There are journalists who would read a few chapters of Kim Barker's new book, The Taliban Shuffle, and want to throw it across the room. You're the reporter, they'd mutter, not the story. These old-school absolutists should know Barker tried to do it their way. She tells me that in her first draft, "my personal life wasn't in it at all. I would be popping in there occasionally. Then I'd disappear for entire chapters." She let some people read it. "They said, 'It's kind of boring without anything knitting it together. You're the hook, like it or not—you're the water carrier for this book. You've got to be all in or all out.'" So in she went, her loves, drunks, and tantrums—told with just enough discretion not to overwhelm her book's larger point, which is that the U.S. has got itself in a big mess in South Asia.
For most of the previous decade, Barker covered the region for the Chicago Tribune. One reporter keeping Chicago readers abreast of the most war-ridden, strategically crucial, and sheerly exotic corner of the world—the responsibilities of the foreign correspondent are absurd, which helps explain the drunks and the tantrums. No reporter could begin to do that job if readers actually demanded as much news from overseas as they do from the Cubs' camp in Arizona. But they don't.
"If you read my stories end to end you'll know what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Barker tells me. But no one reads old news stories end to end. "Exactly. Exactly. I know it'll be a criticism of my book that it breaks no new ground on Afghanistan and Pakistan. But what they'll have is a primer on Afghanistan and Pakistan."
And—as of the second draft—a primer on the life of a foreign correspondent.
"I try to treat myself like I treat any character," says Barker. "At times I wasn't likable. Doing this job takes its toll."
Where in the book are you least likable?
"When I start punching everybody," Barker says. (It's a response to being pinched in the ass.) "I'm deliberately nonlikable in the beginning when I don't know what I'm doing, but it's kind of charming. But then I get kind of mean and dismissive and bitter. And I try to show that as much as I can in the second half of the book."
Yes, she says, there are longer, deeper, more profound books about Afghanistan and Pakistan. "But I don't know if people are reading books about Afghanistan and Pakistan these days. It's a long war. It's our longest war ever. There are plenty of books out there for people who are really interested. This is a book for people who don't know that much but are kind of interested."
Barker's readers will be shown and told that the region is more completely different from America than the American government seems able to understand. "A narrative is being created that things are going well and everything is on track," she tells me. But it isn't. "The Afghan people are a nation of fence sitters and they'll lean in the direction of the people who will actually be there" in the long run. That won't be us. "Maybe what's needed there is a long-term commitment in terms of development, and less troops," she says. But we've chosen the $190-million-a-day warpath, "and there's no particular pressure to get off that path because we get to fight these wars on the backs of people we don't necessarily have to think of that much." That would be the U.S. Army.
If Taliban Shuffle makes Afghanistan sound remotely like any place in America, it's Montana, where Barker grew up—"where most people graduated high school and never left, where a meal of bull testicles passed for a culinary experience, where my parents scolded me for failing to take proper care of their marijuana plants." Afghanistan was "jagged blue-and-purple mountains, big skies, and bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government. It was just like Montana—just on different drugs."
She'd never even been to Europe when the Tribune sent her to help out in Afghanistan in 2002. She had a taste and came home, she writes, "already hooked on warlords and bad vodka, my new version of a hot date." She returned to South Asia to stay in 2004. Stephen Franklin, the reporter who organized the Tribune's prestigious 2004 series "Struggle for the Soul of Islam," on which Barker contributed from Indonesia, remembers her as a "very facile writer with a good sense of humor" and as a "very driven person. Like most journalists, she's not a Buddhist."
Franklin, no longer with the Tribune, has covered five wars, beginning with Lebanon in 1982. War terrified him—"My personal experience in Iraq scared the hell out of me," he says. And it taught him caution. "I was with a group of journalists in Afghanistan right after 9/11 who wanted to cover a battle. I said it was too dangerous and I didn't go, and everyone who went was killed by the Taliban." It is a struggle not to go a little nuts. Franklin remembers a reporter pleading to him, "I don't want to die. Please don't let me die. But I don't want to miss the story."
