News & Politics

In Conversation With CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward

The award-winning journalist talks reporting in Afghanistan and life now.

Photo credit: CNN

Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, captured the country’s attention with her reporting in Afghanistan. Ward spent three weeks on the ground talking to citizens and members of the Taliban, reporting from the front lines when Kabul fell.

Ward is an award-winning journalist, with two George Foster Peabody awards, seven Emmys, two Edward R. Murrow awards for distinguished journalism, and many more to her name.

Q: Where in the world are you now?

Right now, I am actually in the countryside in France. I am at my parents’ house because Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I have basically spent most of the last four or five weeks now, are both on the red list in the UK, which means that if I went home to London, I’d have to do a hotel quarantine for 11 nights, so I wanted to avoid that, and I wanted to see my kids right away. I’m in France with one of my sons. My other son is already back and started nursery school. So that’s where I am: in the middle of nowhere.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what your life has been like since you left Afghanistan? What is your email inbox like right now? And your phone? How is everything?

It’s pretty full-on. I’m not gonna lie. It’s one of those weird things when you’re in the field, we’re just doing our job, right? We’re working 19-hour days and doing everything we can to bring the story home to people in the most compelling and vivid way. But you’re not really paying close attention to how your work is being received, partly because you don’t really have a good feel for that when you’re out in the field, and partly because you just don’t have time. I don’t have time to go combing through my mentions on Twitter. It has been very gratifying but a tiny bit overwhelming, I have to admit.

As I was coming out of Afghanistan after my three-week trip there, just suddenly looking at social media and being like, ‘Oh, okay, I have 200,000 more followers than I used to.’ I’m getting all these requests to do all these interviews and talks, and I’m getting bombarded on Twitter, and I have another few hundred thousand followers there. It’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Obviously, it’s really nice to feel that people responded to the reporting and what we were doing in the field was resonating with people at home. I’m not used to that level of attention. It’s an adjustment.

Q: Shifting gears, why do you think Americans were so surprised by the fall of Kabul and people’s unwillingness to fight for the former regime?

I think two things. First of all, I think everybody was really surprised by how quickly Kabul fell – including, by the way, the Taliban. I had conversations with a number of Taliban fighters who were like, ‘Yeah, even we didn’t think this was going to happen that quickly.’ It wasn’t only Americans.

I would say there were a number of factors. Number 1: People were not paying as close attention to Afghanistan for some time because the writing was already on the wall. The US was leaving, the war was ending, and people’s attention had moved on some time ago, anyway, I think. People weren’t closely watching what was happening there. When I say ‘people,’ I mean your average person in America. Obviously, there were plenty of people who worked in intelligence or the White House or State Department who were paying close attention.

At the same time, I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted quite how quickly Afghan forces would basically surrender. Even, from my perspective, I was in Kandahar on the front lines with special forces commandos. Five days after I was there, it fell to the Taliban. When I wrote them a Whatsapp being like, ‘Are you guys okay?’ They were like, ‘We left.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean we left?’ Usually it’s like, ‘We fought for two days and three guys in the unit died but we managed to do this’ – but no, this was just like, ‘we left.’

I think, even for me, who was there on the ground, it was only in those couple of weeks preceding the fall of Kabul that I fully understood that the Afghan army had basically decided not to fight back anymore at a certain point, which obviously then put everybody’s timelines for when the Taliban might be able to take power into overdrive.

Q: You said the fall happened a couple days after you got there. Was there any particular moment you could see that that was about to happen? Or, even being there, were you very surprised? 

Just to be clear, the fall of Kabul happened like 10 days after I got there, or two weeks after I got there, roughly. Just under two weeks after I got there. I remember three days before the fall of Kabul doing a live shot. There was a breaking news alert that said US intelligence officials had warned that the city of Kabul could be isolated within 30 days. I, at the time—and it wasn’t just me—thought that that sounded over the top. That that sounded like hyperbole. It’s one thing to take a city like Kandahar, which is in the Taliban’s heartland, but it’s another thing to take the capital city of six million, which has very little allegiance to the Taliban.

Three days later, there I was. The morning, we knew they were outside the gate. The afternoon, they warned that they were going to come in because all the security forces had deserted their posts and they were worried about the security situation. And by the evening, they were in the city.

