The South Asia Channel

Inside the Taliban Shuffle

Not many women can say that Nawaz Sharif,Pakistan’s troubled former prime minister, tried to set her up on a date with aPakistani man. Kim Barker, the author of TheTaliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, can do thatone better: she can say Sharif tried to set her up with Asif Ali Zardari, the presidentof ...

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images

Not many women can say that Nawaz Sharif,Pakistan’s troubled former prime minister, tried to set her up on a date with aPakistani man. Kim Barker, the author of TheTaliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, can do thatone better: she can say Sharif tried to set her up with Asif Ali Zardari, the presidentof Pakistan.

Barker, appropriately, declined Sharif’s kindinvitation; she also had to decline, sometime later, Sharif’s invitation to behis latest mistress. Her surreal book is chock full of such ridiculousexperiences, whether the grabby, eve-teasing crowds ofPakistani men in Peshawar or the uncomfortably flirtatious former Afghanattorney general, Abdul Jabar Sabit. Barker, a former Chicago Tribune correspondent now with ProPublica, recounts nearlya decade of soul-wrenching zaniness, perpetrated in equal parts by the Afghans,Pakistanis, and the white people moving amongst them both, with a good sense ofhumor. This is funny stuff, it’s true. But it’s also very sad.

In chunks of her book, for example, Barker usesAfghans not as vessels to explain and humanize the war but as props to furtherher own decadence. Even now, as she uses catharsis to cleanse her soul, thetragedy of their lives is given little more than a throwaway line at the end ofa chapter or two. That time a British journalist kissed her while she wastrying to use the bathroom at a whites-only guesthouse in Kabul? Four pages.Beyond the cliché-ridden prose and a meekly attempted sardonic shake of thehead, her book denies Afghans agency, personhood, and choice. She attempts toexplain how she fell into deep burnout sometime in 2009; how the weight of allthe bad policy finally dragged her down; how the unending corruption ofAfghanistan and the casual brutality of Pakistan wore her out. But even herbest friends there seem to be little more than ciphers representing the sumtotal of their respective country’s people.

Then there are the constant clichés. A decadeafter U.S. troops first assaulted Afghanistan, it is difficult to discuss thewar without resorting to clichés. They permeate everything written about thecountry, whether the people (tribal, venal, obsessed with sex and animals andporn and drugs and politics), the landscape (a "moonscape," to be more precise,as if America lacks deserts or mountains), or the fighting (bloody, Taliban,IEDs, ambush, airstrike). In a way, writing a book written entirely in clichémakes sense, if seen as a meta-commentary on the slipshod disservice thejournalistic community has done the American public in not properly covering theplace.

Alas, that is not what Barker has done. In Taliban Shuffle, she recounts all ofthose journalistic clichés, but she doesn’t seem aware of what they are. Shecomplains bitterly at the "criminal negligence" of Afghanistan by theInternational Community from 2002 to 2006, but she can barely give more than afill-in-the-blanks description of what happened right in front of her nose. Ina real way, she is repeating and amplifying the journalistic sins that havebeset Afghanistan almost as much as the West’s military and political misstepsthere, but rather than purging her guilt for participating in it, she seemsonly interested in explaining why her life was so difficult being a seniorreporter for a major, though bankrupt, newspaper.

That’s not to complain of Barker’s attempts tohumanize herself. Having been a very brief witness to the expat scene in Kabul– a kaleidoscopic bacchanalia of excess and debauchery — the need forcatharsis from being a participant for so long is obvious. It is only at theend of her tale, when Pakistan’s frightening power politics has frightened hermore than the Taliban’s IEDs ever did, when her unemployment finally promptedher to reconsider her choices and her options, and her own self awareness pokesthrough the haze of nihilism so many foreign correspondents develop, thatBarker seeks solace in reality.

