If anyone picks up Kim Barker's The Taliban Shuffle with the hopes of understanding the myriad security challenges spanning and indeed linking Afghanistan, Pakistan and the wider South Asian region, she should move on. This is unfortunate. Ms. Barker, who was a correspondent in South Asia with the Chicago Tribune between 2002 and 2009, could have been well positioned to explain a tough region with ironic insights and imminently readable humor.
To this reader's dismay, in Taliban Shuffle, Ms. Barker is less interested in recounting the evolution of the war on terror over the arc of her tenure than she is in telling her own story with the "Af-Pak" theater as a wild prop. Her kitschy book is organized in chapters named after popular songs that ostensibly provide the sound track to her highly personalized accounts of her own outrageous escapades. While the book purports to be a journalist's account of the Afghan war's evolution from a strategic backwater to a strategic breakwater, it succeeds only in meager measure.
Despite the author's appealing, quirky sense of humor, her tale disconcerts with tasteless rodomontade more than it describes the fraught challenges in the complex geography of her portfolio. Ms. Barker entered the volatile region of South Asia as a complete ingénue, with no preparation for her tasking, and being unable to discern an artillery shell from a slingshot. She bumbled along nonetheless cutting a swathe of havoc in her path. In one of her first embeds with the US military, she encountered American soldiers who were bored with the inaction as the real war migrated to Iraq. Having grown lackadaisical about their mission, one of the soldiers conceded to her that he was often "not locked and loaded," referring to the lack of readiness of his weapon. Ms. Barker diligently reported the ennui of the soldiers by name without regard to the cardinal rule of source protection. One of the soldiers was subsequently transferred to an area with greater engagement and lost a leg in a roadside bomb blast. Ms. Barker, in a recurrent moment of fetishized self-reflection, ponders whether she had exercised better judgment, would he still have his leg?
These soldiers are not her only collateral damage. Ms. Barker's other quarry includes Pakistan's former Prime Minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif. In at least three chapters, Ms. Barker recounts various encounters with "Nawaz," referring to him with excessive familiarity. In each instance, Mr. Sharif requests after some time that she turn off her tape recorder. This is widely accepted as the common code signaling to journalists with integrity everywhere that the conversation has now veered into the area of non-attribution. Ms. Barker barges right past such norms of professionalism and reveals to her exhausted reader that Mr. Sharif pursued her amorously, foisting himself forward as a potential "friend." Mr. Sharif is a married, former head of government who likely had no expectation that these personal musings -- howsoever accurate or inaccurate they may be -- would be published in Ms. Barker's pithy memoir.
While Ms. Barker attempts to describe all that is wrong with the war and the international community's persistent failure to win over the locals' "hearts and minds," she is part of the very problems she claims to exposit. She confesses to bouts of absurd drunkenness, frolicking with mercenaries in Kabul bordellos, running around with inappropriate clothing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and frequenting the grown-up frat parties that pass as social-life in Islamabad. Virtually every encounter with a local results in her screaming at them for failing to meet her expectations. How can one purge the memory of her shrieking at an Afghan employee at a local guesthouse for ruining her $70 shirt. The author muses that the outrageous episode resulted in her being -- temporarily -- banned from the happening locale.
Similarly, as a long time visitor to South Asia, it is hard to wrap my inflexible brain around the image of the author traipsing about Pakistan's capital in a "short black dress that probably qualified more as a shirt, tights, and high-heeled black boots with silver buckles up the side" for an evening of "amateur drinking." Given that the reader cannot wade through five pages without an account of some miscreant grabbing her presumably callipygous posterior, one has wonder if appropriate clothing may have protected her rear flank. However, as the author herself notes wryly, she had "amassed [her] own ridiculous wardrobe for an Islamic country."
When Ms. Barker is not busy over-sharing sordid details of her desultory searches for romances that resulted in a string of Mr. Right-Nows strewn across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, she turns her attention to rehearsing well-known accounts of the varied peccadilloes of the political leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan be it President Karzai, Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif. There is not much new terrain to cover here and, no surprisingly, she offers no new insights in the political landscape of South Asia.
As noted above, an undercurrent of her narrative is the inability of the United States and its NATO partners to prevail over the Taliban. She justifiably scoffs at the U.S. military's failed efforts to win over local sentiment. However, she is insouciant to the fact that she is part of this failure. What did the countless Afghans and Pakistanis think when they encountered her in various states of sobriety and impropriety? What did they conclude from her countless temper tantrums, about which she muses with excessive braggadocio? The journalist corps is replete with such ill-tempered correspondents "winning hearts and minds" for the wrong team.
I was deeply bothered by one account in particular. Late one evening, Ms. Barker was again drunk at a Chinese brothel in Kabul when her fixer called. She impatiently demanded that he quickly provide an important translation for a story. Her fixer, trying to get her to focus, explained that the next day was Eid, which is an extremely important Muslim holiday. He wanted to finish his work with her that night such that he could spend the day with his family, free of her demands. Only then did she appreciate her unreasonable expectations of her hard-working underpaid Afghan colleague who tolerated her adolescent antics.
While this review will no doubt strike some as "self-righteous," I do have a serious bone to pick with this account and its author. First, journalists come and go in this region. Scholars of the region stay. We spend our entire careers in this region and we have to swim in the waters in which they micturate. Second, I too have had the experience of journalist taking advantage of my forthrightness only to see comments that were meant for personal consumption splattered across a webpage or news print. Given the obvious way in which she has mishandled her sources, who could ever trust her in any context? Thus my objections to this volume are based both upon principles and personal experience with journalists who are more interested in the re-tweets to their bylines than the protection of their sources.
While the author admits these flaws in varying measure, at some point, her self-deprecating accounts of her romps seem more like gimmicky braggadocio rather than self-reflective criticism much less exculpation for region-wide offenses. This is unfortunate. The author has an innately appealing voice and a good eye for human comedy. Nonetheless, while the volume is nominally set to the tune of the Taliban, in fact it's set to the tune of the author's own narcissism.
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