Obviously I don’t have the kind of data or intelligence that intelligence services would, but from my perch, just watching on the ground and talking to people who had been there a very long time or who lived there, I think everybody was truly gobsmacked, to use a British expression, by just how quickly things unraveled. Within a matter of hours, basically, they had taken Kabul and barely a shot fired.

Q: What were your interactions with the Taliban like, especially in the days after they took power?

The morning after, the first morning of the self-declared Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, I was out in the streets with the Taliban right away. And I had just done a big story with them in Ghazni Province, like four days before Kabul fell. And I had done another story with them 18 months earlier. So I have spent a lot of time with the Taliban, or a fair amount of time. A lot for a Western journalist, let’s say, which meant that I had a level of familiarity and comfort with them that enabled me to get out there that very first day that they were in charge and put the camera in their face and ask them questions and try to engage them. Obviously being very cautious, as well, but it was quickly very clear that they wanted to talk. That they were jubilant in their moment of victory and welcomed the world spotlight.

Q: I know you said, especially being out in the field, you’re not necessarily paying attention to how your work is being received. Did you have any sort of reaction when people were criticizing you for wearing a hijab?

Oh, the meme. I don’t think that was criticizing me, to be honest. I posted about it only because it was totally incorrect. In one picture, I’m in a private compound, so I’m not wearing a headscarf. And the next is the first day of Taliban takeover and I’m dressed very conservatively because I was very cautious about what to expect and what to encounter on the streets. It didn’t bother me because I didn’t find it to be critical, but I did feel it was important to set the record straight. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh look, Clarissa was reporting in a T-shirt, but now the Taliban’s mandated that she has to wear a full abaya.’ It was like, ‘Oh, Clarissa will continue to report in a T-shirt when she’s in a private compound but is going to dress very discreetly when she’s in a public space.’

Q: To that effect, to what extent do you think reporters should embed themselves in local culture in order to get close to people?

I feel like if you’re visiting someone else’s turf, then you should respect their culture, whether or not you agree with what they’re wearing or where they’re praying or who they’re voting for or whatever it might be. If I’m going to the Queen of England’s, Buckingham Palace, for tea, I’m not going to wear ripped jeans. If I’m going to Ascot, the famous horse races, I’m going to wear a hat. And if I’m going to interview the Taliban in Afghanistan, then I’m going to wear a headscarf.

I have never had any problem with wearing whatever I need to wear in order to be able to have my presence and appearance be the least distraction possible, right? I don’t want the whole conversation to be about what I’m wearing, I want the conversation to be about what the other person has to say and what their experience is and why they’re there. The minute it’s all about me, then we’ve sort of lost the point of the whole endeavor.

That doesn’t mean you leave your values at the door, or that doesn’t mean you don’t hold certain things sacred on a personal level, it doesn’t mean you don’t make a point of addressing it in your reporting or you try to gloss it over or enable it. There are ways to do that at the same time as also just being respectful and do your job, get your job done. And then worry later about whether you were offended in some way. That’s my personal view.

Q: I read and listened to the interview you did with NPR. You were talking about what it was like getting on the plane to leave. Can you tell me what it was like being in the plane and what that flight was like?

It was obviously very intense. It had been a really long day and a very, a brutal day on a certain level in terms of witnessing a lot of chaos, a lot of heartache, a lot of trauma. You’re torn when you’re getting on that plane. On the one hand, you’re relieved because you’re getting out, you’re gonna get a break, you’re getting your local staff out. And then on the other hand, you’re thinking, ‘Why do I get to leave? Why don’t other people get to leave? Should I be leaving? Should I be staying? What more could I be doing?’ There’s a thousand different questions going through your mind.

On top of that, because we’re Western journalists, everybody’s asking us, ‘What happens next? Where do we land? Who will pick us up? Where do we go?’ You’re trying to be helpful to people, but you don’t have all the answers. It was honestly, the combination of the exhaustion and sadness and relief, it was a lot. It was a very intense moment.

Q: Do you think you’ll be able to go back to Afghanistan? Is that something you want to do? Something you plan to do?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I very much want to return to Afghanistan and fully plan on doing that. I’m really committed to this story, and not just me, my colleagues at CNN—Nic Robertson, Sam Kiley, many others. This is a story we very much care about and want to continue telling.

This interview has been edited for clarity.