Love and rockets: true confessions of a female war reporter

Tina Fey and Kim Barker, star and subject of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Tina Fey and Kim Barker, star and subject of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

A few years ago, Kim Barker was presented with an offer she found all too easy to refuse. As a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, Barker enjoyed a good working relationship with the president of the Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz Sharif, who, in 2013, became prime minister of his country for the third time. 

After meeting her for a 15-minute interview in 2008, Sharif apparently took a shine to the young, single reporter. He allowed Barker to run over her allotted time, personally called her to say how much he liked the piece she wrote (despite her mentioning his hair plugs), and invited her to join him on the campaign trail. 

Barker met Sharif, known as the “Tiger of Punjab”, several times in the following months, and each time she felt increasingly uncomfortable: he insisted on buying her an iPhone, had his security chief keep track of her whereabouts, and made finding her a boyfriend his “project”.

First, according to Barker, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to set her up on a date with the then-Prime Minister and widower of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari (he could be her “special friend”, Sharif said). When that failed, Sharif then “pounced”.

“I would like to be your friend,” he told her. But Barker cut him off: “No. Absolutely not. Not going to happen.”

“I know, I’m not as tall as you’d like,” she says Sharif replied. “I’m fat, and I’m old. But I would still like to be your friend.” Barker made her excuses and left.

The entire saga is one of many amusing yet unnerving anecdotes in Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle, which spills the beans on the life of a foreign correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan – unlikely meetings with warlords, booze, sex, parties, crooked elections and, yes, propositions by heads of state. 

Kim Barker in Afghanistan in 2005  Credit: Kuni Takahashi/Kuni Takhashi

When the book was published in 2011, Pakistan’s faithful were not pleased; a petition was filed in the Lahore High Court seeking an enquiry into her “false allegations” against Sharif. Elsewhere, however, the reviews were good. Alongside comparisons to Evelyn Waugh and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, a rave in the New York Times remarked that Barker “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character”, which turned out to be prophetic.

The book was optioned by Hollywood and turned into the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (for the innocent, it’s Nato phonetic alphabet for “What the f---”), starring Tina Fey as Barker, alongside Martin Freeman as a Scottish reporter named Iain MacKelpie.

As with the Hollywood treatment of many a non-fiction yarn before it, a fair bit of artistic licence is taken with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Barker concedes that it’s “a little exaggerated”). She is a television reporter in the movie, not a print journalist; MacKelpie is, in fact, Sean Langan, a British photographer whom Barker never actually dated (although they had a fling). But the film none the less gets to the heart of what Barker’s memoir is about – that sometimes humour is the only lens through which to view some of the darkest episodes of human existence.

Barker says that humour was the only device she could use for the story to make sense. “It’s not like I’m writing stand-up jokes,” she tells me by phone from her office in New York. “But it’s situationally funny. I was trying to come up with a way that could carry people through this.”

Unlike her character in the film, Barker wasn’t totally green when she was sent to Pakistan. She had reported from Jordan, Egypt and Brazil, but most of her time had been spent at a desk in Chicago. Then 9/11 happened and she volunteered for a posting to the Middle East. Barker says she knocked on the door of the foreign editor and explained: “I have no kids and no husband, so I’m expendable.” His response was to hold up a used envelope with Barker’s name written on the back – “near the names of two other single women with no children”.

In Kabul, Barker writes, the attractiveness of single war correspondents skyrocketed. “We were Kabul Cute, we were Mission Pretty… [But] most of the attempts at mating involved bad tongue action and groping near or inside the bathrooms at L’Atmosphère.” L’Atmosphère was a Kabul restaurant-cum-club which served “mystery meat” and “absurdly priced wine”.

The only pool table in Kabul was at a brothel called Escalades. Spelling words on drunk colleagues’ legs with hair removal cream passed for entertainment. And for many, the only release was drunkenly “dancing to the same soundtrack, week after week”. In her nightmares she still hears those songs – Hips Don’t Lie, Crazy in Love, Don’t Cha...” Consequently, each chapter title in The Taliban Shuffle is the name of a song: American Idiot, Suspicious Minds, Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.

Kim and Pacha Khan Zadran  Credit: Kim Barker

One of the best scenes centres around her desire to meet a warlord. When she got the chance - surrounded by AK-47-weilding guards wearing black eyeliner - the encounter was nervewracking and hilarious. Pacha Khan, an Afghan tribal leader who in 2002 had battled the Americans and Afghan soldiers over a mountain pass, was now sitting before Barker wearing a turban and shoulder belt full of ammo. She thought he looked like a chubby version of Saddam Hussein.

