The Taliban Shuffle: Kim Barker on the 'forgotten war'

Mar 22, 2011

Join author and foreign correspondent Kim Barker as she talks about her years reporting on the "forgotten war," doing the "Taliban Shuffle" between Afghanistan and Pakistan after the U.S. military had decamped for Iraq.

She chats Tuesday, March 22, at noon ET, about her new book "The Taliban Shuffle" and her experiences abroad.

As the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, I covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for five years. My new book, "The Taliban Shuffle," on sale today, chronicles my experiences in the region.

How did the people you met in Afghanistan and Pakistan feel about the presence of American military personnel? I have read some resent it, some fear we are igniting a problem and making it larger by our presence, and some feel safer and desire our assistance. How do you believe people would feel towards the United States if our assistance was primarily economc and delivering human services rather than military?

The feeling of Afghans changed over time -- in 2002, when I first went there, most seemed fairly thrilled to have U.S. troops there. There was a sense of hope, that finally, after more than 22 years of fighting, war would be over. Of course, some of those hopes were overly optimistic. Over the years, with the increase in civilian casualties and in corruption in the Afghan government, obviously those hopes have diminished. Still, most Afghans I know want U.S. troops to stay for a while longer -- Afghans see the Western presence as the only thing preventing the country from slipping into civil war.

As far as Pakistan goes -- well, I think it's tough to find many in Pakistan who support drone strikes and American spycraft in the country, as evidenced by much of the media there.

As to how people would feel toward the U.S. if our assistance in Afghanistan were primarily economic and humanitarian -- people would like that, but unless there's security, it's difficult to ensure that assistance means anything. You can build a school, but if there are no teachers, and if parents are afraid to send their kids to the school, it's just an empty building. And also, with the rampant corruption in the country, it's tough to guarantee that the money would actually do anything.

In Pakistan, we're trying to deliver a combination of military, economic and humanitarian assistance. The jury's still out on whether that's winning the U.S. any fans.

Based on your experience with the Afghan government contacts, how should the coalition conduct nation- building in a land that has never seemed to have build a coherent government in the Western sense?

I don't know that building a coherent government in the Western sense is the answer. Building a stable government is. And Afghanistan does have experience with stability, during the 1960s and the 1970s. As the saying goes, Switzerland isn't the goal here. Bangladesh is.

One of the major problems many Afghans see in their government now is the fact that it's so centralized. In rural areas, this means that local officials are often more responsive to the central Karzai government than they are to the people who live there. Changing that form of government and the constitution has to come from Afghans, though, not the coalition.

The coalition's main contributions to nation building mean money -- lots of it -- and time -- more than many people expect. To create stability, there needs to be a sense that there's the space for stability to take hold. There's not that sense now. Afghans used to tell me: "You've got the watches. But the Taliban have the time." They may have a point...

What, in your opinion, is the role of A. Pakistan and B. Islam in the making of Taliban?

Scholars and historians have done a pretty good job of outlining this, but here goes: After the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan in 1989, the warlords fought for control of the country. Civil war ensued in the early to mid 1990s -- a civil war so messy, many Afghans say it's the worst time in their recent history. Experts say that Pakistan, worried about chaos and war in a neighboring country, saw the Taliban as a way to create a kind of security and stability in Afghanistan. Which, in some ways, the Taliban delivered.

As far as Islam is concerned, a "Talib," in the true sense of the word, is a student of Islam. So the Taliban considered themselves students of Islam, and used the religion -- or their interpretation of it -- as a rallying cry.

Kim: Do you think foreign correspondents should have to bone up on the history and culture of the place before the go in country. Afghanistan's civilization and recent Soviet sphere period seem never to enter into the reporting these days. Similar ignorance or denial is also apparent in reporting from the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. Your stories from the region offered great snapshots of the current situation that were so much more interesting than the daily bombings, etc. Can't wait to get the book.

In short: Yes. Correspondents should have to bone up on a place before reporting on it. Also, it helps a great deal to stay in a place for a long time, to be able to accurately understand and explain it. It took me years to get a handle on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I'm still learning.

Of course, given the expense of foreign reporting, and the economic state of the U.S. media, that's not always possible today. Unless people are willing to pay for foreign news expertise, getting that nuanced news is tough. There's some truth to the statement that you get what you pay for.

Hi Kim, No expert in Arabic, but I think a "talib" is just the word for a student. Same as "madressa" is the Arabic word for school, but we have given it a special meaning. I guess as long as you know "kanafi" is a kind of Arabic desert you know enough.

Fair enough -- talib is a student. A madrassa is a school. But the way that "talib" and "madrassa" are used in Afghanistan and Pakistan are for a student of Islam, a school of Islam. From what Afghans and Pakistanis told me...

What was one of the most inspiring things you saw when you were over there? Was there anything?

Sorry, but I guess someone has to ask it. How much effect did you being woman have on your relations with the "locals" and your ability to do your job?

Somebody always has to ask it! Obviously, it's different being a female reporter than being a male one, especially in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, we were seen as the "third sex" -- not the same as local women, not the same as foreign men. It was great -- we had access to the entire population, meaning we could do very important stories about women and families, stories that it was sometimes difficult for male reporters to access. Officials were often happy to meet with us because they wanted to show us hospitality or because they were curious. (Not sure how that compares with the male journo treatment, having no experience in that department.)

