Inside Clarissa Ward's Tense Standoff With the Taliban

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Photo credit: CNN
Photo credit: CNN

When CNN’s Clarissa Ward approached a Taliban fighter on the streets of Kabul on Wednesday, a gunshot rang out behind her. If you saw this on Anderson Cooper’s nightly show, you might have missed her flinch. It was brief. Subtle. Her focus remained squarely on the group of Taliban fighters in front of her, including a man who shoved his hand forward to cover her cameraman’s lens and waved a whip made of heavy chain and a padlock. The chaotic scene, he told her, is America’s fault.

As he spoke, Ward noticed his eyes. They look dazed, she told me. Was he high, whether from a narcotic or pure adrenaline? She wondered.

Suddenly, he said he didn’t want to talk to her, and she calmly walked away. Another man walked up to ask Ward for advice on how to get out. As she tried to answer him, more gunshots. These were louder. This time her flinch was more visible. But her voice was level as more men in the crowd came up to show her their documents, explaining they’ve worked as translators and are desperate for help to leave the country. The Taliban fighter with whom she first spoke, the one with the makeshift whip, pushed past them, releasing the safety of his AK-47, threatening to shoot into the crowd.

“I appear calm, but that doesn’t mean I am calm,” Ward, 41, said over the phone between shooting and editing on Thursday afternoon Eastern Daylight Time. (It was nearly 10pm in Kabul.) “I don’t panic because you can’t panic in those situations. If you are someone who panics, then you probably should be doing a different job, because it will get you into more trouble. But it doesn’t mean I’m calm on the inside. That’s just the way I deal with fear: I get quiet and very focused.”

What we didn’t see on camera was Ward, her cameraman, and her producer trying to move away from the fighter with the AK-47. Each time they relocated, he followed. When they finally moved through the crowd to put space between themselves and the Taliban fighter, two different men approached them, threatening to pistol whip Ward’s producer, Brent Swails, who was filming with his iPhone.

When I asked if she feared for her safety in that moment, Ward paused, considering the question. “At the moment where they were about to hit Brent, I did. It’s the Taliban, it’s not like you’re dealing with a force where there’s recourse. It was mayhem.”

Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, has worked 19-hour days for the three weeks she’s been in Afghanistan. As chaos has unfolded with the Taliban’s takeover, Ward has been a nearly constant presence on the news network, often filming in the middle of the chaos on the streets, giving a rare look at the events on the ground in Kabul.

The reporting trip wasn’t supposed to unfold this way. When Ward arrived in Afghanistan nearly a month ago, she planned to cover gains the Taliban was making and film a few reflective segments as the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks approached. She even brought a book to read in the off hours of her trip. That changed this week when the Taliban seized power of Afghanistan two weeks before the United States was set to complete its troop withdrawal.

“My producer saw the book last night and asked, ‘You’re actually reading this?’ And I was like: ‘No. A little bit in the beginning, but not anymore,’” Ward said with a laugh. “I had a moment the other day—maybe this is TMI—when I had no idea the last time I washed my hair. I just don’t have time to wash my hair right now. You get to the end of that last Anderson Cooper live shot and it’s like yeah…” She trailed off with another laugh.

For 15 years, Ward has reported from the front lines in Syria, Iraq, and Georgia during the Russian incursion. It was 9/11 that led her to conflict reporting. She was a student at Yale studying comparative literature with plans to become an actress when the attacks happened. After the attack, she was drawn to understanding what led to this horrific event. “I really wanted to be at the tip of the spear,” she said while promoting her recent memoir, On All Fronts.

A year and a half ago, Ward spent 36 hours behind Taliban lines in northern Afghanistan, so, through the Afghan filmmaker with whom she was working, Ward had an “open line” to the Taliban while planning her current trip. “They had assured us that we would be safe and that we could keep doing our job reporting,” she said. “But obviously in those hours, when it became clear Kabul had fallen and there was gunfire, you fear for your safety because you don’t know what's going to happen.”

In Kabul on Wednesday, a Taliban fighter ordered her to cover her face as she spoke to him during a live segment, to which she complied. She has covered her hair completely with an abaya, which is more conservative than she’s dressed while reporting in Afghanistan in the past.

“It’s hard enough to talk to them as a woman under normal circumstances, let alone if you're trying to push the envelope in terms of what they deem appropriate,” she said. “I’ll wear whatever I need to wear to get the story … I just don’t want my clothing to be a distraction. I want to be able to do my job.”

So far, the Taliban has not given any specific directives about rules for coverage. She’s been able to interview whoever she wants without restrictions, though she thinks it’s likely that will change. “I don’t think they’ve had time to focus on that yet, but this definitely feels like a bit of a honeymoon period,” she said. “It’s one thing for the leadership to say you can do your job if you want, but when you’re dealing with the rank-and-file soldiers it can be a different story. “

Earlier in the week, as the Taliban took control of Kabul, Ward’s reporting drew the criticism of some on the right, like Sean Hannity. The Fox News host shared on Twitter a truncated version of a quote Ward used in describing the atmosphere in the city.

“CNN REPORTER: ‘They’re Chanting Death to America, But They Seem Friendly at the Same Time,’” Hannity tweeted. Senator Ted Cruz piled on, tweeting, “Is there an enemy of America for whom @CNN WON’T cheerlead?”

Here’s what Ward said:

This is a sight I honestly thought I would never see: Scores of Taliban fighters and just behind us, the U.S. Embassy compound. Some carry American weapons. They tell us they’re here to maintain law and order. Everything is under control. Everything will be fine, the commander says, nobody should worry.

What’s your message to America right now? America already spent enough time in Afghanistan. They need to leave, he tells us. They already lost lots of lives and lots of money.

People come up to them to pose for photographs. They’re just chanting death to America, but they seem friendly at the same time. It’s utterly bizarre.

“With all the stuff on Twitter,” Ward told me, “whether it's good or bad, it's all a distraction. So for me right now, anything that’s distracting from what’s going on here and the misery and the desperation, I just don’t have much time for it.”

The exhaustion in Ward’s voice is clear as she walks me through her days over the last three weeks: Wake up early in the private compound where they’re staying, go out to shoot footage, look for good locations for live shots in the street, return to their private compound, edit together a story (or “crash a package,” as Ward said deploying TV news jargon), go live until 5 in the morning their time, which is prime-time in the U.S.

Her family watching at home is used to her going to dangerous places. They trust that she’s not “a big adrenaline junkie or a cowboy,” she said, but by this point, they’re ready for her to come home, which is not a straight-forward thing. She described the planning for getting her and her team out of the country as “a Rubik’s cube.”

“There's a lot of thought and planning that needs to go into it because it’s very complex, it’s not a straight-forward thing,” she said. “This is why it's so important to have really good team members and security consultants who spend a lot of time planning this kind of stuff because you can’t get it wrong.”

And she’s just about ready to go.

“We’re looking into eventually swapping out teams in the near future. Not so much because of the security situation, but because I’ve been here nearly three weeks now and I’m working 19 hour days every single day and I’m just really, really, really beat,” Ward said. “I’m missing my 1-year-old and 3-year-old. So, it’s probably time for me to get out and take a little bit of a break in the not-so-distant future.”

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