Journalist Spotlight: Arshad Mohammed on the scoop that revealed U.S. likely delaying closure of two Afghan bases
In late March, Reuters exclusively reported that U.S. military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad were likely to remain open beyond the end of 2015, as Washington considers slowing its military pull-out from Afghanistan to help the new government fight the Taliban. The anticipated policy reversal reflects the U.S. embrace of Afghanistan’s new and more cooperative president, Ashraf Ghani, and a desire to avoid the kind of collapse of local security forces that occurred in Iraq after the U.S. pull-out there. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Reuters correspondent Arshad Mohammed offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he, David Rohde and Phil Stewart got the scoop.
Q. How did you score the exclusive?
A. My colleagues and I got the story by patiently tracking, over the course of months, whether President Obama would stick to or break his May 2014 promise to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in half to roughly 5,000, by the end of 2015. We figured that a decision was likely to come during a Washington visit by new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in March and so we arranged a series of interviews with U.S. officials and outside experts in advance of that visit. We were asking the right questions at the right time. In this case, it was my colleague Phil Stewart, who covers the Pentagon, who asked the key question during a joint interview.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting the story?
A. Trust is the coin of the realm. The hardest part of reporting this story was winning the trust of U.S. officials who are in a position to know which way the president is headed and to talk about it. This does not happen overnight, and it requires demonstrating that you have a serious grasp of the issues; that you carefully read the relevant documents; and that you will handle the material in a balanced, careful way.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I cover U.S. foreign policy from a base at the State Department in Washington. I love the ability to dig deep into issues, to read the underlying documents and to strive to grasp the motivations of all players, inside Washington or around the world. Depending on the year, a half dozen or so stories take up roughly 80 percent of my time. Over the last year, that would certainly include Afghanistan, Iraq, the Iran nuclear negotiations, the crisis in eastern Ukraine as well as U.S. relations with Russia and China.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. To be a journalist is to be given a license to try to understand the world and, in my case, to write about it. I love the breadth of issues that I get to cover – virtually the entire field of U.S. foreign policy – and the challenge of working to get ahead of the curve on where U.S. policy may be heading.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. My most rewarding experiences have been working with superb colleagues in New York, Paris, Algiers and now Washington, the four cities where I have been based, and around the world when I have traveled with the U.S. president and secretary of state. I loved covering the great carnivals of the 1996 and 2000 U.S. presidential elections. I have also gotten to witness history first-hand, including being in the Florida classroom on Sept. 11, 2001 when former President George W. Bush learned of the second plane to hit the World Trade Center in New York. My most difficult experience was covering Algeria in late 1993 and early 1994, when the country was in the midst of a slow-burning civil war between the military-backed authorities and Islamist militants.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I have thought about teaching, either at a university or secondary school.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. Though I spend a lot of time reading documents and trying to understand U.S. laws and regulations, I am glad I did not become a lawyer like my grandfather and two of my uncles. I’ve had much more fun being a journalist.
To read the latest from Arshad Mohammed, click here.