At times, though, being a woman was a hassle. We were grabbed. Random men called in the middle of the night to say things like "I love you" or "How are you?" It didn't matter what we looked like. Mattered that we were Western women.

I write a lot about this in the book -- and hopefully, show some of the hypocrisies in the region that being a Western woman allowed me to bring out.

A good friend recently returned from 3 months in Kabul working on a film project, he stayed at a spot that is very popular with Ex Pats in the scene, and from his descriptions of wild parties, drinking and generally activities that would be considered unacceptable to the local population... I wonder if you have a senss of what the locals feel about these people -- not the military, but journalists, documentary film makers, NGO workers, etc, who come into their country and behave in such a manner. I grew up understanding that when traveling abroad it was best to respect the local customs as much as possible so as to show respect for the people... do you find this just isn't the case with this group of people, and are they giving all Westerners a bad name there?

Ouch, a good question. I write about this a lot in the book -- and I tried to put myself in the middle of the craziness, because otherwise, I'd be a big hypocrite.  I think the social scene in Kabul started as a kind of antidote to living in a closed society, one where expats basically go from home to work and back home again. Crazy parties and restaurants were seen as a release.

I do think that it's a problem, though, when there are restaurants in a country that foreigners can go to, while locals can't. It's a problem when foreigners are obviously drunk in public, or when parties and restaurants are so loud the neighbors complain, or when foreigners are allowed to buy booze, which was against the country's rules and mores. Afghans resented that -- the conservatives and the liberals.

Yet I don't know whether this scene causes more resentment than more critical issues in Afghanistan, such as civilian casualties and the corruption. Most Afghans worry more about those issues -- the expat social scene is just sort of seen as icing on that particular cake.

There have been several books released over the years about Afghanistan. Why should I read yours? Does it offer anything that the others don't?

A fair question. There are a lot of books out there on Afghanistan and Pakistan. A lot of really good books out there on Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Now I'm boxing myself into a corner.)

However, you should read my book if you're interested in what's happened since 2003, put together in a compelling story. I think the book does a good job of explaining what's happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a darkly comic way. That's what my book offers -- the occasional laugh. (Because, after all, if you didn't laugh, you'd have to cry.)

Kim, did you find the US embassy press office helpful when you were in Kabul?

Yes, I found the US embassy press office helpful. Of course, that always depended on whoever was on duty, but most folks were very responsive. Over the years, though, people in the US embassy faced increasing security restrictions, which made it difficult for them to get out from the compound and travel and see what was going on. (For obvious reasons.) That was frustrating for many -- and ultimately meant that the knowledge in the embassy of what was happening outside suffered.

Kim, when I was in Kabul I found that many of the corespondents were female, you, Aryn Baker from TIME, Lara Logan, Rachael Morjee. Why do you think so many came to the conflict? By the way, you were the best reporter I worked with in South Asia


Geez, thanks for that, many great reporters there. I think many female journalists came to Afghanistan and Pakistan because it was a great story, the same reason male journalists came. Female journalists stayed because it was a great story they could cover. Again, as mentioned earlier, we could cover the bang-bang, so to speak, but we could also do a lot of human-interest stories, about how people lived, not just how they died. Aw, now you're making me miss it.

Hi Kim, I am sure most Americans think "so what", but we don't seem very sensitive to the feelings of civilians in Afghanistan or Pakistan. A typical example is we send in a drone and kill 40 people at some meeting in Pakistan the day after we get the very unpopular release of CIA man Davis. the same in Afghanistan while one botched raid resulting in civilian deaths is still a hot item we hurry out to do more of the same. For the people over their I am sure our apologies are getting old. Should we be a little more sensitive? Maybe not run the locals over even if we are in a hurry?

A tough, good question! You're right -- our apologies are getting old. They were getting old in 2007. It's tough to win hearts and minds when raids are botched, when bombs hit the wrong targets, when U.S. soldiers are photographed posing with dead civilians. Even though such incidents are aberrations, people seize on them.

But what to do? As many military folks will say, this is a war, and civilian casualties -- the awful-sounding "collateral damage" -- are a reality in war.

The only choice, I guess, would be re-evaluating these raids and these strikes -- an issue that has been re-evaluated and re-evaluated for the last few years.

Hi, Kim. Great respect for your work, and looking forward to reading "Shuffle." This isn't a question that can possibly be answered in full here, but what advice could you provide for reporters who are heading to Afghanistan (and overseas) for the first time to cover war? Perhaps a list of your top three or five pieces of advice to them. Thank you and continued success.

Read! Everything about the region you can get your hands on. Get a flak vest and a helmet that fit -- don't just borrow one from a friend, as you don't know where it's been. Hire a good translator -- your translator, or fixer, is your guide. A good one costs. Sign up for embeds -- an inexpensive way to get some stories that people will always be interested in.  Hook up with other journalists who are over there. It's a great, helpful crowd. Aw, now you're making me miss it again.

Can you foresee a Christian authorized change in Taliban philosophy?

No, not so far.

Thanks very much for joining me on this live chat! Sorry I couldn't get to every question.

In This Chat
Kim Barker
After six years as a reporter in Washington state, first for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane and then for the Seattle Times, Kim Barker joined the Chicago Tribune in 2001. She served as the South Asia bureau chief from 2004 to 2009 before being awarded the Council on Foreign Relations’ Edward R. Murrow press fellowship. Barker is currently a reporter at ProPublica and lives in New York City. Photo by William Coupon
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