Of all the cable and network news channel plans to commemorate the attacks of 9/11 this week with special programs, none seems more timely and relevant than that of CNN. The cable news network has sent a team of correspondents led by anchorman Anderson Cooper into Afghanistan to do a week's worth of nightly broadcasts on the status of the fight against the Taliban. The series starts Monday night and culminates in an hourlong wrap-up at 8 p.m. Saturday.
"Anderson Cooper 360" will broadcast live from Afghanistan, with the help of international correspondent Michael Ware, medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.
And lest anyone think this is simply a case of hot spot-hopping anchorman coverage intended to paper over a lack of sustained reporting, CNN is one of the only U.S. news organizations, print or broadcast, with a full-time bureau in Afghanistan, and Cooper himself has been there several times before.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this week's coverage is the multiple lenses through which Cooper's team examines America's war effort. While Cooper and Gupta will be embedded with the U.S. forces, Ware will be on his own in the country, trying to see back "through the fence" at the U.S. military effort, to use the veteran reporter's terminology. Ware, a native Australian, spent more than a decade in the cable channel's Baghdad bureau covering the Iraq conflict.
Pointing to an "evolution in tactics by the Taliban," Cooper described his goals for the week in Afghanistan as "trying to get a status report on the war" and to "get as close to the front as possible, to go out on as many patrols as possible - and really get a sense of how the war's going," the 42-year-old Yale graduate said in a telephone interview last week. "What are the challenges? ... And what should we expect in terms of what's coming down the road? ... We believe very strongly in going to the front lines of any story and seeing for ourselves what's going on."
As for making the trip during the week of 9/11: "The way the United States originally got involved in Afghanistan is because of 9/11, and the same players are still a factor in the region," Cooper said.
"We have been planning this trip for quite a while, and it just happened to be the week of 9/11. And it seemed appropriate. ... And certainly the Obama administration makes a linkage in saying the reason we are there now is to stop al-Qaida and to protect the United States from any further attacks."
Cooper knows there are limits to what U.S. reporters are allowed to "see" while embedded, which is why Ware's contribution is so important.
"As much as we can, we're attempting to see through the fence to the other side - what the American war effort looks like from the Afghan perspective," Ware said last week via telephone from the war-torn country. "To do that, part of what we've done is to share the difficulties of life that the Afghans experience as a result of the insurgency, to get a real taste of what it's like living under the shadow of the Taliban far beyond the hollow rhetoric that you hear coming from the White House."
Ware described what it takes to get that perspective and bring it to American viewers.
"For me, what I find works best in Afghanistan is to operate independent of the U.S. military," Ware said. "You need to attempt to assimilate as much as is conceivably possible. That can be as simple as wearing Afghan dress or growing your beard to a reasonable Afghan length."
Contrasting his method of "surviving" and reporting free of the military in Afghanistan with the way he operated in Iraq, Ware said, "I go and I seek the favor and protection of the local powers that be. In this particular case, it might be the head of the most powerful tribe in the region that happens to support the Taliban. It might also mean seeking the protection of a tribe that's deeply invested in the Karzai government."
Ware, 40, said his contacts built up over the years also play a role in getting an independent view of the war effort.
"Operating independent of the military also means meeting with a senior police commander who's been my friend for seven years. [He] has outlived numerous police chiefs and governors, and he still somehow survives in the turmoil in Kandahar," the former Time magazine Baghdad correspondent says.
"You need to be able to turn to people ... with the power to offer you some modicum of protection. To rely on the tribal system itself that the Obama war mission has neglected is the way that we survive here."
If some of what Ware says echoes Vietnam, with the American military not fully understanding Afghan culture, the CNN correspondent says so be it.
"The facts on the ground rather frighteningly speak for themselves," he says after laying out a nuanced and extensive explanation of what the military appears to appreciate and not appreciate about Afghanistan as "barely more than a feudal society" built on tribes.