Clarissa Ward in Kabul: what the Taliban are really like

August 18, 2021
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Clarissa Ward is the Chief International Correspondent at CNN – used to reporting from the front lines of conflict zones and global events. But in the past few days she found herself, more unusually, at the centre of a culture war. In a clip from one of her broadcasts, some Taliban fighters on a Kabul street were chanting ‘Death to America’ but she observed that “they seemed friendly enough at the same time. It’s utterly bizarre.”

Politicians right up to Senator Ted Cruz jumped on to social media to condemn her remarks as another example of CNN being unpatriotic and out of touch. “Is there an enemy of America for whom @CNN WON’T cheerlead?” he asked.

I caught up with her earlier today from her compound in Kabul. It was an extraordinary conversation — we had no fewer than three powercuts during our 20 minute discussion — but she gave a vivid behind the scenes account of what is going on in the Afghan capital right now. Definitely one not to miss.

On the media storm around her coverage:

The context wasn’t given. The full clip was me saying ‘they’re chanting Death to America, but they’re behaving in a friendly way towards us. It’s utterly bizarre.” It was a statement of fact. At the end of the day, I just think that all commentary that distracts from what’s happening to the Afghan people right now, that in any way minimises or reduces or trivialises their suffering, is not something that I really want to engage with or pay attention to. I’m here to tell the Afghan people’s story, and I’m going to keep on doing it.
- Clarissa Ward, UnHerd

On the situation at the airport:

There are far fewer people at the airport now than there were previously but there’s still hundreds all around the streets leading up to the airport, and the Taliban is controlling the checkpoints leading in to the airport. The way that the Taliban does crowd control is not in a way that is safe. They are firing shots in the air, they’re firing shots in the crowd, injuring people. They are whipping people, beating them back. They are essentially not allowing people into the airport. It’s different if you’re a Westerner — you can get in. But if you’re an Afghan right now trying to get into that airport, it is extremely difficult and extremely dangerous.
- Clarissa Ward, UnHerd

What her impression is of the Taliban fighters:

The one thing that you can’t deny about the Taliban is that they are coherent and cohesive, and they have a clear chain of command. The Taliban leaders said to its fighters, you are not to engage in criminal-like behaviour or retaliatory attacks when you go into Kabul, you’re there to maintain law and order. I would have to say, there’s been barely a shot fired. For the most part it has been, with the exception of the incredibly horrific scenes at the airport in the city centre, relatively calm. There is a sense that the Taliban fighters — for now at least — do what their leaders tell them to do.
- Clarissa Ward, UnHerd

Was the Afghan army unprepared for the Taliban?

Having spent a few weeks in the country before this all happened, I did start to get a very strong sense of just how weak the Afghan army was. I drove past a checkpoint on my way into Taliban territory, and the Taliban were taking shots at the checkpoint. Suddenly, we just saw these Afghan soldiers coming down from their base, running down, hailing a civilian car — for me, that was one of those real moments that showed me the Afghan army does not have the appetite for a fight right now.
- Clarissa Ward, UnHerd

How are the Taliban being received in Kabul?

It’s a mixture. Many people are hiding, they’re too afraid to leave their homes. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve interviewed over the last few days who literally cannot leave the house… But we did also see young people going up and posing for photographs and taking selfies with the Taliban and shaking their hands.
- Clarissa Ward, UnHerd

On the reputation of outgoing president Ashraf Ghani:

A lot of people in Kabul hate the Taliban. But boy, do they hate president Ashraf Ghani as well. The corruption of the government, the incompetence, the way that he left in the middle of the night on a chopper, abandoning his people… there’s a sense he was so divorced from the reality of the situation, because he never really believed that the US was going to actually leave. He missed so many opportunities to start conversations that needed to be started much earlier.
- Clarissa Ward, UnHerd


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