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The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

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Of the many sad stories surrounding newspapers over the past decade, one of the saddest is the dismantling of foreign bureaus. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Chicago Tribune’s Kim Barker spent the next seven years covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, and The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan covers the odd, violent and occasionally funny days of her time there.

It’s a memoir that takes concentration, as much of the information feels new, whether it’s Barker’s visit to the home of a 75-year-old man shot by American soldiers, her interviews with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, or Afghan attempts to use donkeys as suicide bombers. Barker is a concise writer, but she also has enough time away from her subject matter to analyze what went wrong daily in Afghanistan and how it reflected the bigger picture. One particular telling example occurs when a Taliban insurgent is killed almost immediately at an American base, but an Afghan soldier keeps firing an entire tub of bullets. “This was a war in which an Afghan militant thought his best option was to attack an American base alone on a motorcycle,” she writes. “And an Afghan soldier thought he was equally wise to unleash all his precious ammunition on a dead man, while Afghan soldiers in other parts of Afghanistan complained of having no weapons and no bullets and were even being killed for lack of ammunition. Figuring out the bigger idiot was tough.”

But there are other sections that, while humorous, underscore the perils of being a female war correspondent.  Barker repeatedly punches men who pinch her butt in a crowd, and fends off the overtures of a major political figure in Pakistan who offers to find her “a friend.” “To recap: The militants were gaining strength along the border with Afghanistan and staging increasingly bold attacks in the country’s cities," she writes. "The famed Khyber Pass, linking Pakistan and Afghanistan was now too dangerous to drive. The country appeared as unmoored and directionless as a headless chicken. And here was Sharif, offering to find me a friend. Thank God the leaders of Pakistan had their priorities straight.”

This is not a book where you rush home in the evenings and think, “I have to find out what happens next.” But it is a memoir that offers a clue into what went wrong in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it makes you appreciate that there are journalists like Barker out in the world. It would be a good choice for a book club, for teenagers interested in current events or journalism, or anyone who has tried to fight the good fight in a newsroom.