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CNN One Thing

You’ve been overwhelmed with headlines all week – what's worth a closer look? One Thing takes you into the story and helps you make sense of the news everyone's been talking about. Each Sunday, host David Rind interviews one of CNN’s world-class reporters to tell us what they've found – and why it matters. From the team behind CNN 5 Things.

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Afghanistan's New Crisis
CNN One Thing
Aug 28, 2022

This week marks one year since the United States military ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan, which culminated in chaos as the Taliban took control of the country. We reflect on what the last year has been like for the Afghan people as they prepare for a looming hunger crisis. We also examine how some Afghan women are working to continue their education, despite an ongoing ban.

Guest: Clarissa Ward, CNN Chief International Correspondent

Episode Transcript
David Rind (Host)
00:00:00
Hey there. I'm David Rind. I'm a reporter and a producer with CNN Audio. You may know me from the Sunday edition of CNN. Five Things. If so, glad you found your way over here. You can skip ahead a bit, actually, since you already know what we do around here if you're new. First of all, welcome. And second, here's our mission. It's pretty simple. Keeping up with the news can be tough. I've worked in news for a decade and even I can get overwhelmed sometimes. You've got all these headlines coming at you all day, and it can be tricky to figure out which ones are worth a deeper dive. You've only got so much free time after all. That's where we come in. First, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. CNN is a huge place. Like when I started working here last year, I was truly blown away. We have correspondents and reporters and producers in every corner of the world ready to cover the latest breaking news at a moment's notice. And they are willing to put in the work to uncover that crucial detail or score that exclusive interview that puts everything into focus. So each week, our team is going to sift through all those headlines and all that great reporting to find the one thing we think you should know a little more about. And then I'm going to talk with the reporter who's been following the story closer than anyone. So with all that out of the way, let's get into this week's one thing. This week marks one year since this moment.
President Joe Biden
00:01:26
Last night in Kabul. The United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history.
David Rind (Host)
00:01:37
When President Joe Biden made that announcement on August 31st, 2021, it was far from a victory lap. Remember how the evacuation played out? Afghan people flooding the tarmac at Kabul's airport, hanging off American military planes. A terror attack just outside the airport gates killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. And, of course, the war itself had huge cost financial about $2 trillion by some estimates. And the human toll, nearly 2,000 US troops were killed in action. Some people were asking, what was it all for? And what would it mean for the Afghan people now that the Taliban were in charge? My guest today is CNN's chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward. She was there as the country fell, and she recently returned to find a country on the verge of a looming hunger crisis and a country where women have been stripped of many basic freedoms but not their spirit. From CNN, this is one thing. I'm David Rind
David Rind (Host)
00:02:39
Hey Clarissa.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:02:40
Hey, David.
David Rind (Host)
00:02:41
So, where are you right now?
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:02:43
Right now I am in my room in Kabul, Afghanistan.
David Rind (Host)
00:02:48
Can you just remind us, take us back a year where the country was, then what you saw during that time as the U.S. was getting ready to pull out.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:02:57
So one year ago, the Taliban swept to power after a lightning speed offensive where they were literally taking cities in a matter of hours, often without a shot fired. And the world was watching slack jawed, just trying to understand how this had all unraveled so quickly. The thing that really stands out in my mind from that period was just this crush of crowds, people desperately trying to get out of the country, the Taliban trying to push them back from the airport gates. Women were just weeping, so fearful for the changes that would come. And then, on the other hand, you had Taliban fighters who a year earlier might have kidnaped you, suddenly being pretty friendly because they were feeling jubilant and victorious and magnanimous in that moment.
David Rind (Host)
00:03:55
So a year later, what are things like now in the country?
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:03:59
On the one hand, Afghanistan is definitely safer. And so I think there are just a lot of people, especially in rural areas, who are frankly relieved and happy that they can move around, that there is no longer a large scale conflict playing out on their doorsteps. But there's no question that the Afghan people are facing huge challenges. The economic situation here is horrendous. Funding has been frozen after U.S. and allied forces left Afghanistan. They cut off foreign aid, which once made up nearly 80% of the country's annual budget. The U.S. has frozen Afghan assets for a number of reasons, but what that basically has resulted in is a country where whether you support the Taliban or not, has almost become a secondary question to how you put food on the table and feed your family.