He's telling me these things because I asked for help understanding Barker. He says women correspondents can't afford to present themselves as anything but invulnerable— which is "truly a horrible burden to carry." On the other hand, they get stories men miss, he says, because their sensibility is different and because in Barker's part of the world there's "this kind of fascination with women. In places with terribly rigid sexual taboos, Western women call themselves the third sex. They can break most of the rules."
"As I wrote in the book, I was the third sex," says Barker. "I could deal with the half of the population male reporters didn't have access to." And her book describes relationships with a couple of big shots male reporters did have access to—one a candidate for president of Pakistan—that would have been unimaginable for a man. The candidate for president took it upon himself to find a suitable man for her; the most suitable turned out to be himself. (She said no.)
"The great danger of being a foreign correspondent," says Franklin, "is the fall from heaven. Coming back down, the physical and moral bends you suffer are incredible." To underline this point, made in conversation, he followed up a couple days later with an e-mail. "You asked about the transition [to normal life], and the reality is that it depends on how much the job engulfs your life. . . . One very good day when I was overseas I suddenly realized how much I liked my job and in a moment of great paranoia feared that the Tribune would start charging me for it. I thought and thought and figured I would pay them several hundred dollars a week and no more."
In late 2007, Sam Zell took over the Tribune Company. Barker describes him nicely as an "eccentric billionaire . . . an alleged maverick who liked wearing jeans and swearing." Physically, he "resembled a cross between a Keebler elf and a garden gnome." Vocationally, he was "a compulsive bargain hunter [but] not a newspaperman." Managerially, he "tried to ingratiate himself with employees by removing the barriers to porn on the Internet." But this profile was assembled after the fact. At the time Barker was up to her ears in the political turmoil of Pakistan, where former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had just returned from exile and would soon be assassinated. The home office was out of sight and out of mind, halfway around the world.
On March 13, 2008, Zell spotted Barker's Tribune story on Afghan Star, an American Idol-type TV show. By sheer coincidence, a story on the same subject ran the same day in the Los Angeles Times, which Zell now also controlled. To Zell this was a teaching moment about everything wrong and wasteful in newspapers' priorities. Months later he was still repeating the lecture. He complained in Portfolio magazine that fall, "The entire focus [among journalists] is becoming an international correspondent. I mean, I know that because our newspaper sent somebody to Kabul to cover the 'Afghan Idol Show.' Now, I know Idol is the No. 1 TV program in the world, but do my readers really want a firsthand report on what this broad looked like who won the 'Afghan Idol' show? Is that news?"
Actually, the broad finished third. And Barker was already in Kabul to cover a war there that in her view the United States was handling rather badly. But add Zell to the long list of Tribune readers who at best were just kind of interested. The Tribune Company soon declared bankruptcy; then the Tribune foreign service was rolled up and Barker was told to come home and be a metro reporter. "I could hardly blame the company—it was, after all, bankrupt," she writes, "and foreign news cost a lot of money. My bureau cost about $120,000 a year in expenses alone." But flying home, "I realized I would rather scoop out my eyeballs with a rusty spoon than go back to my life from seven years earlier. . . . After writing about life and death and chaos and war, I knew I couldn't just write about frenzied families and carefree couples in Chicago, the paper's new target demographic."
So she quit and went back to Afghanistan. She moved in with a friend and spent four more months there, and then faced a basic choice: "I could choose life, or I could choose to keep hopping from one tragedy to the next. Like any junkie, I needed to quit."
Today Barker lives in New York and works for ProPublica, a foundation-supported investigative journalism service. She reads every word on the upheaval that began in Tunisia and is sweeping the Islamic world. "I wish I were in the middle of it and I'm glad I'm not in the middle of it," she says, "because I was becoming a very unhealthy person." Her old South Asia beat now sounds like a kind of geek show—she watched in amazement but in the end watching was all she did. "I wanted there to be more to my life than witnessing," she says, and when a wire service offered her a job as bureau chief in Kabul, she turned it down. Instead, she took what to most journalists these days is a dream job: ProPublica gives her "the resources to really spend a lot of time on one story," and the stories ProPublica takes on are about "things that really matter in America."
Friends told her to see The Hurt Locker. It's the story of a bomb defuser who survives his tour in Iraq, goes home and kicks around awhile, then signs on for another tour. She won't. "I can't watch that movie," she says. "I haven't seen it at all. I'm not there yet."