HomeCNN’s Clarissa Ward reviews the war in Afghanistan

CNN’s Clarissa Ward reviews the war in Afghanistan


The network’s chief international correspondent, one of the most prominent correspondents during the withdrawal of US forces, decided to become a reporter after the epiphany of September 11.

This image provided by CNN shows the network’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, right, on an August 2021 report in Kabul, Afghanistan. Brent Sewles/CNN via The Associated Press

Clarissa Ward had four days to make up for missing sleep and seeing her two sons, ages 1 and 3, at her parents’ home in France. Then she left again, went back to work, and made her way through Qatar to Pakistan, where she was reporting from the Afghan border.

Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, was a central radio reporter in the final days of the war in Afghanistan giving accounts, often with gunfire in the background, on what it was like in Kabul in the often chaotic final days. America’s longest war. She lived with her crew on eggs, biscuits, and a cliff bar while covering the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s sudden return to power. Sometimes, she just couldn’t help showing emotions on air.

“I can’t go and sit with an Afghan woman crying from her heart because her daughters will have to grow up in Taliban-led Afghanistan and they won’t be affected by that,” the 41-year-old Ward from France said last week. “And I don’t think it makes me a reporter any less affected by it.”

Her job has included assignments in other conflict zones, including Baghdad and Aleppo, Syria, often putting her at risk – and at a great distance from her privileged youth.

As she recounts in her 2020 memoir, “On All Fronts,” she was born in London to an American mother, interior designer, and British father, an investment banker. She had 11 different nannies at the age of eight. The home, for a time, was a series of homes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that her mother renovated and flipped. Then it was on the elite British boarding schools Godstowe and Wycombe Abbey.

The idea to pursue a career in journalism came to her on September 11, 2001, when she was in her final year at Yale University, where her major was comparative literature. The attacks made her realize that there is a world radically different from all she knows, a world that seemed poorly understood in the United States and Europe.

In her book, she wrote, “It sounds conceited, but I knew I had to go to the front lines, to hear the stories of the people who lived there and tell them to the people back home.”

After an internship at CNN, she studied Arabic and gained on-camera experience in Beirut, Lebanon and Baghdad as a reporter for Fox News. She left for ABC, working out of Moscow and Beijing, and was hired in 2011 by David Rhodes, then head of CBS News. She pretended to be a tourist to sneak into war-torn Syria, videotaping herself and sneaking out of the country on memory cards tucked into her underwear. Its coverage won a Peabody Award.

“It’s an art and a skill, and it takes a lot of experience to make the judgments you need to do this coverage safely and honestly, because you just need to be able to read a difficult situation,” Rhodes said. He is now a Group Director at British Sky Media.

“There are number one people globally who are really good at this,” he added. “She is one of those people.”

Ward joined CNN in 2015 and returned to Syria, undercover again, making her one of the few Western journalists behind rebel lines. In 2018, she was promoted to Chief International Correspondent, replacing Christiane Amanpour, who has transitioned to a major role at CNN and PBS. Soon, Ward was reporting from the Taliban-controlled Balkh province of Afghanistan. On her latest tour, Ward arrived in the country on August 2, with a plan to stay for two weeks.

“I would have never imagined that these two weeks would have turned into three weeks, and we would be there for the fall of Kabul, and the fall of Kabul would happen in a matter of hours, without a bullet being fired of some sort on a quiet Sunday afternoon,” she said.

At the beginning of the month, it was on the front lines with US-allied Afghan forces in Kandahar. Three days later, the Taliban captured the city.

She said, “I contacted one of the soldiers via WhatsApp, saying: What happened to you?” He just wrote: “We left.” I think that was the beginning where I really realized that the reason this disintegrated so quickly, in no small part, was because the Afghan security forces were no longer interested in fighting this fight.”

By August 14, Ward and her crew had moved to a fortified compound in Kabul. They hoped the work would stop when the Taliban arrived.

“By breakfast time, we knew they were around the corner,” she said. “In the afternoon, they started making their way into town.”

On August 16, wearing an all-black abaya, she reported from a street filled with Taliban revelers outside the US Embassy. Facing the CNN camera, she said, “They’re just chanting death to America, but they sound friendly at the same time. It’s just so weird.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, quickly pounced, posting a video of an incoming report on Twitter with the caption, “Is there an enemy of America that CNN doesn’t encourage?” (CNN’s corporate communications department quickly responded from its own Twitter account by pointing to Cruz’s decision this year to leave his Houston home during a winter storm when much of the state lost electricity: “Instead of escaping to Cancun on hard times, @clarissaward is risking her life to tell world with what’s going on.”) Shadowing her work by the senator and other conservatives has highlighted how journalists can find their work or statements transformed into political talking points while reporting from conflict areas at a time of deep polarization.

“As someone who is definitely not involved in political coverage in any way, shape, or form, I am always a little uncomfortable when you indulge in the narrative in some way,” Ward said.

Another report, broadcast live as she stood among Taliban members in Kabul, emphasized a particular challenge she had previously dealt in Afghanistan: “They only told me to stand aside because I am a woman,” she told viewers.

As the days passed, she interviewed women too afraid to leave their homes and others frantically trying to find a way out of the country. From outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 18, Ward reported that Taliban fighters beat people who tried to flee with batons and shot into crowds.

Her recent reports from Afghanistan brought her new attention: her Instagram followers rose to 250,000, from 60,000, in a week. With the increased visibility came the scrutiny of critics on social media and elsewhere, who found an error in her August 20 report, in which she expressed doubts that the United States could pull back the planned mass evacuation.

“I’ve been sitting here for 12 hours at the airport, eight hours at the airport, and I haven’t seen any American plane take off,” she said on air that day. “How on earth are you going to evacuate 50,000 people in the next two weeks? It just can’t happen.”

Days later, President Joe Biden said the United States had helped evacuate more than 70,000 people from August 14 to August 24. The New York Times reported last week that more than 123,000 people have been flown out of the country since July.

Ward defended the August 20 submission, saying it should be interpreted in the context of “live reporting for the time being.”

“We’ve been at the airport since 7 a.m. local time,” she said. “From seven to ten in the morning, we saw three American planes taking off with the evacuees, but then they stopped abruptly for about 10 hours.” She added that she did not see at the time how the United States could complete the evacuation process in the time it had set itself.

CNN President Jeff Zucker praised her reporting, noting not only her coverage of Afghanistan, but also her messages this year about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the military coup in Myanmar and the impact of the pandemic on India.

“I would be hard pressed to say that Clarissa was not the most important job I ever hired,” he said. “She’s willing to go where most others won’t.”

Ward left Kabul on August 20, along with her crew and Afghans who worked for CNN, on a trip to Qatar. Banned from going directly to her home in London due to pandemic restrictions, she was reunited in France with her children and husband, Philip von Bernstorff, a German businessman and count whom she met at a dinner in Moscow in 2007.

She said she considers herself a reporter trying to provide viewers with an understanding of what is happening in conflict areas, while capturing the experiences and reactions of those affected first-hand.

“It’s not my job to say whether it has been handled well or not,” she said of the troop withdrawal. “My job is to give a voice to these people and say that’s how they feel.”

Ward said she would continue to cover Afghanistan. For now, she said, the Taliban are “talking the word” in terms of not violating women’s rights.

“Our job as journalists is to stay long enough to see if they are on the way,” she said. “If we start seeing reprisals, revenge killings, a rollback of women’s rights or education, we need to tell this story. And I feel very strongly about that.”