We’ll do twenty stories that will look at the G-20 countries and where they are and what they expect to get out of the G-20. We’re really trying to help print newspapers to see that we offer something extraordinary, which is we will localize foreign stories for you. So these are not big projects that require Flash development and state of the art videography and photography. But they are also important and we’re trying to balance the different models and both deliver something really in-depth for what I believe is the most challenging foreign policy issue for the Obama administration, which is Afghanistan, and use our network to take on another huge issue for this country and the world, which is the global economy. And in those two you have very different approaches but two good examples of the kind of project reporting we want to do.
AF: In the context of current events, you talked earlier about the purpose of “Life, Death and the Taliban” but what about the timing? Why now?
CS: The Obama administration announced the offensive with the increase of 21,000 troops, which would deploy over the summer, so I wanted to do the reporting in the summer and catch that news wave, which is crashing right now. We also had the election on August 20 and we knew that date, so we were looking at launching at the time of the election to help shape the debate when we knew it would be very much in the spotlight. And, sadly, violence and casualty rates have gone through the roof. They’re higher than they have been since 2001 and the U.S. and international forces’ losses are very high. So there’s a sense of a critical crossroads in Afghanistan and we wanted to time the project to that but we also wanted to build a project that can hold content for the whole rest of the year. So that’s why we called it, “Life, Death and the Taliban” and we tried to frame it as giving you the history and the current context you need to follow this story. We now have our live reporting on the election going into this project and our live reporting on an embed in Helmand Province by Kimberly Johnson, who’s a fantastic reporter.
AF: So now that the election has happened, what is the consensus about how it played out and how does the piece inform what has happened?
CS: I think we’re waiting. Everyone’s claiming victory and the truth is, it’s just too early to tell. There were significant setbacks and there was a lot of violence at the polls and the campaign of fear and intimidation did work in many places, particularly in the south and the east. This became Obama’s war as soon as he announced he was going to turn up the heat in an offensive against the Taliban. And Obama has said very, very pointedly this is a war of necessity. And he has defined the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in a new and far more engaged way. And I think it is fraught with peril.
We wanted, in this project, to begin to create the framework of the reporting to ask the really hard questions. Through the counterinsurgency piece, to our piece on what the Taliban has become—and what I think has become a fateful mistake, which is to view the Taliban as monolithic. The Taliban is many things and I think that’s what our reporting captures. There’s a Pakistani Taliban, there’s an Afghan Taliban, and they have different funding bases. They really come out of different places and we try to unpack that history both through our correspondents on the ground who are excellent—Shahan Mufti in Islamabad and Jean MacKenzie in Kabul—and through bringing some experience and past history to it through my reporting and through Seamus’s reporting.
AF: When was the last time you’d been to Afghanistan before you traveled there to do this project?
CS: Two years ago. And I went maybe a total of ten times for the Boston Globe. That’s a guess, but it’s pretty close.