Surely Kim Barker is the only foreign correspondent to sum up Afghan President Hamid Karzai as "whiny and conflicted, a combination of Woody Allen, Chicken Little and Jimmy Carter," with a national government that "seemed about as effective as a student council."
Both may well be true — the Karzai administration's ineffectuality and widespread corruption are staples of journalistic accounts — but reporters rarely set aside their sense of politesse to put such a fine point on the matter. Barker does, vigorously, in her no-holds-barred memoir "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Fast-moving events on the ground are altering the political terrain Barker witnessed, since "The Taliban Shuffle" focuses mainly on her experiences while she was South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 2004 through 2009, covering events in "Af-Pak" and India. And yet the interlinked fates of those countries, made so evident in her firsthand reporting, remain a confounding feature of regional geopolitics, so skewed toward the question of terrorism.
Karzai took the opportunity of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. commandos in a comfortable safe house not far from Pakistan's capital to remark, "For years we have said that the fight against terrorism is not in Afghan villages and houses. It is in safe havens, and today that was shown to be true. Stop bombarding Afghan villages and searching Afghan people."
That is the same leader who sat with Barker, in an interview she characterizes as "strange and rambling," in which he failed "to take any responsibility for all that had gone wrong in his country," felt he had been too soft in his complaints to the international community, and also claimed he wanted to negotiate with the Taliban but did not know where to find them. (Assumedly that is no longer the case; Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, recently agreed that his country would work with Karzai on an initiative to negotiate with the Taliban.)
Even before bin Laden was revealed to have been tucked away in a mansion in a well-off Pakistani city, the U.S. administration had been highly critical of Pakistan for weak efforts in fighting al-Qaida and other militant groups on its soil. Yet as Barker points out, "The rare offensives the (Pakistani) military ever announced here showed that the country was only willing to take on a certain kind of militant — the ones attacking inside Pakistan, and never the ones training and planning strikes against international troops and civilian targets in neighboring Afghanistan."
While here and there "The Taliban Shuffle" delivers such backdoor insights into policy, at heart it is a quirkily personal account of being a war correspondent, one that poignantly chronicles a gradual disenchantment with reporting on bloodshed. Over time Barker lived in the national capitals of Delhi, Kabul and Islamabad, the last a municipality Barker says possesses "the vibe of Sacramento on tranquilizers."
The wilder social scene available to Westerners in Kabul "resembled a cross between a fraternity party and the Hotel California, where the same characters always seemed to stay too long and drink too much," Barker recalls. Yet the party-hopping "craziness" evaporated as the crisis in Afghanistan deepened in the latter half of 2006, after which "the Westerners would segregate themselves into their compounds, building a separate world in Kabul, free of the hassles of Afghanistan, free of Afghans."
In this respect, "The Taliban Shuffle" becomes a report on reporting as much as a detailing of events, valuable in its way as we watch Barker sidle up to sources for good and bad, get hit on romantically by a former prime minister of Pakistan and befriend an impulsively aggressive attorney general of Afghanistan. That man, named Sabit — whom she came to consider her "eccentric grandpa" — eventually crossed the wrong warlord and was beaten by his henchmen.
Sabit's humiliation "implied that Afghanistan was dangerously fragile — not because the Taliban was so strong but because the government was so weak," Barker writes. And this "great white-bearded hope" for the Afghan judicial system had instead "become the symbol of its failure."
After years visiting the aftermath of suicide bombings, covering natural calamities and being embedded with military forces, Barker grew tired of seeing bodies. She had visited a tribal leader near Kandahar on one trip, and realized 21/2 years later that not only had he been killed, but almost everyone she met on the trip was also dead.
In Karachi, Pakistan, she had clambered onto Benazir Bhutto's truck after Bhutto's homecoming parade was hit by a suicide bomber (October 2007, a few weeks before Bhutto was assassinated), only to stick her hand in blood on its rails inadvertently. She wiped her hand on her jeans and records that "the scene was a free-for-all."
That eyewitness aspect of "The Taliban Shuffle" is its major payoff, and Barker (who now works for the nonprofit news organization ProPublica) has a descriptive flair that can amuse and disconcert in the same breath. In the ritzy Shirpur neighborhood of Kabul, warlords, drug lords and influential officials "had been handed government land for a cut rate," where they built "gaudy mansions that looked like grade-school decoupage projects gone horribly wrong," while for the average Afghan, life consisted "of a mud hut, an outhouse, and a couple of hours of electricity a day."
She sums up Afghanistan as "a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas."
Let's hope for luck.
"The Taliban Shuffle"
By Kim Barker
Doubleday, 310 pages, $25.95