As the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdrew and the U.S.-backed Afghan military crumbled with speed few foresaw, stunning images and reporting from the country have led news broadcasts around the world. Clarissa Ward has been one of the most prominent journalists driving that coverage on the ground, where she has reported out in the open as Taliban fighters closed in on Kabul. Her work has been heartbreaking and fearless—and, more strangely, it has drawn the ire of the American right.
Ward, also the author of a memoir, became the chief international correspondent for CNN in 2018, succeeding Christiane Amanpour. She’s reported from the wars in Syria and Yemen, and in early 2019, she reported from Taliban territory during the war. Now Ward is in Kabul, and her team has been on the front lines as the Taliban has advanced. We spoke by phone Tuesday about what she’s seeing on the ground right now, her direct questioning of the Taliban about its plans for women, and the smear campaigns that have emerged against her in right-wing media and from politicians like Ted Cruz. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Aymann Ismail: What are you seeing on the streets of Kabul right now?
Clarissa Ward: The streets right now are a very surreal scene because in many ways it looks fairly normal. Taliban yesterday announced that government workers, people working in ministries, should return to work. We saw traffic policemen back out today. There were cars on the road. We went to the market. Not all the shops were open, but a decent number of them were. Taliban is all over the city, on every corner pretty much, controlling the market, and their big mission right now is to try to show that they can maintain law and order. That they can govern. That they’re not only an insurgent force, but they can be a political force too.
How have the challenges of your reporting changed now that the Taliban is in control?
In a very odd way, things are now more simplified. Before, when you were operating inside Kabul, you have the government, and you knew the Taliban was in the background and they were dangerous. You knew there was various terrorist groups that were operating inside the city. And so there were all these different complexities and various threats that you have to take into account every time you left the building to go and do your reporting. Which didn’t mean that you couldn’t go out on the streets and do your reporting—you could—but you really had to plan things. You wanted to limit the amount of time that you would spend on any one street. You wanted to try to keep moving, and spend more time in private places than public spaces. Now there’s one sheriff in town, and it’s the Taliban. And for this brief moment in time—perhaps brief, I don’t know—right now the Taliban says that they are open to journalists doing their work and being here, Western or from whatever country or Afghan as well. They say that we can go about doing work. And so far, they have not tried to interfere with our work. So in some ways, it’s a more streamlined process because there’s one group in charge.
What are you hearing from regular people in Kabul? Are they surprised too by how fast this happened? Are they scared, hopeful, a mix?
Honestly, day one, people were wandering around in a dazed stupor trying to process the enormity of what had transpired in a matter of hours. And it was like they were in shock. And as that shock starts to wear off a little bit, there are a number of different reactions that I’ve seen from ordinary people I’ve talked to. One of the most pronounced is fear. I’ve spent a lot of time today talking to people who are petrified, who are in hiding, who don’t want to leave their houses. I went to one woman’s house. She’s worked with the U.N. and various other international organizations. She refuses to leave her apartment now. She was crying throughout our conversation. She is so petrified that the Taliban was going to find out that she works with a Western organization, that she’s going to face some kind of punishment or retribution for that. And she’s also terrified because she has two daughters, and she no longer knows what kinds of futures she can offer them here. And so she very much wants to leave, but for the immediate future, that’s not possible. None of these organizations she’s worked for are even answering her emails.
In America, it seems the Republican talking point has settled on fears of potential Afghan refugees like her coming over. They’re arguing an influx of Afghan nationals will trickle in the influence of the Taliban.
First of all, the people that would be coming to the U.S. are people who have worked with American organizations, who have worked with the U.S. military as translators or various different roles. So those people do not share the Taliban ideology. The reason they want to leave the country is because they are petrified of the Taliban, and petrified that their life as they know it is now over. I would say that the people who have the Taliban ideology in Afghanistan are very excited now to be in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In one of your dispatches on CNN, you candidly said something to the effect that Taliban fighters were chanting “death to America,” but at the same time seemed friendly to you. That little bit has since taken a life of its own, making rounds in some right-wing media.
I’m a little bit inured to the “death to America” chants because I understand that people chant a lot of crazy stuff, and it’s often not necessarily an expression of what’s in their heart. It’s more an expression of whatever the geopolitics of the region is. I first did a big story with the Taliban at the beginning of 2019, and I spent a couple of days with them. And then last week, I also spent a couple of days with them. I’ve done a lot of stuff on militants in Syria. So I’ve had a lot of exposure to militant Islamists, which is not to minimize the threat that they can pose, but to just say that I have a different threshold for when I think it’s a dangerous situation. I understand that a lot of the rhetoric is just rhetoric. That doesn’t mean it’s nice to hear. But I could feel that the mood, despite the nasty chant, it was a jubilant, relaxed, victorious mood that these guys were in. They were not looking to get in a tussle with the Western journalist.
There’s also a meme floating around of you reporting in Afghanistan unveiled, then veiled now for the Taliban. You already responded to it and called it “inaccurate.” Were you directed to wear the hijab? Will you eventually cover yourself more to continue reporting from on the ground?