But that’s probably the point anyway. Barker isnot writing about Afghanistan, but about the disconnected, decadent,exploitative foreigners who write about Afghanistan. In this, her book is aprobing — and uncomfortably hilarious — glimpse inside the universe so manyof our foreign correspondents inhabit. It is a universe where Afghanistan islittle more than Kabul with occasional field trips elsewhere; where Pakistan isboring Islamabad punctuated by bombs in other cities; where it’s normal to livein hotels and attend fabulous parties at mansions where all the locals speakEnglish and drink wine. For exposing this world for the hollow fraud it is,Barker deserves enormous praise.

One anecdote in particular summarizes so much ofwhat’s gone wrong in the coverage of the war. It is right at the very beginning,when Barker is in Gardez City in 2002. She is about to interview Pacha KhanZadran, a warlord who probably best symbolizes everything that went wrong withthe government’s attempt to integrate the warlords that had choked the countryfor almost a decade. Installed as the governor of Paktia in 2001, Pacha Khanwas then removed when local tribes essentially rebelled against hisleadership. During the ensuing clashes, Pacha Khan’s forces shelled Gardez, killingupwards of 50 civilians — and polarized the entire area into pro- andanti-Pachan Khan factions. By September of 2002 the U.S. military — under thecommand of future ISAF commander Dan McNeill — ended their relationship withPacha Khan’s forces, creating a power vacuum. Pacha Khan became locked in adeadly rivalry with another tribal elder, Hakim Taniwal, over who gets controland influence of Khost’s politics (Taniwal later mysteriously diedin a suicide car bombing; the culprits were never identified). It was a totalmess.

Barker walks into this situation and describesPacha Khan’s murder of civilians as throwing a temper tantrum "apparentlybecause no one was paying enough attention to him." She imagines herself beingat the mercy of his Pashtunwali, as his son had just been killed.  She is fascinated by his interiordecorator. Barker describes herself as ignorant, and this is true (thoughalmost everyone was at this point in the war). But what’s so troubling is, overthe next six years Barker develops a sense of how palace politics work inKabul, how disconnected the U.S. military is from the streets of Kabul, even ofthe tragedy of the Taliban’s unanswered campaign to execute all thepro-government elders in Kandahar. But she never seems to develop an understandingof Afghanistan itself, and her time in Pakistan seems limited to coveringsuicide bombs and flirting with Nawaz Sharif.

These things matter in both countries. No onecould deny that. But they are also only a part of the story. Events in Kabulwill not dictate the country’s future. Events in the countryside, where peoplemake decisions to support or reject the many different sides to the war — that’swhat will dictate Afghanistan’s future. Pakistan’s future, too, is out in thetribal areas, in the endless brown-green hills of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, and not,ultimately, in Rawalpindi. Barker is not unique in focusing on the easiestparts of either country in her reporting — and in fact, I’d place her near thetop of foreign correspondents who’ve covered both. But the system she reportedfor, the much-hated SamZell-ification of her paper the ChicagoTribune only among the most explicitly distasteful, simply never botheredto understand Afghanistan as a place filled with people, rather than a warfilled with combat.

In a way, that is the real tragedy Barkerexplains in Taliban Shuffle, thoughshe’s not nearly that specific. Despite her friendships with well-to-do,educated, English-speaking Kabulis, her one trip to the Arghandab didn’t reallyteach her much about how Kandahar works. Her brief interview with Pacha Khandidn’t help her understand Gardez’s nasty politics. Living in a mansion inIslamabad only helps you understand so much of what drives Pakistan’shorrifying slow-motion implosion. If nothing else, Barker’s book is a perfectencapsulation of the many flaws of international reporters — their obsessions,neuroses, failures to understand the stories sitting right in front of them — whereinterviewing captured impoverished Taliban in a prison substitutes for actuallyunderstanding what motivates people to plant bombs and fire mortars into acity. Read as a summary of how and why the U.S. got so many things wrong aboutthe war, Taliban Shuffle is justabout perfect.

Joshua Foust isa fellow at the American Security Project and the author of AfghanistanJournal: Selections from Registan.net. Heblogs about Central Asia at www.registan.net.

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