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Kim Barker On “The Taliban Shuffle”— Her Candid And Witty Memoir

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Kim Barker

Kim Barker in Khost police truck: Photo by Kuni Takahashi

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By Pamela Burke

Kim’s ProPublica Article
on BP Oil Spill–4/13/11

Twitter: Kim_Barker

Kim Barker chronicles her exciting career as a foreign correspondent doing “The Taliban Shuffle” between Afghanistan and Pakistan in a new book published this week. If you like insightful and darkly funny tales of modern warfare, this is the book for you.

“You have to weigh the benefits with the potential for danger. It was always worth it.” Kim

As South Asia Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune, Kim was based in this volatile region for five years from 2004-2009. With a self-described wicked sense of humor, she gives an insider’s view of the horror, absurdities, and realities of her life as an intrepid reporter who grew to love her war zones.

Kim Barker's The Taliban ShuffleIt is a brutally honest book for those who want a no holds barred account of a reporter’s life in this infinitely complex region. Once I read it, I couldn’t wait to talk to Kim, an incomparable adventure junkie, whose opening line is “I had always wanted to meet a warlord.”

EYE: Were the warlords as fascinating as you thought they’d be?

Kim with Pacha Khan/2003

Kim with warlord Pacha Khan/2003: Photo by Ghulam Farouq Samim

KIM: I had never had the chance to meet a warlord. Coming from Montana, I thought I knew them. I had read where they hated the government and loved guns, but going to meet them in person reminded me of something out of a movie with their bandoliers and militia. I don’t think I thought about the repercussions back then.

EYE: Do you have any desire right now to go back and do the challenging “Taliban Shuffle” as you call it.

KIM: I’m not pining to return. I’m always going to miss Afghanistan and Pakistan and being a foreign correspondent, but I made conscious decision to come back to this country. Towards the end I felt like I had to decide whether I was going to be a permanent war correspondent or try something else.

“I made the decision at that point to just quit…I didn’t want to see my career going back to where it had been eight years earlier.”

EYE: What did you decide to do?

KIM: In March 2009 the Tribune decided to call its correspondents back to Chicago. I made the decision at that point to just quit. I didn’t see what I could possibly add to the Tribune coverage, and I didn’t want to see my career going back to where it had been eight years earlier.

I didn’t know what I would do. Maybe freelance, maybe write a book. Luckily, the Council on Foreign Relation offered me a fellowship, and I ended up back in New York. Then I faced a major decision.

In May 2010 I was offered two jobs, the Bureau Chief for a wire in Kabul and to work for ProPublica as a reporter in New York. I decided to do something totally different and scary and take the New York job.

Kim Barker

Kim Embedded in Afghanistan: Photo by Aryn Baker

EYE: That was a gutsy decision.

KIM: I’m very lucky that I landed at a great organization that’s been incredibly supportive. I’m doing domestic coverage. It’s best to be based in the U.S. right now. I put my family through a lot being over there for so long. At a certain point I realized how difficult it was for them, especially my mother.

“It is incredibly hospitable there. I was welcomed into people’s houses like a member of the family.”

I was so absorbed by everything over there. I had found a new family with the different correspondents and with Afghan, Pakistani and Indian colleagues. It is incredibly hospitable there. I was welcomed into people’s houses like a member of the family.

EYE: How did the book come together?

KIM: This book idea started as kind of a joke. It was something correspondents would talk about late at night, that someone should write a funny book about the war on terror and what it’s like to be there. I wanted to do the book as a memoir using my translator and myself as the main arc and see if I could make it work.

In 2009 the war was becoming the most important thing in the world in terms of foreign policy. At the same time I knew I was losing my job. It was a very difficult time. I felt very strongly about being able to continue my coverage. The Tribune had allowed me to be additional voice there and gave me the luxury of time when possible to do important stories.

EYE: The Taliban Shuffle sounds like a dance to me.

KIM: It’s the dance that correspondents would do between Afghanistan and Pakistan—shuffling between countries. It’s in a sense what the West does and the U S. does.

Kim Barker with President Hamid Karzai, 2004

Kim with President Hamid Karzai/2004

We pound down the insurgents in one place, and they pop up somewhere else eventually shuffling them back and forth across borders. I tell stories that show what life is like there and highlight different characters that I met.

Every chapter title is a different song. It starts off with “Welcome to the Terrordome” as an introduction and ends with “Hotel California” which is the joke we always had for Afghanistan. You can check out but you can never leave.

It supposed to be darkly funny, and I come off worse than anyone in the book. I did that deliberately. It’s self- deprecating. I didn’t want to write about the hero foreign correspondent who goes to these countries and inexplicably knows everything about them.

Kim Barker in Lahore

Kim taking notes in Lahore/2007: Photo by Olivier Matthys

EYE: What is it like working in these unpredictable places?

KIM: You never know what’s going to happen. But we were able to come up with bubbles. Kabul in many senses is a bit of a bubble. You don’t have to deal with all the insecurity that’s in the south.

Islamabad is much the same. We could go hiking there but things got worse and worse the longer I was there. You keep a running tally of how many people you’ve interviewed that later have been killed. That’s another reason I made the decision that it was a good idea to come back.

…if you’re going to write these stories, you’re going to have to feel them. You’ve got to tell the emotional story.”

You can only go to so many suicide bombings or see people you like get killed before it takes a piece of you every single time it happens. I’ve always been of the philosophy that if you’re going to write these stories, you’re going to have to feel them. You’ve got to tell the emotional story. But if you let yourself open up like that, every single time you let yourself feel it will take its toll.

