By Khushi Dalal
Growing up sheltered in a “hippie” household in Montana, Kim Barker knew what she wanted more than anything: out. So when the opportunity arose at the Chicago Tribune for a fill-in correspondent to report on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11, Barker, currently a metro reporter at The New York Times, jumped at it. Unmarried and childless, she presented as the perfect candidate. Little did she know that in the chaos of two fractured nations brimming with insurgency is where she would feel the most at home. By the time Barker became the South Asia bureau chief for the Tribune in 2004, she had a confirmed addiction, not to drugs, but the adrenaline rush, the lifestyle, and to the dangers of war reporting.
Barker would spend the next five years scurrying back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, searching for her next “fix”, doing what she calls the “Taliban Shuffle”. This would later become the title of her 2012 book, titled The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book recounts the horrors and absurdities of reporting the “forgotten war”. Not a journalistic account but a memoir, the book lacks objectivity or an overarching narrative. Rather, it reads like a journal, following the author as she grows into the role of a foreign war correspondent, navigating through commitment issues, tragedies and political incongruities. A talented writer, Barker’s breezy, often sardonic narration with just the right amount of cynicism renders the harrowing realities of war palatable.
New to the region, Barker pens her observations about the people with some amusement and a tinge of disdain. We learn male ethnic Pashtuns adored flowers and anything fluorescent or sparkly and of their obsession with fatalistic love. She notes the dedication of Pashtuns to hospitality and more so to revenge. In one particular instance, a man tossed a grenade into the lion’s cage to exact revenge for his brother’s death, a Pashtun fighter, after he jumped into the lion’s cage, “who promptly bit off the man’s arm.”
Barker remarks how irrelevant the Afghan war seemed back in the spring of 2005: “Sure, the Taliban blew up things in the south, but so far, they mostly blew up themselves.” So insignificant that the donkey-borne improvised explosive device (DBIED) used by Afghans and Pakistanis provoked more laughter than fear. So insignificant that the soldiers did not even chamber a round in their rifles anymore.
Elections in Afghanistan, Barker notes, were almost as inept as its suicide bombers. The voters were faced with the impossible task of having to pick one candidate out of 390. Warlords occupied the parliament, their past crimes erased, while drug lords doubled as government officials. As for the Taliban, they remained a thorn in the way of the functioning of the Government: “The notoriously corrupt governor in Ghazni banned travel on motorcycles, the favourite Taliban mode of transport. The Taliban then banned travel by car. Many people in Ghazni just stopped leaving home.”
The book is more entertaining and less probing. For someone who lived in the region for 5 years, Barker provides only a superficial account of what she observed. Barker consciously limits her writing to her strange observations and amusing anecdotes, refusing to delve any deeper into the political unrest or cultural interactions. Depth of information, like emotion, is something Barker inherently shies away from.
She tries to make sense of the sad, downtrodden state of the two countries wracked by corruption and years of war with her usual wryness. The government land in Afghanistan was sold to warlords, drug lords, and influential officials “for a cut-rate” on which they built gaudy mansions. Meanwhile, life for average Afghans still consisted of a simple mud hut and an erratic power supply.
However, Barker preferred the blatantness of injustices in Afghanistan over Pakistan, which she describes as “a series of contradictions tied up in a double game.” Like many, Barker worried that Parvez Musharraf, the army chief cum prime minister, and the country’s intelligence agency, the ISI, were also playing a double game– taking Western funds and hunting Al-Qaeda while granting impunity to their old friends, the Taliban. The numbers, she observes, backed the claims: “more than seven hundred Al-Qaeda suspects had allegedly been arrested in Pakistan, few senior Taliban leaders had been captured. Several top militants had mysteriously escaped custody or been released.” It was parts like this where I found myself wishing for more revelations, more context.
The book provides a similar insular view of Pakistan’s politics shrouded in lucid descriptions. Embedded at the heart of all the action– including Pakistan’s lawyer’s movement, Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming, assassination and funeral– Barker gives the readers short glimpses into major events which rocked the region, frequently cutting focus to other aspects of her life.
Barker describes her romantic interludes at some length. She humorously details her experience as a female foreign correspondent in a misogynistic country which often involved getting pinched on her backside and invasive pat-downs, bordering on sexual harassment. Her sex, however, she confesses, also gave her a “bizarre access” to men and women in a conservative Afghanistan. She is honest in her description of the expatriates, including herself, who saw Afghanistan as a country “stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas”, an adrenaline rush, a line on one’s resume, a place to escape. At times, Barker comes across as callow and conceited. However, her frank (and sometimes prejudiced) impressions and experiences make her accounts as a foreign correspondent that much more authentic.
I was more interested in what Barker had to say about Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Although the “Tiger of Pakistan” and Barker, if the accounts are to be believed, spent a significant amount of time together, yet she does not divulge any new information about him or his politics. Instead, she regales her readers with gossip about Sharif’s low self-esteem, his attempts to find Barker a “friend” (for which he volunteers himself) and his unfulfilled desire to gift Barker an iPhone.
Occasionally, Barker stops to reflect on the war and the destruction. She notes the shifting moods towards Americans in Afghanistan, primarily due to the rising civilian collaterals. The expat debauchery only worsened the situation. She criticises the American strategy, which she deduces to be: “Overwhelm the enemy with superior military force, train some Afghan mopes as police and army, make a political deal with members of the Taliban, call it stability, and get the heck out”. However, Barker refrains from giving up solutions or conclusions.
I must admit, there are better books written on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which offer a more nuanced take on the subject. If you hope to gain a deeper understanding of a vastly misinterpreted region, its culture, or the implications of an inadequate international response, The Taliban Shuffle falls flat. Barker does not offer any explanations, nor does she provide any profound insights into the region or its geopolitics. However, for those interested in a quick, fun read about the life experiences of a foreign journalist or a primer to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Barker does not disappoint.
Khushi Dalal is a 3rd-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University.