Reporter, author Kim Barker shares lessons from life in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Reporter and author Kim Barker speaks at the School of International Affairs
Reporter and author Kim Barker speaks at the School of International Affairs Credit: Mary Szmolko

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Famed reporter and war correspondent Kim Barker brought to the School of International Affairs the same sense of sly humor and keen insight that made her book “The Taliban Shuffle” (and its film adaptation “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” starring Tina Fey) such a widely acclaimed meditation on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the war on terror.

“I’m guessing the real reason I’m here is because the University thought you were getting Tina Fey,” Barker joked as she took the stage in the Sutliff Auditorium in the Lewis Katz Building. “The only other living person played by Tina Fey is, of course, Sarah Palin, and if your choice is Sarah Plain or me talking about their knowledge of foreign countries, you’ll see they made the better choice.”

That sense of humor and humble self-deprecation was a constant throughout Barker’s address, which was hosted by the Center for Global Studies, the Penn State Department of Political Science, the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and the School of International Affairs.

Barker, who spent five years in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent and South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, said that sense of humor was necessary to process her years in an active warzone—without it, she’d probably be “in a corner, weeping,” she chuckled.

Even her decision to write her darkly funny memoir of her time in the Middle East was motivated by a desire to capture “all the absurdities I witnessed over there,” continuing what she sees as a long tradition of using humor to process war and tragedy that includes “MASH,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Catch-22,” and the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

Barker shared many of the “absurdities” she saw during her time abroad: having lunch with a local warlord who wanted to know if she was scared of him as he held other reporters as prisoners; watching the future attorney general of Afghanistan brutally beat a police officer and threaten to kill her if she wrote about it; learning about Afghanistan’s weightlifting craze and their unexpected love of Arnold Schwarzenegger; enjoying the extensive generosity and hospitality of the Afghan and Pakistani people; meeting the first woman police officer in Kandahar before she was gunned down by the Taliban in front of her own home; and countless other stories.

Over the course of the experiences, Barker formed a list of five foreign policy lessons she learned in Afghanistan and Pakistan—some of which she seemed to suggest could have benefitted our political and military leaders, had she been able to pass along the advice.

Her lessons include: 1) do your research (something she said neither she nor the U.S. did enough of before heading to Afghanistan), 2) adapt to the culture (which is why she wore a burka and learned to never talk business during a meal), 3) figure out a strategy and stick to it (something she feels the U.S military never really did during the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan), 4) know how to get out (a lesson she suggested the U.S. never learned, considering our ongoing military presence in Afghanistan) and, finally, 5) always have Tina Fey play you in the movie (even if Hollywood changes your story some to make the movie work).

But, all jokes and foreign policy insight aside, Barker took one key lesson away from her time abroad, which she passed on to the gathered members of the Penn State community:

“Get on the next plane, travel, and see as much as you can, because the world is a wonderful place.”

Q&A Session with Kim Barker