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Covering 'One Of The Most Frightening Places On Earth'

Interviewee: Mary Anne Weaver, 2004-2005 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
September 16, 2009

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As part of the Edward R. Murrow 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Marry Anne Weaver discusses the emergence of Pakistan as a hot-bed for terrorism and the lapse in U.S. foreign policy that partially caused this emergence. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

In my case, I think the topic-my reporting on Pakistan for The New Yorker (which later appeared as a book) - had the greatest impact. I would hope--as Nayan Chanda, who reviewed the book for the Washington Post, wrote--that the reporting "goes a long way toward explaining how Pakistan has emerged as the epicenter of terrorism and how Kashmir has become, as [President] Clinton said in 2000 the ‘most dangerous place in the world.'"

My own personal journey through Pakistan began some twenty-five years ago, when I was based in New Delhi and first reported on the jihad in Afghanistan-the decade-long, CIA-financed jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet occupation there. Pakistan was the key staging area for that war: a war of unintended consequence, as all of us who covered it and followed its aftermath knew.  Witnessing the birth of the jihad-then following its transformation into a Frankenstein monster in later years-was a chilling, and also a prescient time--a time when Pakistan's Islamist Generals, and its Islamist militants, were empowered by billions of U.S. dollars, and reinforced by tens of thousands of well-trained and well-armed Arab, Asian and Afghan fighters who would later become available for new jihads. It was also a time when Osama bin Laden first appeared on the world's stage, and when al-Qaeda was born-an unintended consequence of the last battle of the Cold War.

U.S. policy during that time was so preoccupied with the immediate that it ignored the longer-term. And largely as a result Pakistan was transformed. With a dozen or so private Islamist armies, forty extremist groups, and 80-100 nuclear weapons, it is today considered one of the most frightening--and dangerous--places on earth.

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind (yours or someone else) that you believe has had a significant impact. This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

I'm particularly proud of two of the pieces I researched and reported during my Murrow year: one on Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora, which appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine; the other on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "The making of America's Deadliest Enemy in Iraq," also a cover in The Atlantic magazine. The two pieces share in common the folly of American policy.

Piecing together the puzzle of bin Laden's escape was a fascinating, and a depressing, exercise-portraying the duplicity of Washington's ostensible Afghan allies; the misguided doctrine that a "limited U.S. footprint" on the ground would actually work; and the outrage of a U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier who sat in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar with some 4,000 marines. He argued strongly that he should be permitted to proceed to the Tora Bora caves. Each time-at increasingly higher levels-his request was denied. (A U.S. intelligence official told me that the Bush Administration later concluded that the refusal of Centcom to dispatch the marines-along with the failure to commit U.S. forces to Afghanistan generally-was the gravest error of that phase of the war, a war still unfolding, still unwon.)

As a result, on or about December 16, 2001, bin Laden left Tora Bora for the last time, accompanied by bodyguards and aides. He is believed to have traveled by horseback directly south, crossing the border into Pakistan. There is no indication that bin Laden ever left Pakistan after he crossed the border that snowy December night; nor is there any indication that he ever left the country's Pashtun tribal lands.

Had bin Laden been surrounded at Tora Bora, he would have been confined to an area of several dozen square miles.  Now he is in an area that snakes across some 40,000 square miles.