David Rind (Host)
00:05:00
So what does that look like then on the streets?
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:05:07
We were really struck by this recent ritual that has taken place, whereby you'll see crowds of women waiting quietly outside of bakeries in the afternoons, and some of them walk hours from the outskirts of Kabul, and they wait with the hopes that someone who's going in to buy bread will share some of the bread with them or give them a donation, or that perhaps the baker, once his day is finished, might be able to spare some of the bread that's going stale.
David Rind (Host)
00:05:44
Wow, but no guarantee.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:05:45
No guarantee.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:05:46
And do you get bread? How much bread do you get? (Pashto Nats)
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:05:50
We talked to a woman called Shakeela who said that maybe they would get two or three pieces of bread a day on a good day.
Translator
00:05:58
This year there is no work. Her husband, he has a cart, but he says. He can't find any work he can't make enough money to buy food.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:06:11
And what was so heartbreaking is that these women, when they saw that we were Western journalists and that we had a camera, they came up to us and started giving us pieces of paper with their phone numbers. Because they were so desperately hoping that maybe in some way we could help them. We could help them leave. We could help them eat. We could help them with money. And that spoke to a level of desperation that that I hadn't really seen before. And I want to be clear, Afghanistan is no stranger to poverty, but there is a sense now that it's not just about being poor, it's about being hungry. And there are very real fears that this winter this country could be propelled to the brink of famine.
David Rind (Host)
00:07:01
And so I want to ask about women specifically, because I know there was a lot of fears that once the Taliban retook power, that things would kind of go back to the way they were in the nineties, which some have kind of described as like the Middle Ages, basically. Has that come to pass?
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:07:15
I think that so many women, especially educated women in cities, really feared the worst, and they're seeing their worst dreams come true. Girls now are not allowed to go to school after sixth grade. So when they're about 13 years old, we've seen women being pushed out of public life. There is little more leniency in the private sector, but in public life, it's become very, very challenging for women. Now, what's incredible is Afghan women are not taking this lying down.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:07:53
What was your dream before the Taliban came?
Naheed Sadat
00:07:57
Before the Taliban came, I wanted to be a diplomat, a journalist.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:08:02
We spoke to this young girl, Naheed Sadat, who's incredibly eloquent, speaks beautiful English. And again, what's extraordinary is that she is not wallowing in self-pity.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:08:14
So what made you decide to take the risk to come to an underground school like this, which is not allowed by the Taliban, you're breaking the rules by being here.
Naheed Sadat
00:08:25
I just I always say to myself that I am so powerful. I am strong.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:08:30
Unfortunately, she is reaching the conclusion that if she really wants to be able to do all the things she had hoped of doing, she will probably need to leave Afghanistan.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:08:43
You're very brave.
Naheed Sadat
00:08:44
Yeah, I know.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:08:46
Well, it's good that you know it.
Naheed Sadat
00:08:48
Yes.
David Rind (Host)
00:08:51
And so what is the Taliban say about all this? Do they come right out and say, we don't want girls in school? Like, what's their line on all this?
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:09:00
No. The Taliban says that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan's policy is education for all citizens. And when you talk to them both officially and behind closed doors, they will say, we believe in girls education and we want it to happen. That's if you take them at their word.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:09:19
When will the Taliban allow teenage girls to go back to school?
Abdul Qahar Balkhi (Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesperson)
00:09:26
That question would be best answered by the Ministry of Education.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:09:29
We had the opportunity to sit down with Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi, and we really pushed him on this issue of why girls are not allowed to be educated beyond sixth grade and when that might change.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:09:47
