque. With our hands in the air, we crossed over the surrounding berm unsteadily. As the loose soil gave way, we both nearly lost our balance. I worried that we would be shot if we slipped and fell.

“Lie down on the ground,” Tahir said. “If you move, they will shoot us.”

Soon after, a senior Pakistani officer arrived, and Tahir told me to stand up. The officer stood a few feet from us on the other side of the concertina wire. He spoke with Tahir in what sounded like a reassuring tone.

“He is a very polite person,” Tahir said. “We are under their protection. We are safe.”

In one moment, the narrative of our captivity reversed itself. The powerlessness I had felt for months began to fade. We were achingly close to going home.

I thanked the officer in Pashto, Urdu and English, desperate to win his trust.

“How are you?” the senior officer said in English.

“How are you?” I replied, trying again to demonstrate that I was an American.

At this point, Tahir and I had been standing outside the concertina wire for 15 or 20 minutes. We still needed to get inside the base.

We offered to take off our shirts, and the officer told us to do so. I watched Tahir step unsteadily over the concertina wire and into the base.

“Come,” Tahir said. “Come.”

I followed Tahir inside, and the senior officer and several Pakistani guards shook my hand.

“Thank you,” I said to them in English, over and over. “Thank you.”

THE politeness of the Pakistani guards amazed me. I knew we could still be handed over to the Taliban, but I savored the compassion we were receiving from strangers. For the first time in months, I did not feel hostility.

They let us put our shirts on and drove us in a pickup truck toward the center of the base. I stared at Tahir and slapped him on the back. We were both in shock.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”

I asked Tahir to tell the guards that I wanted to call my wife, Kristen. I needed to somehow communicate to the outside world that we were on a Pakistani base. If we could get word to American officials, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the Pakistanis to hand us back to the Haqqanis.

We arrived in the center of the base, and I got out the back of the truck. A row of well-lighted, white one-story offices sat 50 feet away on the other side of a neatly manicured lawn. It was the first green grass I had seen in seven months. I walked across it and relished the sense of openness and safety. The guards brought us to a clean, modern office with a large desk and couches along the walls.

After several minutes, a young Pakistani captain who spoke perfect English introduced himself as the base commander. He looked as if he had just gotten out of bed.

After explaining our kidnapping and escape, I asked him if I could call my wife. He hesitated at first and then said he would try to find a phone card to make a long distance call.

As we waited, Tahir spoke in Pashto to the various militia members on the base. A doctor cleaned and bandaged the cuts on his foot and my hand. Tahir laughed and his face beamed as he spoke. I had never seen him so happy. But after several minutes, his face darkened.

“David, I feel terrible about Asad,” Tahir said of our driver. “What have we done?”

I looked out the window in the direction of Miram Shah and wondered whether the guards who had been holding us captive had awakened yet. When they did, they would be furious.

“We had no choice,” I said, trying to rationalize abandoning Asad. I wondered if our escape could prompt our captors to kill him. I prayed that they would be merciful.

About an hour later, a soldier arrived with a phone card, and I wrote my home number on a white slip of paper. The captain dialed the phone on his desk and handed me the receiver.

The phone in my apartment back in New York rang repeatedly and no one answered. Finally, the answering machine picked up and I listened to my wife’s cheerful voice ask callers to leave us a message. Our escape still seemed like a dream. The machine beeped, and I spoke in an unsteady voice.

“Kristen, it’s David,” I said. “It’s David. Please pick up.”

I repeated the words several times. Fearing that the tape on the answering machine would run out, I finally blurted out, “We’ve escaped.”

Someone picked up the receiver in New York.

“David,” a woman’s voice said. “It’s Mary Jane.”

My mother-in-law had answered.

“We’ve escaped and are on a Pakistani military base,” I told her.

Fearing retaliation by the Taliban, I asked her to call The Times immediately and tell them to evacuate Tahir’s and Asad’s families from their homes in Kabul, as well as the people in the newspaper’s bureau there.

I spent the next several minutes describing our exact location. I gave her the names of the tribal area, town, base and commanding officer. I told her she needed to contact American officials and ask them to help evacuate us. I wanted the Pakistani officer to hear that the American government would soon know we were on his base. At the end of the conversation, I apologized to her for all of the pain and worry I had caused.

“Just come home safe,” she said.