EYE: Did the danger get to you? Or do you get immune to it?

KIM: A little bit of both. We would refer to ourselves as frogs in boiling water. It didn’t seem that bad to us, but we didn’t know we were boiling. It’s like when you’re living in something and you don’t think that it’s actually worse now than a year ago. You find ways to cope much like the people that live there. The only difference was that we had the luxury to leave.

Kim Barker taking pictures of police training/2007

Kim taking photos at a police training/2007: Photo by Aryn Baker

EYE: Were you able to interview the Taliban?

KIM: We talked to the Taliban over the phone and in secure places with former members who had left in Kabul. We also interviewed them in jail, but I never would put my translator or myself in danger to go out in the field.

Some did and were very successful and got that story. Others were kidnapped along with their translators and drivers. It’s just not worth it. We could instant message a Taliban on AOL. They were actually better with their information than the West and the Afghan government. We could always get to the Taliban.

“I can’t see us pulling everybody out for a number of years. That’s just not the way things work.”

EYE: How long do you think we will be in Afghanistan?

KIM: I love the people there, and it’s very difficult to see the trajectory I feel the country is on. And Pakistan for that matter. We’re not going to increase our presence. As of July we will take some troops out.

I can’t see us pulling everybody out for a number of years. That’s just not the way things work. I also feel that there doesn’t really seem to be a plan for what we’re doing over there.

EYE: Can you have a plan in that kind of volatile area?

KIM: It is difficult because this Karzai government is very disliked. Anytime when you are a foreign power such as ourselves trying to fight a counter insurgency, it’s essential that you’re supporting a government that is liked and respected by its people.

Kim at a Karzai Press Event//2006

Kim at a President Karzai press event/2006

It’s not that the Taliban are so strong and not like they’re ringing Kabul. The real problem is that the Afghan government is so weak. In rural areas throughout much of the countryside, the Taliban are seen as a more legitimate operative than the national government forces.

EYE: Do you ever see things changing?

KIM: I wish I had a more optimistic view, but it doesn’t seem like it’s getting any better. When I was over there, I thought this was all so profoundly important. I was convinced that everyone must be paying attention to this.

You come home and see how bad the economy is. People are really suffering in America. You start seeing things from a different perspective. We’re spending 190 million dollars a day in Afghanistan, $2,000 a second. That’s a lot of money for a plan that we’re still asking what are we trying to achieve.

“The Afghan women are very strong and a lot are very opinionated.”

EYE: What about the conditions for women?

KIM: When I started working in Afghanistan in January 2002, there was a sense that we were all sisters and they would tell me their stories.

I had the privilege of almost holding a woman’s hand the first day she took off her burqa. That was quite a moment. The whole idea that most of them are completely cowed is not true. The Afghan women are very strong and a lot are very opinionated.

That said, as positive as I am about Afghan women and how much they’ve endured, I must say that we’ve sold them a bill of goods. That’s on us. You can blame the Taliban for plenty of things, but we told them after 9/11 to come out of your houses, take off your burqas, go back to work and that you’re safe now.

Join the parliament. We’ll reserve 25% of the seats now. Go back to school. It’s ten years later now and one of the main solutions people are talking about is that the government is negotiating a deal with Taliban. In many ways, we’ve left these women out to dry. That’s going to be on us.

“I try to treat myself like I would treat anyone I was interviewing for a story.”

EYE: Your book is very frank. Do you fear repercussions?

KIM: There could be on me. I try to treat myself like I would treat anyone I was interviewing for a story. You put them in there to serve a larger story.

When I wrote about the foreign scene in Afghanistan, I put myself in the center of the badness to show what life is really like. I hope that the ultimate takeaway is that people read a book that’s entertaining, easy to read, and in the end, they learn a lot about both countries.

EYE: You are so honest that you talk about a prime minister hitting on you.

KIM: There may be repercussions for that. I’m sorry, but if you are the former prime minister of a country and you’ve made your name on being a conservative Muslim, do you think it’s a good idea to hit on a foreign journalist? I never reciprocated.

I’ve always joked around with people. It’s not like I’m writing about it as some kind of deep dark secret. It was an awkward situation. I used humor to deal with it.

Kim Barker

Photo by Aryn Baker

EYE: What makes you so gutsy and daring?

KIM: I have a sense of adventure and am always challenging myself. I put myself in potentially uncomfortable situations and see if I can do it. I was raised this way. My parents didn’t buy me dolls. That would have reinforced gender types.

I was writing at six years old. I never aspired to do this foreign correspondent stuff, but after 9/11 happened, the story was overseas. I wanted to see what it was like. As soon as I took my first journalism class when I was a sophomore in high school in Laramie, Wyoming, I said this is it. I have totally found it. Then I went to journalism school.

EYE: Can you sum up your time doing the Taliban Shuffle?

KIM: That’s difficult to do. It was frustrating but also amazing. I was privileged to meet people there who are friends for life. It was risky at times. You have to weigh the benefits with the potential for danger. It was always worth it. There is some sort of reward for telling a really good story that no-one else can get to.

EYE: Best of luck with this book, Kim. I will remember your great quote on why you stayed in a region that was falling apart as your newspaper was dying. You said, “I was paid to watch history. In a small way, I felt that I was part of something much bigger.”

twitter.com/kim_barker

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