Review: The Taliban Shuffle – strange journalism

If you wanted to know why the coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the West is so shallow and uninformed, you should read this book.  The author, Kim Barker was the South Asia Bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009.  But if you were looking for any insight on Afghanistan (where she spent most of her time), or even Pakistan, you would be rather disappointed.

As for the writing style, the less said the better.  You would expect better writing from a journalist than this:

India was a series of challenges wrapped in a mystical blanket covered in an essential quandary.

If you think her knowledge of South Asia would make up for her writing skills, well then, here is her expert analysis on India-Pakistan relations:

I blamed India. Everyone here did. To understand Pakistan, India was the key. Why did Pakistan direct its militant groups toward disputed Kashmir instead of disbanding them after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan? India. Why did Pakistan support the Taliban regime in Afghanistan? India. Why did Pakistan develop a nuclear weapon? India. Why did Musharraf support the country’s homegrown militant groups even as he arrested Al-Qaeda’s alleged number three at any given time? India.  And why did Pakistan continually give me such a crappy visa? India.

At first, it’s a little shocking to find that these foreign correspondents know so little about the region they are spending years covering, but when you read her book, you begin to understand why.  It looks like all the journalists who are based in Kabul are one small group who socialize exclusively with each other (think parties and visits to foreigner-only bars and brothels) and have little to no contact with the locals.  And these are the independednt journalists, the embedded ones have no contact with anyone anyway as they stay in the military base.

Kim has a “fixer” – Farouq, a translator-cum-driver-cum-assistant, who seems to do all the groundwork – setting up appointments with the Taliban, tribal chiefs, anyone Kim wants to meet.   When Kim has a meeting with tribal elders in Kandahar (set up by Farouq), she does not realize she needs to wear a burqa until Farouq breaks it to her gently.  So she asks Farouq to buy her one, and does not realize till she reaches Kandahar that the burqa (which barely covers the back of her knees and reaches only to her waist in the front) is much too short for a meeting with conservative tribal chiefs.  Typically, she blames Farouq for this oversight.

So how did Ms Barker even become the South Asian Bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune?  Did she know Hindi or Urdu or Dari? Had she majored in South Asian studies, or had any previous experience reporting from South Asia or covering the region? Or had she lived in the region before?  Nope, none of the above.  Apparently, her major qualifications, as she tells the top foreign editor while asking for the job, are, in her own words:

“I have no kids and no husband, so I’m expendable,” I explained.

The boss nodded. Apparently, the newspaper had already realized this. He held up a used envelope with my name scrawled on the back, near the names of two other single women with no children.

“We know who you are”, he said. “Get ready to go to Pakistan.”

If this is what counts as a qualification in newspapers these days, it is not surprising that the highlight of the book is not her analysis of the Afghan situation, but her  claim that Nawaz Sharif, the former Pakistan Prime Minister wanted her to be his “friend”. He asks Kim if she has a boyfriend, and offers to set her up with one.  Then, much later, he tells her that he would like to be her friend, even though he is not as tall as she would like, or as fit.  He also keeps offering to buy her an iPhone.

Given that Nawaz Sharif is married, does this mean he wanted her to be his mistress? In any case, Kim seems almost proud of this offer.  She even mentions it to a member of the Pakistani military, who chokes on his Black Label and tells her “Nawaz Sharif could have any woman he wants. He had the third most beautiful woman in the world, And you come nowhere near that.”   You get the sense that this statement only makes Kim even prouder at having received Nawaz Sharif’s proposition.

In the end, you learn a lot about Kim Barker, about how newspapers are run and how foreign correspondents live and party. You learn nothing new about Afghanistan or Pakistan.  It is a strange book for a reporter/ journalist to write. But it is good entertainment anyway.

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5 Comments

  1. Havent read the book (and after this analysis will probably steer clear of it) but am not surprised. Upto a few years ago, I worked in an international NGO which used to have expats in key positions. So I had this boss who arrived newly from Africa with ‘loads of experience’. We were also going through some reassignment in the team. Imagine my horror when she asked me at a training if we should seat people according to their caste!!! Then there was the ‘expert trainer’ who expected us to know Mark Twain (any Indian who was schooled in English medium would) but hadn’t a clue Rabindranath Tagore was. So ignorance is something I’ve come to expect. Perhaps it gives them bliss.

    • It would not be so bad if the ignorance was just due to a benign lack of exposure. Unfortunately, most of the time the ignorance stems from arrogance and parochialism :(

  2. Did you take the book too literally? I read other reviews of this book, and they all refer to the strand of humour that runs through this book, and some of the segments that you quote from this book as examples of her lack of skills might strike you differently if they were thought to be touched with irony and humour. Take a chill pill.

    • I agree she is self-deprecating at times, probably even a little too much. But if you read the book, you’ll notice her strong resentment at her newspaper bosses’ lack of interest in serious reporting and focus on softer “humint” stories. The point Kim is making is not just that she had no prior foreign affairs experience – it is also that her bosses knew and did not care. Eventually she leaves the Tribune because of this – when they downsize their South Asian presence (AFTER Obama announced the “surge” in Afghanistan) and shift her to a desk job in Chicago.

      I’ll give her credit for trying to understand the region despite having virtually no prior knowledge about South Asia. But that kind of learning on the job does not make for very insightful coverage (not for the first few years at least). From her own account, the other journalists in Afghanistan don’t seem to be any better. Makes sense, if insight and expertise are not valued while soft-focus stories are..

  3. This book represents self-serving drivel from what I view as a failed journalist trying to justify her own self grandiose view of her ability to report on events in Afghanistan/Pakistan and India. Her references to being a “war/adrenalin junkie” and returning to life as a “civilian” in the US sums up her self-dillusionment. At no time was she part of any military forces operating in these areas, so one is left wondering what she means that she is now a “civilian” other than to conclude she is a idiot. An embarrassing self- justification of a failed journalist and author showing the reader how inept she was at understanding the situation she confronted and an inability to report/write objectively.

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