They talked over a traditional Afghan lunch - “an orange oil slick of potatoes and meat,” she recalls in The Taliban Shuffle. “Is she scared of me?” Khan asks Barker’s interpreter, Farouq. “Oh no,” Barker replies, “He seems like a perfectly nice guy. Totally harmess. Very kind.”

"Of course she is scared of you," Farouq tells Khan.

There is a serious side to both the book and the film, of course. Barker describes how women journalists working in Islamic countries often feel they are being treated as a “third gender”; that they are able to communicate with men in authority in a way local women can’t; and get access to other women in a way foreign male journalists can’t. “It’s much harder to get women to trust you if you’re a foreign man than if you’re a foreign woman,” she says.

In her book, Barker has a good-natured jibe at conflict reporters from the UK, in particular. Afghanistan, she writes, is “the typical heart of darkness craved by a subspecies of male foreign correspondent, mainly British, all adrenalin junkies, who figured they were wasting time if they weren’t dodging bullets”.

Why does she single out us Brits? “I don’t know what it is,” she says. “Maybe it’s something in the British character – that you’re brought up as explorers, trapped in a cold, rainy island wanting to leave. But I wanted to tell stories about how people live through war, not die in it,” she says. “And I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a woman and drawn to those, but I certainly wasn’t drawn to ‘bang bang’ stories.

It's something that other female conflict reporters have talked about, too. Christina Lamb told New Zealand's Listener magazine that women make better war reporters in general. “Women tend not to be good at identifying weapons … I’m interested in how people continue to live their lives during war.”

As for the downsides, Lamb says all female conflict journalists have experienced “groping in crowds… and you just live with that. You just have to become quite sharp with your elbows.”

Tina Fey and Martin Freeman in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot  Credit: 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved./Photo credit: Frank Masi

Then there's the inevitable dangers. The Sunday Times's Marie Colvin died when the building she was in was bombed by the Syrian Army as she covered the siege of Homs in 2012 (the regime says she was struck by a bomb planted by terrorists); BBC journalist Kate Peyton was shot and killed in Somalia in 2005. Barker was one of the lucky ones.

“I was never kidnapped, I saw Humvees blown up but I never saw anything remotely like what other folks saw,” says Barker. “It’s impossible to know what an individual can handle until you’re put in that situation, but I figured out that human beings are incredibly resilient.”


In 2008 her friend Sean Langan and his translator were kidnapped by the Taliban while making a film about Al-Qaeda on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were freed 12 weeks later after both Channel 4, who they were working for, and Langan's family, negotiated their release (in the movie, Barker helps orchestrate his freedom - something she and Langan found very amusing at the premiere. Langan has called the film “one of the most searing and honest portrayals of war journalists you’ll ever see on screen.”

There’s an extremely moving scene, both in the book and film, when Barker describes an interview with a soldier called Sgt. Ben Crowley in Paktika Province for a story she was working on for the Tribune. It was about "the forgotten war" - the "bored soldiers feeling left out of the Iraq action" – and she described how Crowley hardly ever bothered to chamber a bullet in his rifle. “He is not locked and loaded,” she wrote - “Iraq is like a war,” she quoted Crowley as saying. “This is like a summer camp.”

Kim Barker with young women taking a class at Community Midwives Training center in Ghanikhail in Afghanistan on Nov 12, 2008.  Credit: Kuni Takahashi

The story inevitably got a lot of reaction back home, but what Barker didn’t discover until much later was that after it ran, Crowley was moved to a more dangerous base within Paktika and had his leg blown off by a roadside bomb. In her book, Barker writes that she felt responsible - “If I hadn't written the story, he wouldn't have been moved." But years later, when she tracked him down, Crowley was "gracious and kind". He'd left the army and gone to university. "I don't blame you," he told her.

In a war zone, Barker says, you can’t go to the gym, and it’s often impossible to go out for a run to burn off steam. Instead, the foreign correspondents depicted in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot like their drink and they like to party. But this in itself caused her to feel conflicted. “I was happy to go to those restaurants and pay 45 bucks for a bottle of Jacob’s Creek, but it always felt weird to me because it’s a community Afghans were not allowed to be a part of… How would Americans react if there were bars they couldn’t go to?”

American journalist PJ O’Rourke asked whether Barker had broken journalism’s unwritten rule – shattered some kind of secret pact – by revealing the “warts-and-all” world of conflict reporting. Barker says all the people she featured in her book were fine with it and that they are still on speaking terms.

She chose to protect the identities of some, but her fixer Farouq (Fahim in the movie) insisted she used his real name in the book. She even helped secure him a visa so he could attend the film’s premiere. “Farouk is from Afghanistan and not familiar with Hollywood,” says Barker, laughing. “I told him that the film was a fictionalised account, but he didn’t understand what that meant, so during the initial sex scene he covered his eyes, then leant over and asked: ‘Did that really happen between you and Sean?’ I was like – ‘No!’.”

