David Rhode Saw Radicalization of Young Taliban

During seven months and ten days in Taliban captivity, New York Times reporter David Rohde had several encounters with a new crop of fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Rohde, who wrote about his kidnapping and escape in a five-part series for the Times, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez about this new generation of Taliban and how they might ultimately reshape the terror organization. Excerpts:

How is the younger generation of Taliban fighters you met different than previous fighters?

The distinction is [really] between young Afghan Taliban spending time around foreign militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, [who] tend to be more radical and hardline, and young Afghan villagers based inside Afghanistan who are fighting for much more local reasons. My perspective is limited because I was held in the tribal areas [of Pakistan], but the young people I met there seemed to embrace the much broader Islamist ideology that was not simply about Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Why did we end up with this subset of possibly more radical Taliban?

The fact that a state haven—basically a Taliban ministate—has existed in Pakistan's tribal areas for the last eight years has created this whole group of young fighters that embrace this broader vision. The area is a fulcrum where Al Qaeda has been able to spread its hardline views.

Can anything be done to keep more young men from joining?

A more effective Afghan government would convince young Afghans to not necessarily join the Taliban or at least not accept the propaganda they hear. My guards basically dismissed the Afghan government as corrupt and that Americans only came to Afghanistan to make money, not to help Afghans. So I think a more viable alternative to the Taliban would help. That's the responsibility of the Afghan government and American government.

We've generally assumed the Taliban are not interested in global attacks. Is that a flawed assumption?

Most are not interested in global attacks. But my guards did talk about wanting to carry out attacks in the United States. That could just be talk, but they did specifically want to target the United States as revenge for drone attacks in the region.

In the past, fighters still deferred to—or at the very least respected—tribal leaders. What's the relationship between these young fighters and tribal elders like now?

Among the hard-core committed Taliban, they don't respect the tribal elders, but many analysts think that tribal elders still have authority that other young Afghans who don't support the Taliban are looking to for stability. I still think the tribal system can play a major role in trying to stabilize Afghanistan and emerge as an alternative to the Taliban. That's a large part of why the Taliban has so brutally targeted them—because they know the elders represent an alternative. Many experts believe that strengthening the tribal system could help stabilize rural areas in a more efficient way than, say, trying to create a government system where one never existed.

Your own narrative suggests this young Taliban generation is even more heartless. Do they have any kind of ties to their communities at all?

The young man that I met who was training to be a suicide bomber was told that his family relationship did not matter; his relationship with his friends did not matter; his relationship with his tribe did not matter. All that mattered was his relationship to God. It is a systematic effort where they cut all social ties between these young men and their communities and refocus them completely on religious devotion and devotion to the Taliban.

How do you see them ultimately reshaping the Taliban organization?

That's the most important question. We all wonder if the younger generation Taliban would agree to some settlement in Afghanistan or not.

What do you think?

The rhetoric I heard in the tribal areas was that they could not compromise with any moderate government in Islamabad or Kabul. They believe it's their religious duty to extend Sharia across all of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I don't think it's accurate to say it's true of all Afghan fighters. Perhaps the Afghan fighters in the Afghan areas [rather than the Pakistani ones] are more moderate.

How does the Haqqani network, which partly operates in the tribal regions in North Waziristan and has grown many of the young fighters, play into this?

The Haqqani network has growing influence in the Taliban movement. This goes back to how important it is for the Pakistani Army to go into North Waziristan and eliminate the safe haven the Haqqanis and their foreign allies have had since 2002.

How hard would that be to do?

The Pakistani Army could do that very effectively. I praise them for going into the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. I think it's vital they go into North Waziristan as soon as possible. It's the last area where the Taliban has this kind of ministate. It's a massive priority that they eliminate it.

Does Pakistan understand that?

There are some Pakistani military officials who see the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban still as strategic assets that they can control to use as proxies against Indian influence in Afghanistan. I think that's a faulty belief. If they are going to wage war on Pakistani Taliban, they should wage war on Afghan Taliban. They are all part of a broad Islamic movement. When I was being held, the two worked seamlessly together. There is no difference between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan Taliban. Any officials who believe that are deluding themselves.

David Rhode Saw Radicalization of Young Taliban | World