Battle-Zone Absurdity and Adrenaline-Fueled Folly
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
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).
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.”
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.
THE TALIBAN SHUFFLE
Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan
By Kim Barker
302 pages. Doubleday. $25.95
The New York Times