Is the issue that the uniforms need to be more adherent to your Islamic ideals. What specifically are the issues? What is the holdup?
Abdul Qahar Balkhi (Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesperson)
00:09:59
Again, the specifics can be discussed or can be elaborated by the Ministry of Education.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:10:06
And he basically would only say that there are a range of issues and that the official policy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is education for all Afghan people.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi (Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesperson)
00:10:19
But it seems that international actors are unfortunately weaponizing the issue of education instead of coming forward and interacting positively.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:10:30
But what was interesting was that he also used this as an opportunity to basically accuse the West of punishing Afghanistan financially and using the issue of girls education as an excuse or as what he called a moral justification for this collective financial punishment.
David Rind (Host)
00:10:52
Hmm. It's interesting how they it all kind of comes back around this central idea of this frozen funding and how that just has a ripple effect that kind of affects everything that's going on in the country right now.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:11:03
It does. There is nobody here who doesn't feel the impact of this economic crisis. And this economic crisis is linked in a major way to the fact that those funds continue to be frozen.
David Rind (Host)
00:11:22
Clarissa, before the break, you mentioned how much of Afghanistan's new reality is tied up in these Afghan government assets, which are just sitting in the country's central bank. The funds were frozen by the U.S. once the Taliban took over. And one of the reasons the Biden administration has cited for the pause has been basically, we don't want to see these funds end up in the hands of terrorists. While, lo and behold, at the very end of July, we learned that the leader of Al Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been living right in downtown Kabul before he was killed in a US drone strike. So I guess how does that complicate this funding situation and how is the Taliban responding to that drone strike?
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:12:00
The Taliban is responding in a pretty brazen fashion. Honestly, there are certainly no apologies. They say they don't even know that Zawahiri was here. In reality, this has really complicated any efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and the Taliban. And that, in turn, then complicates efforts to unfreeze funding to try to inject liquidity into the Afghan financial system, to try to get help for the people here who need it the most. Because what you have to remember is that the whole Doha agreement, which sort of precipitated the U.S. withdrawal, was predicated on this promise that Afghanistan would never again be used by terrorist groups as a sanctuary. And yet here we are with the leader of Al Qaeda, sitting in a lovely villa in downtown Kabul.
David Rind (Host)
00:12:59
Right, just hanging out on the balcony.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:13:01
Exactly. And so the U.S. has already said basically that this means there is no short term prospect of trying to recapitalize Afghanistan's central bank or unfreeze some of those assets and get more aid to where it needs to get. You'll hear a lot of people who will say, listen, you can't punish the people of Afghanistan for the mistakes of their leaders. But for the U.S., it certainly presents a real quandary. How do you choose between wanting to help the Afghan people, but also wanting to ensure that this place does not again become a safe haven?
David Rind (Host)
00:13:43
What's your sense of what the next year looks like for the people of Afghanistan?
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:13:49
I think the next year is looking quite grim for the people of Afghanistan. The humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. On top of that, you have an insurgency being waged by ISIS, Khorasan. The country is definitely safer, but there are people being killed in blasts on a regular basis. And the Taliban is struggling in some ways, to, to grapple with that. In addition to struggling with the realities of what it really means to govern a place, it's one thing to be a fighter. It's another thing to be a leader. I'm always in awe of the resilience and the grace and the tenacity of the Afghan people. But I am concerned that this year is going to be even harder than the last.
David Rind (Host)
00:14:46
Well Clarissa, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
Clarissa Ward ( CNN Chief International Correspondent)
00:14:48
Thank you so much, David.
David Rind (Host)
00:15:02
One thing is a production of CNN audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me David Rind. Greg Peppers is the supervising producer. Muhammad Darwish is the senior producer. Our production manager is Matt Dempsey and the executive producer of CNN Audio is Megan Marcus. Special thanks to Lindsey Abrams, Elizabeth Roberts, Robert Mathers, Nicole Pesaru, Dan Dzula and Brent Swails. And thank you for listening. We've got a lot more to come. We'll be back next Sunday right here. I'll talk to you then.