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Battle-zone absurdities

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

She 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 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 fuelled 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 DBIEDs, donkey-borne improvised explosive devices — “only provoked laughter. It was a known fact: Afghans and Pakistanis were probably the worst suicide bombers.”

As for the chaotic election process in Afghanistan, the author 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.”

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 US invaded Iraq and turned its focus and resources away from Afghanistan; and May 29, 2006, when a US military truck “plowed into rush-hour traffic in Kabul, killing three Afghans” and fuelling 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.”

Nor were matters helped by the bad behaviour of foreigners, who brought booze and brothels to Afghanistan, who gave parties with themes like “Tarts and Talibs” or invaders (including “Alexander the Great, Hippies, Brits, Mughals, Russians”), and who regarded the country, in Ms. Barker’s words, as “Kabul High, a way to get your war on, an adrenaline rush, a résumé line, a money factory.”

“It was a place to escape,” she goes on, “to run away from marriages and mistakes, a place to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past, a country in which to reinvent yourself. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas.”

Ms. Barker readily acknowledges her own eager enrollment at Kabul High: how she rented a room in the “Fun House,” a kind of dorm filled with journalists, United Nations workers, lawyers and other Westerners orbiting the war — temporary expats all “on the same acid trip,” who forged fast, intense friendships that were galvanised by adversity, the curfews and the frequent power failures.

Eventually, Ms. Barker says she realised she “had turned into this almost drowning caricature of a war hack, working, swearing and drinking my way through life and relationships” and then she “chose to graduate from Kabul High, to return home before it was too late.

She is not optimistic about the countries she left behind. “At some point,” she writes, “I realised the horrible truth — the US and its allies could win every single battle in Afghanistan and blow up every single alleged top militant in Pakistan, but still lose this war.”

The New York Times

Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Kim Barker

Double Day
302 pages; $25.95

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First Published: Fri, March 18 2011. 00:55 IST