CNN’s Clarissa Ward and her reporting have stood out from the pack amid the chaos in Afghanistan.
Ward, 41, has roamed the streets with her crew for days covering the U.S. withdrawal of troops and the Taliban’s lightning-speed takeover of the country.
Her dispatches from Kabul have shed light on the chaotic nature of the U.S. pullout, the tense mood as the Taliban retakes power and the plight of the scores of Afghan civilians looking for a way out of the country.
“It’s been a pretty mind-bending trip, honestly,” Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, told The Hill during an exclusive interview this week. “It certainly felt like we had a front-row seat to history and it’s an extraordinary moment to witness.”
Ward has not flinched in covering a conservative Islamic group that brutally suppressed women during its previous reign in Afghanistan and that may see Ward’s very presence as an affront to its values.
“I think sometimes it helps, perhaps being a woman, because they are a little caught off-guard by it,” she said. “That can work in your favor because you can catch people off-guard a little bit.”
While reporting Wednesday from the streets of Kabul, now completely controlled by the Taliban outside the city’s airport, Ward, clad in a traditional headdress and robe, and her crew were accosted by an agitated Taliban fighter.
“Can I ask you a question?” she asked the individual. “Excuse me.”
The Taliban member refused to speak to her, demanding she cover her face with the hijab she was wearing around her head. She complied, and pressed the fighter again, pointing to the whip he had in his hand and asking him, “What is that?”
When the fighter again refused to acknowledge her, Ward pulled her face covering down, looked into the camera and said: “He wants me to cover my face, but he doesn’t want to comment on that truncheon he’s carrying.”
It was one of numerous tense moments that have played out on live television as Ward reports from the ground. Gun shots have rang out in the background of a live shot. Dozens of civilians surrounded Ward during one shot, eager to share their difficulties getting out of the country.
Ward is no stranger to reporting from war zones and dangerous scenes. She was based in Beirut during unrest there in the early 2000s, spent time embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq and reported from the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012.
In the interview with The Hill, Ward recounted an incident earlier in the week where a Taliban fighter was on the verge of pistol whipping her producer before she and another fighter intervened.
“People have been saying, ‘Oh this woman is fearless,’ and I’m really not. I’m very fearful and I don’t like being in situations where bullets are flying. … I flinch every time I hear a gunshot. I hate gunfire just like anybody does,” said Ward, who is married and has two young children.
“But I understand … I have a better gauge of when I feel like I can ask a tough question or when I think someone is really volatile and potentially dangerous,” said Ward, who speaks Arabic in addition to Mandarin and Spanish. She is also fluent in French and Italian, according to her CNN biography.
In the early days of Kabul’s fall, Ward said, members of the Taliban were somewhat welcoming of journalists, eager to portray themselves as nonviolent and compliant with international norms.
“We quickly learned the Taliban actually wanted journalists out on the streets, because for them they sort of see this as a sort of public relations coup,” she said.
Afghanistan ranks 122nd out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to a Reporters Without Borders index. The organization noted “women journalists continue to be vulnerable in a country where they are among the leading targets of fundamentalist propaganda.”
Ward briefly found herself part of a political storm this week when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) used a selectively edited portion of one of her reports to take a shot at CNN.
Ward’s report just after Kabul fell included a segment in which Ward spoke in front of a nearby group of insurgents chanting “death to America.”
“But they seem friendly at the same time. It’s utterly bizarre,” Ward said as part of a lengthier report detailing the mood among Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians in the area.
On Twitter, Ward’s report was cut down to an eight-second clip and shared without context, only highlighting that Ward was calling the militants friendly while they chanted “death to America.”
“Is there an enemy of America for whom @CNN WON’T cheerlead? (In mandatory burkas, no less.),” Cruz tweeted in a widely shared message.
Cruz’s office did not respond to questions about whether the senator regretted sharing the clip without context. CNN defended Ward in a response to Cruz, tweeting at the senator that she is “risking her life to tell the world what’s happening. That’s called bravery. Instead of RTing a conspiracy theorist’s misleading soundbite, perhaps your time would be better spent helping Americans in harm’s way.”
Press advocates have praised Ward’s reporting and blasted Cruz and others who have leveled political attacks against her and CNN.
“To see someone like Ted Cruz pop off on her like this is fun and games, it’s not only disheartening, it’s also troubling,” said Matt Hall, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “He particularly owes Clarissa an apology, as do others. It’s just been outrageous to see people seizing on the fact that she’s wearing a headscarf on the street, something she’s been doing her whole time there.”
The rise of the Taliban and its support for conservative, fundamentalist laws threatens the role of the press, and especially female reporters in the country. The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee in a release last week highlighted multiple instances since the start of August in which Afghan journalists were killed, intimidated or detained by members of the Taliban.
“It is noteworthy that such violence is in direct contrast to the official statements made by Taliban leaders,” the organization said in a statement. “The continuation of such a situation, in addition to undermining press freedom and journalists’ safety, will further isolate the Taliban among the country’s media community.”
Roy Gutterman, director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech, said on-the-ground warzone reporting like Ward’s is essential to how the international community remembers the fall of Afghanistan.
“Reporting from that part of the world is dangerous for any reporter. When you bring in the way women are treated [by the Taliban] it’s an additional hazard and an additional obstacle,” Gutterman said. “These women reporters are really courageous to tell stories about people who don’t want them there.”
Ward, who before coming to CNN spent time reporting for Fox News, ABC and CBS, has also not been shy about asking difficult questions to U.S. officials.
“I’m the one who’s on the ground talking to Afghans everyday,” she said while interviewing Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on CNN’s “New Day” this week. “I’m the one who has to look them in the eye. Can I offer them your assurance that everyone who has worked with American organizations will be brought out of this country safely?”
Kirby thanked Ward for her “incredibly brave reporting” before saying there “is a process” through the State Department for people to seek refuge.
Ward told The Hill many people she’s spoken with watched or are aware of President Biden’s Monday speech on the crisis playing out around them, and many found it unsatisfying.
“There’s a huge amount of bitterness,” she said. “They were hoping for an apology, or even better, a sort of game plan for how this would be fixed or repaired. There’s so much heartache and rage just about how poor the execution of this was in the eyes of many Afghan people.”
Via The Hill