Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Taliban Shuffle aka Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker (Book Review #65 of 2016)


The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

I found out about this book just as the movie was coming out in 2016, I listened to an interview on WBEZ World View's podcast in early 2016 where she described some of the events in the book (published 2011) and what it is like to try and readjust to life in the States after her journey. I am glad to have found the book but doubt I will see the movie.

The author worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2004-2009. Much of the book is about the relationships and their inevitable awkwardness, particularly the ones one builds as an expat who lives in a foreign culture while tied to their home culture. Being an "unaccompanied woman" in Afghanistan and Pakistan is hazardous duty; the same qualities that allowed her flexibility to get the difficult assignments--single, childless--mean she will endlessly be asked about her marital status. There's also a loneliness that comes from covering traumatic events in those cultures, like terrorist attacks, that most back home could never understand. She is likely PTSD, witnessed a lifetime of bad things in her five years, and like many expats finds comfort in the expat community where smuggling in alcohol and "hooking up" with each other is how one copes. Some over there are adrenaline junkies, struggle with depression, have multiple identities, etc.

Barker worked Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune for several years. She has to deal with the shrinking budget of newspapers as they wither from internet competition as well as compete for news-worthiness in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq. "There are no 'Green Zones' in Kabul," there is no hiding from the risk or culture. Barker writes of the checkpoints in Afghanistan where women guards basically get to molest other women. Probably the greatest scandal from the book is that now-Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif tried to become her "friend" (wink) after months of establishing a more formal relationship with her, including offering her a job, helping her get interviews, trying to arrange romantic relationships for her with others, buying her gifts, etc. Barker turns him down. It's an example of the problem of relying on various nationals' hospitality and not knowing whether it's hospitality or with some sort of strings attached. In some cases, Barker knows she's being used or what the motive is, but she needs the story and the connections that it will open for her.

Another official who Barker had an awkward relationship with was Abdul Sabet, who Hamid Karzai had appointed Attorney General. Sabet was supposedly rooting out corruption but was corrupt himself. He made enemies on all sides. Barker is not sure what to think about him, but at one point he apparently begins stalking her.

Barker relies on her interpreter, Farouq, for much of the book; apparently they are still friends. He gets her into places and helps her out; but relationships with nationals you pay to help you can be awkward for both sides. If she has to cut his pay, for example, the friendship gets threatened.

Barker is able to have hidden and not-so-hidden romantic relationships with Westerners; one of whom goes nuts. Her travels and their travels make relationships difficult. Like several books on my 2016 list, relationships dealing with mysteries and secrecy generally are frought with tension and don't end well. One could see how scenes where Barker gets to fire guns while out in the wilderness with warlords would make for a good movie.

But the book is also a unique window into how badly the war in Afghanistan was going, how incompetent and dangerous the work really was, and how low morale was among troops. Eight years into the war, there was no single agency coordinating the military and civilian efforts. May, 2006 saw the beginning of a downward spiral in the country, roughly the same time as the insurgency was at its peak in Iraq as well. Provincial elders were losing ground to the Taliban and frustrated with the Americans. Everyone knows that Pakistan's ISI is complicit with the Taliban, but this does not change anything. Barker witnesses the poorly-named Operation Mountain Thrust in the summer of 2006, trying to oust Taliban from the south of Afghanistan. The US have an outpost that is turned over to the Brits, abandoned, and then the Taliban move in and kill all the local chieftans who had agreed to a truce with the NATO troops. Troops with extended or repeated rotations because of stop-loss puts an enormous strain on the morale of US troops as well. There are constant problems of training Afghan police, many of whom are illiterate and their lives are in danger. There are ethnic tensions among all the players in Afghanistan. The struggle is truly reminiscent of everything I've seen and read about Vietnam, and confirms much of what I've read in books like Left of Boom (3.5 stars) and Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos (3.5 stars). The author suggests that the only solution would take a long-term commit from the entire world that does not appear to be forthcoming.

Barker witnesses the Afghan elections, and the comical difficulty of having 390 candidates on a ballot-- too many for them all to have symbols, and people might vote based on the symbol chosen. Warlords, of course, are included on the ballot, along with any variety of characters.

There are some breaks in the action as Barker returns home to the US on leave, to Indiana, Chicago, and elsewhere. Vacations are cut short as she's always on call, needing to go anywhere in Central or South Asia on a moment's notice. Amazingly, she's highly allergic to dust and is debilitated eight times a year in Afghanistan with a sinus infection, eventually having surgery in the US. There are definite bright spots. Besides favor with Nawaz Sharif, President Obama apparently helps her get a much-covereted interview with Hamid Karzai.

Barker fell "in love" with Pakistan in her time there. She writes of how women were treated better in Pakistan, she did not have to go through the molestation of checkpoints there. Maybe the hardest part for her was the coverage of Benazir Bhutto's campaign. There is a danger and the inevitable feeling that an assassination will occur; Barker is on the scene when it does. She is there to write the story just steps away from the bloody aftermath. We take the mental health of foreign correspondents for granted. Even her going away party coincided with a terrorist attack in which she received a concussion. Barker never fully unpacks all of this for the reader, but she tells of the difficulty returning to the US to write about more mundane topics and deal with US domestic life. Having lived a few years overseas myself, I can empathize, but not to the depth she experienced. She now writes for the NY Times, but the WBEZ interview I heard suggested she may end up overseas again one day.

I enjoyed this book and the insights into Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the life of a rare female journalist there. The reader may find some parts of her personal life uninteresting, or perhaps like the personal parts but find the war uninteresting. 4 stars.

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