’36 Hours With the Taliban’: Mediaite Interviews CNN’s Clarissa Ward on Her Stunning Report From Afghanistan
After seventeen years of war, what is the state of affairs in Afghanistan? U.S. coalition forces are currently negotiating with the Taliban to coordinate an exit strategy for American troops in the region.
I spoke with CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward about her unprecedented access and experience behind enemy lines as she, and producer Salma Abdelaziz, were embedded for 36 hours with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The full special can be viewed in its entirety above.
This Q&A initially ran in Mediaite’s daily newsletter, which you can sign up for here.
Talk a little bit about how you managed to gain access into a world so reclusive to Westerners? What was it like?
“When I originally approached Afghan filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi, who has done a lot of work with the Taliban and told him that Salma Abdelaziz, the producer, and I wanted to actually go in with him and spend time with the Taliban; he actually laughed and said he didn’t think that was possible. But then by the end of the lunch, I think he saw how serious we were and how committed we were to telling this story. And so, he went away and thought about it and went to some intermediaries with this idea to the Taliban, and after some time they agreed to it in principle…
The bigger hurdle was persuading CNN management that it was doable in terms of the risk and the security situation. And I think what really helped to put peoples’ minds at ease are the ongoing talks in Doha and the sense that the Taliban feels like there is real momentum to these peace talks and that U.S. troops might withdraw and so it would not be politically expedient for them to kidnap a Western journalist…
It took many, many months to get everyone from the Taliban to CNN on the same page vis-à-vis how it would work…
The other major risk on the ground is airstrikes from the U.S. or the Afghan Air Force. We did not tell the U.S. military that we were going for ethical reasons — I don’t think that would have been appropriate. But that was something we were very mindful of while we were there and we looked in a lot to how many strikes have been in the area, and when and what time and what situation, etc.”
What was the most surprising thing that you learned from your time reporting behind the lines?
“I think that the most striking thing was that, while the Taliban has clearly not changed fundamentally — ideologically, they still are incredibly insular and they have a very austere and draconian interpretation of Islamic law and Sharia law — there is no question that they are definitely trying to be a bit more pragmatic. They are trying to show that they can cooperate with the Afghan government and run hospitals together, run schools together. They’re wanting to show that they care about their public image. That they can govern. That they’re grown ups and they can sit at the negotiating table with the U.S.
And the question that was sort of left lurking in my mind was, ‘how sincere is this pragmatism and how long does this last; or does the Taliban just really view this as a means to an end — the sooner they can get U.S. troops to withdraw, the sooner they can go about reestablishing their full control over Afghanistan, and will that pragmatism still be intact in that scenario.’
What was also striking, talking to people on the ground in these rural areas, is just that women’s education is not a priority for them. And so the Taliban is trying to focus on what people in these areas see as a priority. Things like justice, where they have an edge over the Afghan government because they don’t have the same issue of corruption. They can deliver quick, if harsh, justice.”
Through your experience, do you think that a deal is within reach between the U.S. and Taliban?
“The Taliban were very explicit with us that they did not want us to ask political questions. We went ahead and asked them anyway, but the answer we were given when we did ask deliberately political questions was, ‘this is a question that should really be referred to the Taliban’s political leadership.’
I think privately, the sense I very much got was that they do believe a deal is within reach… the kind of language they were using is, ‘when we are in full control and ruling the Islamic emirates…’ So, the very fact that they are talking in these terms, I think, gives you a pretty clear idea that, while they are not explicitly commenting on the peace talks, they are pretty confident they are going their way.”
You’ve said “I fundamentally believe that this story could not have been done by a man.” Can you elaborate a little on that? And how was it like being a woman reporting from within the Taliban? Did you ever feel uncomfortable? Did you ever feel in danger?
“I think being a woman in this situation was a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that you are not seen in the same way as a Western male — as being hostile, as being an enemy combatant, as being potentially a spy. There’s a degree of magnanimity towards a female reporter that I think may not be afforded to a male colleague.
We had to wear the full facial veil — the niqab — when we were out in public. And, on the one hand, that was obviously not a lot of fun because it’s annoying, it impedes your work and it’s not great for doing pieces to camera. But on the other hand, it made our identities just that little bit less conspicuous. People obviously knew that we were outsiders and that we were journalists, but they couldn’t see, from looking at us, that we were Americans. And while the Taliban leadership knew that we were Americans, the people on the ground did not have a sense of where exactly we were from. They just knew that we were foreigners.
The other main point about doing this as women, was that we had really extraordinary, unprecedented access to women living under Taliban rule. That is something that we have not seen anywhere before since 9/11 because men, in Afghanistan, have absolutely no access to women. We were talking to mothers in the clinic. We were sleeping on the floor next to women and children, members of the family. And through conversations with them, you really get a different, richer, more nuanced perspective on this whole conflict… what they want to see is peace. What they want to see is improvement to their daily lives.
Speaking to your question of how you felt as a woman in terms of being uncomfortable — there was this extraordinary moment where the military commander arrived and was upset that we were going to potentially walk on the street with the Taliban governor. And, so, we had to walk behind the men. And that was somewhat galling — I’ve certainly never been asked to do that before in my career. At the same time, we were treated politely. There was no sense of hospitality or friendliness. It was extremely frosty — largely we were ignored. My colleague, who is Egyptian-American would say ‘Salam Aleichem’ to people and they would not return her ‘Salam,’ for example. So, it was almost like wearing a cloak of invisibility — with all the benefits that entails, but also with the downsides that it comes with.”
What would you like people to know about your experience?
“Seventeen years after this war began and with more than 2,300 U.S. troops killed, more than $1 trillion of U.S. taxpayers’ money spent — and traveling around this area, and seeing how little life has changed for these people. How few improvements they’ve actually seen. And now, knowing that the Taliban is really within grasping range of, what it would view as, a decisive victory, I think Americans really have a right to know what the country looks like — what the U.S. has been able to achieve, what they very clearly have not been able to achieve — so that they can ask themselves the question of whether this was worth it. Whether this can every count as a victory. Or whether this war has been lost and what that means for the country going forward, when it comes to foreign policy.”
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