Thirty minutes passed, and the captain agreed to let me make another call to try to reach my wife. With each passing minute, I began to believe that we were finally safe and would return home.

The phone rang. This time, Kristen picked up.

“David?” she said, breathlessly. “David?”

“Kristen,” I said, savoring the chance to utter the words I had dreamed of saying to her for months.

“Kristen,” I said, “please let me spend the rest of my life making this up to you.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”


FIVE weeks after our escape, Asad crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan, called his family and said he was free.

Ten days later, I spoke with him by phone. Asad said the guards had slept until dawn on the night Tahir and I escaped. At first, they thought we were in the bathroom. Then they realized we were gone.

Asad said he was accused of knowing about our escape plan. A Taliban commander then chained and held him underground for 17 days. For three of those days he was beaten, he said.

Asad’s family sent a tribal delegation to press his captors to release him. Asad said that after a guard left him alone on July 27, he fled, found a taxi and took it to the Afghan border.

In our phone call, Asad denied cooperating with the guards during our captivity and said that he had carried a gun because the Taliban had ordered him to do so. In the end, I believe that Asad played along with the Taliban to survive.

Upon my return to New York, I learned that a wide array of people had worked for our release, including family members, colleagues, government officials and security consultants.

A number of Afghan and Pakistani men also offered to try to obtain information about our whereabouts or to gain our release. Some volunteered, others asked for money. During that time, two of the Afghan men died in ambushes, but it is not known whether those attacks were related to work on our case.

Determining the truth of events in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is notoriously difficult. The current fighting in the region makes it even more so. Killings are rarely investigated. Disputes, vendettas and rumors are constant.

After I returned home, I discovered that my captor’s fabrications were even larger than I had realized. Abu Tayyeb, it turned out, had made his name in the late 1990s by killing a group of Afghan prisoners who opposed the Taliban. He is believed to be hiding in Karachi in southern Pakistan.

His claim that I had told the military of his location on the day of our Nov. 10 interview was false. There had been no military operation.

The video of us trudging through the snow in January was never broadcast. Al Jazeera ran a brief promotional segment but then did not broadcast the full video at the request of The Times.

Virtually all of the statements Abu Tayyeb made to me regarding the negotiations turned out to be false. The Afghan government never agreed to exchange prisoners for the three of us. And the United States did not offer to trade us for the remaining Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. After our escape, rumors circulated that a ransom had been paid or our guards bribed. My family and The New York Times paid no ransom. The Times has decided not to make public its efforts to secure our release because details could endanger correspondents and others working in the region.

American government officials worked to free us, but they maintained their longstanding policy of not negotiating with kidnappers. They paid no ransom and exchanged no prisoners. Pakistani and Afghan officials said they also freed no prisoners and provided no money.

Security consultants who worked on our case said cash was paid to Taliban members who said they knew our whereabouts. But the consultants said they were never able to identify or establish contact with the guards who were living with us.

False reports persist. On Sept. 13, The Sunday Times in London reported that $9 million was paid for our release. Then it issued a full retraction.

The Taliban continue to abduct journalists. On Sept. 6, fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz kidnapped a New York Times correspondent, Stephen Farrell, and the Afghan journalist working with him, Sultan Munadi, as they reported on a NATO bombing that had killed many civilians.

Four days later, a raid by British commandos freed Stephen, but Sultan was killed, along with a British soldier and an Afghan woman. Sultan was a good friend. He was the father of two and was home on a break from studying in Germany.

My suspicions about the relationship between the Haqqanis and the Pakistani military proved to be true. Some American officials told my colleagues at The Times that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, turns a blind eye to the Haqqanis’ activities. Others went further and said the ISI provided money, supplies and strategic planning to the Haqqanis and other Taliban groups.

Pakistani officials told my colleagues that the contacts were part of a strategy to maintain influence in Afghanistan to prevent India, Pakistan’s archenemy, from gaining a foothold. One Pakistani official called the Taliban “proxy forces to preserve our interests.”

Meanwhile, the Haqqanis continue to use North Waziristan to train suicide bombers and bomb makers who kill Afghan and American forces. They also continue to take hostages.

I feel enormous gratitude for everything that was done on our behalf. We were extraordinarily fortunate to have escaped from the Taliban mini-state in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Countless others have not been — and will not be — so lucky."