I ask whether it’s strange to contrast her time in the Middle East with her life today in New York. She says it took two years before she stopped feeling “on edge”. And she found herself wanting to talk about the Middle East with her friends constantly. “But no one was bothered,” she says. “They wanted to talk about Breaking Bad.” 

It was tough to transition from writing about conflict to writing about domestic issues, too. In the Middle East, it felt like the stories she was writing “mattered in a way that maybe covering a water board meeting back home didn’t – you’re talking about the fate of nations and you feel like it’s the most important thing you can be doing. But that’s the arrogance of being a foreign correspondent.”

Filming had already begun on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot when Barker got to meet Tina Fey at a little French bistro in midtown Manhattan. Barker says she was so filled with adrenalin and the desire to be funny, she didn’t know what to expect. But when Fey walked in, they soon found common ground. “We both complained about wearing high heels,” Barker recalls. “She loved the wardrobe for this movie.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is released on May 13. The book is published by Scribe (£8.99). To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit

Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot  Credit: Paramount Pictures/Frank Masi


'She wouldn't let me go without a kiss'

An extract from Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by Kim Barker

As soon as I landed in Kabul, my translator Farouq and I drove to the Defence Ministry to ask about negotiations with the Taliban. Farouq parked the car. We started walking. I had always regarded this long path, leading past half-heartedly practising Afghan soldiers, as my own personal march toward sexual harassment. I thought happy thoughts. Farouq talked our way past the first checkpoint. But then we reached the second checkpoint. 

“Keep going,” Farouq muttered. I kept walking, staring straight ahead. But it was no use. The women had spotted me. One lifted up the lacy curtain over the door in the concrete guardhouse. She started yelling. I kept walking. Finally, I was stopped by a man with a gun and sent back to the women, inside the dreaded room where the bad things happened.

One took my purse and opened up every single zipper, pulling out every lipstick and crumpled bill. Another took me. I held my arms out to the sides and grimaced. She ran her hands under my armpits, grabbed my breasts, squeezed. “Nice,” she said. 

“Just give me one example of an American woman who would blow herself up,” I said to her. “Just one. Doesn’t happen. We could never commit that much to anything.” In response, she smiled, grabbed my butt, and ran her hands up my inner thighs, all the way to my crotch. She was barely as tall as my rib cage. Then, assault finished, she smiled, pinched my cheek, announced “Very pretty,” and patted me on the back. 

Barker with young women taking a class at Community Midwives Training center in Ghanikhail in Afghanistan on Nov 12, 2008  Credit: Kuni Takahash

I walked out, feeling dirty. For years, whenever people asked how foreign women were treated in Afghanistan, I always said better than in Pakistan. We were rarely felt up in public, and we had an easier time than the male reporters. We could interview women who would never reveal their secrets to a man. And we got bizarre access to the men, even the conservative mullahs, who seemed secretly charmed by the idea of Western women running around. We were the third sex, immune to the local rules for women and entitled to a more exclusive status than Western men. 

But the checkpoints were bad. We were felt up roughly and searched more than our male counterparts – by women, no less, who tried to take my lipstick and held up tampons in a threatening manner, asking what they were for.

At every checkpoint, for every foreign woman, it was the same. Walk inside some dark room with several women drinking tea. Assume the position – arms out to the sides, legs spread. Grit your teeth through the groping. Sometimes male guards would come watch the show. Meanwhile Afghan men like Farouq were barely touched. 

In Kabul, two places were known as the ninth level of female guard-box hell. The presidential palace, where the women had shoved me up against the wall, once becoming alarmed because I had neglected to wear a bra. And the Defence Ministry, which featured five checkpoints, two with very assertive women. So on this day, Farouq and I pushed on to the third and fourth checkpoints. Both men, both easy. Then I faced the last and worst checkpoint, inside the ministry headquarters. A shrivelled woman waved me inside. She grabbed, pulled, yanked, squeezed, searched. I felt like a vegetable. I turned to go, but not fast enough. She pointed at her cheek and puckered her lips. She wasn’t letting me go until I kissed her. So I kissed her on both cheeks. “Good,” she said. She patted my cheek. 

Then, finally, we made it to the office of a Defence Ministry official, who was nicknamed the Silver Fox for his hair and manners. He stood up, laughing and raising his hands when he saw us. He pointed to one cheek. I kissed it. This was not Afghan protocol – in most places, an unrelated woman kissing a man on the cheek was akin to having sex – but it had always been Silver Fox protocol. He pointed to the other cheek, then the first one. “Three,” he announced. 

I couldn’t seem to go anywhere today without kissing half a dozen Afghans. And no one would tell us anything at all about Taliban negotiations.