Inside the Taliban Shuffle

by Joshua Foust on 3/2/2011 · 6 comments

I reviewed Kim Barker’s darkly funny, really upsetting book, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan over at the AfPak Channel.

That’s not to complain of Barker’s attempts to humanize herself. Having been a very brief witness to the expat scene in Kabul — a kaleidoscopic bacchanalia of excess and debauchery — the need for catharsis from being a participant for so long is obvious. It is only at the end of her tale, when Pakistan’s frightening power politics has frightened her more than the Taliban’s IEDs ever did, when her unemployment finally prompted her to reconsider her choices and her options, and her own self awareness pokes through the haze of nihilism so many foreign correspondents develop, that Barker seeks solace in reality.

But that’s probably the point anyway. Barker is not writing about Afghanistan, but about the disconnected, decadent, exploitative foreigners who write about Afghanistan. In this, her book is a probing — and uncomfortably hilarious — glimpse inside the universe so many of our foreign correspondents inhabit. It is a universe where Afghanistan is little more than Kabul with occasional field trips elsewhere; where Pakistan is boring Islamabad punctuated by bombs in other cities; where it’s normal to live in hotels and attend fabulous parties at mansions where all the locals speak English and drink wine. For exposing this world for the hollow fraud it is, Barker deserves enormous praise.

Go, read and comment away!


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments }

ShadCal March 2, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Mr. Foust:

For someone who claims to have “spent the vast majority of his adult life doing defense and intelligence consulting” and very little time in Afghanistan (compared to Barker’s 6+ years), it shocking to read such a pretentious and critical review.

While you harangue journalists who are based in Kabul and, shock, have a good time on the weekend, I’m assuming you’re posting this from your comfortable office at the American Security Project in DC, correct?

Do you ever go out with your friends and have a good time? Or do you consider that enjoying a “kaleidoscopic bacchanalia of excess and debauchery” (BTW – who writes like this?)

Mr. Foust, I find your review immature, insecure and naive of what it takes to be a good journalist, such as Barker. There are plenty of other excellent journalists (who I’m sure you know) like Coughlin, Gall, Partlow, Wood, Rosenberg, North, Chivers, Rubin, and several others who have put themselves in harms way constantly, yet are/were based in Kabul. Do you really think you could base yourself out of Kandahar? Or Jalalabad? In fact, why aren’t you based there, Josh?

It’s ironic, you write about Barker’s use of cliches, but you ARE a cliche. You’re a typical snotty wanna-be intellectual, stuck behind his desk in DC, vicariously living through all those journalists I just mentioned.

Good luck with that.

Don Anderson March 3, 2011 at 5:54 am

Joshua Foust, thanks for the review I enjoyed and also enjoyed the rather obvious rebuttal. Looks like the “warriors” in the press are getting up in arms. How could you question them?

This is the second wave of “jedi masters” of the press invading us here since 2001. The first Shock and Awe group with desperate interest on getting to Kabul to witness the Allied Victory wrote of happy scenes and left.

About 2006 we started getting these “we are here, it is a war and serious business” journalists looking for their “Amanpour moment.”
They unfortunately have stayed longer than anyone would have liked.

I know many of their stringers and each of the above mentioned journalists has a rather nasty nickname in Dari and Pashtu. The workers will go on for hours about how messed and incoherent this guy or gal is and how they snicker at them behind their back. It verges on dangerous because they are so disrespected by the Afghans and Pakistanis they come into contact with.

The fact of the matter is that this group is the apogee of Me Generation and represents the failure of the press. No one likes them, they have no relationships and know nothing. They are force fed mothers milk from General Petreaus and use the PAOs as nannies. The reporting strictly follows the ISAF line-they go where they are told, when they are told and cannot deviate.

These modern Pravda journalists are petrified to go anywhere without an ISAF escort. They are so disliked that the few that dared were kidnapped or almost kidnapped like the Kunduz guy in 2009. It would be sad if it was not predictable. They really represent the end of the daring press and they know so little as to make it embarassing for the rest of us.

Those of us in Jalalabad, Kunduz, Kandahar, or Gardez will be so happy when they place their banana republic clothed butts on a soft business class seat and get the hell out of here.

Thanks for the review, now I can avoid the book with a good conscience.

K Koch March 3, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Dear Don,
Any chance you will be in Gardez in April? I am shooting a doc there and would love to meet you.
Karen@LuminariaFilms.com

Don Anderson March 3, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Thanks for the invite Karen. I am honestly not sure where I will be or what I will be doing tomorrow much less in April. I usually where Afghan clothes and am out in the villages, with some breaks during the time out. I am hard to spot and I like it that way.

I have saved your email and will let you know what and if I am around there then. Please be safe, we are expecting an definite uptick verging on real battles during that time frame for the whole Eastern Front, may start later but that is what is expected…Safety first please. Thanks for the invite.

Madhu March 11, 2011 at 7:57 am

Having been a very brief witness to the expat scene in Kabul — a kaleidoscopic bacchanalia of excess and debauchery — the need for catharsis from being a participant for so long is obvious.

Interesting review. I know nothing of the Kabul journalistic or expat culture so I have no idea if you review is accurate or not (in deference to some of the commenters above who object to your review). Still, I found it interesting!

It reminded me of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s collection of short stories Out of India. The book is available on Google books.

I think you might enjoy the stories, Mr. Foust. She is very good at describing western foreigners in environments that don’t always bring out the best in those very travelers. Her writing is sometimes deemed orientalist by critics, but I don’t think this collection is particularly orientalist. I think, essentially, she is describing herself in an environment that she doesn’t really like (and she doesn’t like herself or the way she behaves in that environment, either.)

She does an amazing job of displaying people that are dislocated from their environments and from their own inner selves – a kind of lost “seeker” that you might find in some expatriate communities.

At any rate, your review made me think of the stories. One in particular, “My first marriage,” is a chilling inventory of a kind of temporary “madness” that might overtake a cult member. That is how I read the story, anyway. Again, you can read a bit of it on Google books.

Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough. Good, if harsh, series of posts lately.

Madhu March 11, 2011 at 8:03 am

I use too many “kind of’s….” Never been a very good writer.

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