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Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

by Kim Barker

Pub Date: March 22nd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-385-53331-7
Publisher: Doubleday

A memoir of the five years the writer spent reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Before her first trips as a fill-in correspondent in South Asia in 2001, current ProPublica reporter Barker had little overseas experience. But her life changed in the aftermath of 9/11, when she presented herself to the Chicago Tribune as an ideal candidate for reporting work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unmarried and childless, she was “expendable.” By the time Barker became the bureau chief of the Tribune’s Delhi office in 2004, she was a confirmed adrenaline junkie, always looking for her next “fix” of riots, bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and natural disasters. Of the half-dozen countries for which she was responsible, only Afghanistan gave her the “high” she craved. With its “jagged blue-and-purple mountains, and bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government,” the country seemed a hallucinatory version of her native Montana. Equally at home embedded with troops on the front lines or interviewing Taliban warlords and political elites like Hamid Karzai and Benazir Bhutto, Barker witnessed violence, death and governmental corruption on a daily basis. But unexpected absurdities, such as the attempts of an ex-prime minister of Pakistan to offer the writer choices—himself among them—for romantic “friends,” offered occasional comic relief. Her work—and a social life in Kabul that resembled a surreal cross “between a fraternity party and the Hotel California”—became a way she could escape from the relationship failures, which she chronicles with the same candor and edgy wit that characterize the rest of her bold, slightly chaotic narrative. Politically astute and clearly influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, Barker provides sharp commentary on the impotence of American foreign policy in South Asia after the victory against the Taliban. “We had no stick,” she writes. “Our carrots were limp after almost eight years of waggling around.”

Fierce, funny and unflinchingly honest.