The Taliban has not said anything to me about my attire so far on the street. As you could see, I’ve been dressed very conservatively. I haven’t been dressed conservatively because I have been told to by them. I just understand from operating in places where you have a deeply conservative society that I can get a lot more done and draw a lot less attention to myself if my clothing doesn’t become an area of fixation or obsession. So to me, it’s really not a big deal to cover my hair completely or wear an abaya if it means that a Taliban fighter will talk to me. Whereas if I’m wearing something a bit more form-fitting and have my hair showing, he might not tell me to go and change, but he’s not going to talk to me. No way. So I’ll wear what I need to wear to make people feel comfortable enough to talk to me.
Do these kind of attacks from afar—Ted Cruz said you “cheerlead” for the Taliban—complicate the work you’re doing on the ground?
I don’t think it complicates my role. I do obviously wish that we could all just keep the focus right now where I think it should be, which is in Afghanistan and the Afghan people. And this incredibly painful transitional moment, this extraordinary scene that we’re witnessing of suffering and desperation and panic and anarchy—anything that’s a distraction from that, or that minimizes that in some way, I try not to pay it too much attention.
You pressed a Taliban spokesman on women’s rights, and he insisted to you that women will continue to be allowed to go to school. What does your reporting suggest will happen?
It’s interesting. We just heard again from the main Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, in a press conference literally half an hour ago. And he was asked again about this issue of women’s education and women’s rights, and typically they do the same dance they always do—which is to say women will be accorded their rights as they are accorded under Islam, which as you well know, Aymann, is not a simple statement of fact. It’s a hugely complex area of nuance and a thousand different scholars with a thousand different interpretations. And that’s why you can have a country like Pakistan that can have a female prime minister next to a country like Afghanistan, which for many years didn’t allow girls to go to school. Both of them are Muslim countries.
So I think that the proof will be in the pudding, ultimately. Mujahid also said in this press conference that the Taliban’s fundamental ideology has not changed. And if that fundamental ideology is not changed, you can say, “Oh, yes, women can be educated.” But then you run into these snafus or logistical conundrums, if you will, such as “Well, when girls get puberty, they could no longer go to school with boys.” And so if there isn’t a girl school already built, where do the girls go to school? They don’t. They just stop going to school at puberty. Or if women are working as journalists in a newsroom, but they can’t work in a newsroom if men are in there, well, what are you going to do? Build a separate newsroom for women? How’s that going to work? So then it just becomes a de facto thing, that women can’t work in the newsroom.
What you start to see, and this is what’s worrying—even if they say all this grandiose talk about women’s rights and how they’ve learned their lesson, and that things will change—what you start to see is that so many women are frightened. They started self-selectively removing themselves from civic society. I went out onto the streets today. There are not a lot of women out on the streets. That’s not because the Taliban told them not to go onto the streets. That’s because these women are afraid of the Taliban. And so if the Taliban really does want to have a positive impact and get women educated, it’s not enough to say women can be educated. They’re actually going to have to actively campaign for it. They’re going to have to make it happen. Because right now, everybody is hanging back and running scared in anticipation of what they think the Taliban will do, or how they think the Taliban will react. This woman I interviewed today told me that her sister went to go and buy some milk. And the guy at the grocery store was like, “You’re not covered properly.” He never would have said that a week ago. But now that the Taliban’s here, he thinks he has to say that, because he thinks that’s how people behave and speak and comport themselves in a Taliban society. So it’s not enough for the Taliban to say these things. They’re going to have to lead by example.
Do you think Taliban leaders are putting on a show for the international community right now? What is their goal?
I talked to this commander, and he was saying, “Listen, we want to have relations with every country. It’s really important to us that we’re not going to be an international pariah like before.” I think it’s very interesting that Russia and China have not closed their embassies here. The Taliban is savvy enough to exploit geopolitical divides, and Taliban rule is now a political reality. They want to demonstrate to the world that they can be an effective governing force. And I think it’s just really hard to make predictions at this stage as to what the near- and short-term future looks like. Because the other thing you have to keep in mind is that the Taliban also has to keep their foot soldiers happy. And the more pragmatic and diplomatic they become, that doesn’t always go down well with their constituents. The more people are urged to put down their guns—well, these people don’t know how to do anything else. They’ve been fighting since they were old enough to carry a gun. Most of them can’t read and write. So the Taliban is going to find itself in tricky situations. They’re enjoying a moment of heady victory right now, but they have huge challenges that will face them.
What did most of the foreign press get wrong about the Afghan experience leading up to this moment?
I actually think that most journalists here have been doing really good work. Most of my colleagues have been doing really good work. I think a lot of people have been working really hard to draw attention to the story and to tell it in a way that is human and accessible. I guess the only thing I would say is that I’m just really sad for the terrible moment, but that I’m glad that the world is now paying attention. The run-up to this has been a few months in the making. And we have to pay attention. What’s happening in Afghanistan matters. What’s happening to these people matters. And we’re a part of it. So it’s good to see that people are engaging.
For more on what went wrong for the American effort in Afghanistan, listen to this episode of What Next.