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.
AF: Were your other correspondents there assigned to Afghanistan by GlobalPost or were they already based there?
CS: They’ve lived there for years. Shahan Mufti is a Pakistani-American whose family is there and has lived there on and off throughout his life. An excellent journalist. And Jean MacKenzie has lived there for at least, I would say, five years. And Jean’s got great language skills and is an outstanding correspondent who also works for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. So through her education of Afghan journalists, she has eyes all over the country.
AF: I noticed Iran isn’t in the list of countries where your correspondents are based.
CS: Right, it was impossible for us to establish a bureau there but we had two really good correspondents there [during the recent elections]. We had Iason Athanasiadis who was detained and whom we had to work very hard for his release in coordination with others. And then we also had Cameron Abadi who was out of Berlin but who is of Iranian background—a very talented journalist and freelance correspondent who offered to go for us, and we loved his work. They took two very different approaches. Iason was very much out on the street and reported very live and powerfully and maybe perhaps, as a result, was apprehended at the airport on his way out and was put in Iranian prison for three weeks. We were very worried about him and worked with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Washington Times, who he was also writing for, and the Pulitzer Center, and got him out.
And then there’s Cameron who was a little bit more under-the-radar. More analysis, a little bit more removed maybe and he sensed the peril and went underground and didn’t write for a while. And then he wrote a few pieces for us from there and then left the country—we were very happy to hear—got back to Berlin and wrote a couple of powerful essays about what he saw. So we tried to cover Iran in two very different approaches but with great concern and great caution for the risks the journalists were taking.
AF: If there were some event developing, some conflict brewing would you ever send someone to cover it specifically?
CS: With Iran we did. We went to cover the election. Like most news organizations, we didn’t realize it would become such a hard news story. But we were well placed to do that, so we have done that and we’ve done it sparingly, but I think with pretty good success. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve had correspondents we have sent into embeds to cover the conflict there but only after they’ve had sufficient training in covering hostile environments. And I feel, and I take this very seriously, that they have the have the maturity and reporting experience to operate safely in a war zone. So we take very seriously the idea that people are going into dangerous assignments.