Battle-Zone Absurdity and Adrenaline-Fueled Folly


A funny book about Afghanistan and Pakistan? It sounds like an oxymoron. Where is the comedy in a terrible war that continues to claim American and Afghan lives? What is comic about suicide bombers and I.E.D.’s, or a nuclear-armed Pakistan, reeling from corruption, violence and chronic dysfunction?

What’s remarkable about “The Taliban Shuffle” is that its author, Kim Barker — a reporter at ProPublica and the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009 — has written an account of her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan that manages to be hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating, all at the same time.

It’s not just that Ms. Barker is adept at dramatizing her own adventures as a reporter — though she develops the chops of a veteran foreign correspondent, she depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war. It’s also that Ms. Barker has discovered a voice in these pages that enables her to capture both the serious and the seriously absurd conditions in Af-Pak (Afghanistan and Pakistan), and the surreal deal of being a female reporter there, with dating problems ranging from the screwball (a boyfriend competing to cover the same story) to the ridiculous (being romantically pursued by the former prime minister of Pakistan).

Black humor, it turns out, is a perfect tool for capturing the sad-awful-frequently-insane incongruities of war.

“The Taliban Shuffle,” in fact, reads like a rollicking and revealing mashup of “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” (Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s devastating 2006 portrait of the unreal world of Iraq’s Green Zone), “War Reporting for Cowards” (Chris Ayres’s entertaining 2005 account of being a newbie war reporter for The Times of London) and Robert Altman’s darkly satiric 1970 movie “MASH,” with a bit of Evelyn Waugh-esque satiric verve thrown in for good measure.

Ms. Barker conveys the shocking lack of security in Pakistan, even after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Of a meeting between the newly sworn-in Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Islamabad, Pakistan, she writes that “the event featured absolutely no security, no metal detectors, no bag searches, even though the list of people who wanted to kill either man was surely the size of a New York phonebook.”

She conveys how small the war in Afghanistan still was in the spring of 2005, before insufficient American resources and growing anti-foreigner sentiment fueled the Taliban’s resurgence: “Sure, the Taliban blew up things in the south, but so far they mostly blew up themselves, and their attempts to use recalcitrant donkeys as suicide bombers” — known in the parlance as D.B.I.E.D.’s, donkey-borne improvised explosive devices — “only provoked laughter. It was a known fact: Afghans and Pakistanis were probably the worst suicide bombers in the entire spectrum of militants.”

Also conveyed here is the daunting challenge that the United States faces in trying to develop a police force in Afghanistan. “The only thing that would make a difference,” Ms. Barker writes, “was a whole lot of training, for a whole lot of years, with a whole lot of money. This was a largely illiterate country racked by 30 years of war, a place where young men from the provinces didn’t know how to lace their boots because they’d never had boots.”

As for the chaotic election process in Afghanistan, Ms. Barker notes that in the 2005 parliamentary elections, voters had to choose from 390 candidates : “The ballot folded out into seven large pages, and each candidate had a photograph and a symbol, because many Afghans were illiterate. But creativity ran out, and symbols had to be reused. Candidates were identified as different objects, including a pair of scissors, one camel, two camels, three camels, two sets of barbells, mushrooms, two ice-cream cones, three corncobs, two tomatoes, stairs, a turkey, two turkeys, one eye, a pair of eyes, a tire, two tires, three tires — to name a few. The symbols were randomly drawn out of a box.”

Ms. Barker argues that two dates figure prominently in explanations of why America’s war in Afghanistan went off the rails: March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq and turned its focus and resources away from Afghanistan; and May 29, 2006, when a United States military truck “plowed into rush-hour traffic in Kabul, killing three Afghans” and fueling resentment against the Americans.

In part, she says, it was a simple question of numbers: whereas “post-conflict Kosovo had one peacekeeper for every 48 people,” Afghanistan, “already mired in poverty, drought and more than two decades of war, with little effective government and a fledgling army that was hardly more than a militia, had just one peacekeeper for every 5,400 people.” In part, it was weariness with “the growing gap in the country between the haves and have-nots,” and the pervasive corruption — “the warlords now in parliament, the drug lords doubling as government officials” and “the fact that no one ever seemed to be held accountable for anything.

Kim Barker
After six years as a reporter in Washington state, first for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane and then for the Seattle Times, Kim Barker joined the Chicago Tribune in 2001. She served as the South Asia bureau chief from 2004 to 2009 before being awarded the Council on Foreign Relations’ Edward R. Murrow press fellowship. Barker is currently a reporter at ProPublica and lives in New York City. Photo by William Coupon

Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan
By Kim Barker
302 pages. Doubleday. $25.95

The New York Times