Military history

CHAPTER 26

WHEN THE MAN COMES AROUND

In some ways, I hoped Obama would be the savior. After he switched the war’s focus from Iraq to this region, I thought that maybe everything would turn around, that Afghanistan and Pakistan would suddenly reverse course and miraculously start improving. Selfishly, I figured my job was safe. After all, Obama was from Chicago, as was my newspaper, and if this region was seen as the most important foreign story in the world in the coming years, surely the Tribune would need its own correspondent. So I launched my own tactical surge in preparation for the upcoming U.S. surge. I knew the United States could do only so much inside stubbornly sovereign Pakistan; I planned to spend as much time as possible following the Americans in Afghanistan. But I needed to cut my costs. I decided to move from my giant house in Islamabad to a friend’s house and use the savings to rent a room in Kabul. I decided to cut my fixer costs, and offer Farouq a take-it-or-leave-it deal of $1,600 a month, regardless of whether I was in Afghanistan. For most Afghans, this was a fine salary. But not for Farouq.

He was already upset with me for a variety of reasons. Given my stress, I had been short with him, not treating him like before. I was treating him like my employee—not like my friend. I was tired of worrying about money and scrimping like a freelancer. I was tired of stacking all my interviews over a few days, so I could pay Farouq for only a few days’ work, which meant he was always on call, unable to work for anyone else. I was tired of his occasional macho rants. Given the boom in interest in Afghanistan, Farouq could make much more money anywhere else. Both of us were frustrated.

“You can think about it,” I said, after making my offer.

“No, Kim. I can tell you what I think right now. I can’t work for that amount of money. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” I said.

We pledged to stay friends, but I knew we wouldn’t talk for a while. We were both raw, mainly over the irony that when the world finally realized that Afghanistan was circling the drain, so were both of our jobs. In slight shock over my bold move, I hired someone else.

I flew back to Pakistan, where Nawaz Sharif again made noise about restoring the judges fired sixteen months earlier by Musharraf. That old story—he was like Musharraf with the miscreants. But President Zardari had just punched himself in the eye by removing Sharif’s brother as the head of the Punjab government. A planned march by the long-suffering lawyers—who by this point had been in a monotonous state of protest for almost two years, occasionally staging symbolic three-hour hunger strikes—suddenly had momentum. The Sharifs threw all their significant political weight behind the lawyers. I sent a text message to Sharif, asking him to call.

“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he said when he called that Friday evening. “Where have you been?”

“Afghanistan,” I replied. It was easier that way.

Nothing was mentioned about the iPhone, or our past meeting, or his offer.

Then Zardari banned the march and put Sharif and various opponents under house arrest—moves that only drew attention to the march and guaranteed its significance. Zardari acted like Musharraf, but he forgot one thing—he didn’t have the army behind him. The Sharifs and their key aides plowed out of house arrest in SUVs. The police were not about to stop them. Their convoy moved out of Lahore, paralyzing the country and forcing Zardari’s hand. Diplomats like Hillary Clinton twisted various arms.

And suddenly, surprisingly, stunningly, after midnight we heard that the country’s prime minister would soon restore the judges. Unlike many rumors, this one seemed true. I rushed over to the former chief justice’s house, where I encountered one of the few true magical unscripted moments I had ever experienced in Pakistan—actual joy, a sense of disbelief, that finally, after so long, the lawyers’ movement actually might win. For the past two years, I had been with these lawyers when they were beat up, gassed, arrested, and ignored by the United States, Musharraf, and Zardari. A lawyer friend pulled me inside the former chief justice’s house. Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry sat in an armchair in a corner of his living room, greeting an endless line of well-wishers. In another room, lawyers crowded around a TV, waiting for the prime minister’s speech. I walked outside. People shouted, “Go, Zardari, go!” Small groups of lawyers, in their uniforms of black suits and white shirts, danced and sang.

At daybreak the prime minister finally announced that the judges would be restored. Within days they were, setting up an inevitable showdown between the bench and Zardari. I had a feeling that Zardari’s former criminal charges, ranging from corruption to murder, would eventually come back to haunt him. I also had a feeling, lingering in the back of my head, that Chaudhry’s megalomania could eventually approach that of Musharraf. But I shook it off. Must have been the lack of sleep.

My request for an actual vacation that month had been ignored, and back in Chicago, it seemed like everything was being ignored. Conference calls were scheduled; rumors flew that would put Pakistan to shame. We received new directions every day. New story formats were developed—we were supposed to file information for “charticles,” we were supposed to write new “brights” for the front page. The man in charge of innovation for the company sent subversive “think pieces,” stream-of-consciousness rants with random capital letters, confessions like “I’ve been on a continual road trip” and misspellings like “NOTOCABLE,” “INSINCERETY,” and “VISABLE.” One example of a “think piece”: “Check these out. They reflect exactly the kind of POWER that subtle and cerebral can deliver … It oozes timeless, all demographic QUALITY.” I said yes to everything, happy to be of service, sifting through management “think pieces,” trying to find the hidden messages in the capital letters, to figure out why on earth people who flaunted their inability to spell, capitalize, and punctuate would want to run a media company.

Finally, on a Monday night, my boss called just as I walked in the front door.

“Kim, they made a decision, and some tough decisions had to be made,” he told me. “And as part of those decisions, they would like you to come home and work for the metro desk.”

Ultimate Fight Challenge was done. I hung up the phone and burst into tears. The next day, during the requisite conference call, the paper’s editor informed me that the company was unifying the foreign reporting team to serve everybody, which meant “more strategic company-wide use of our expertise.” He used words like “partnership” and phrases like “a big chessboard.” I felt like we were breaking up. All told, thirteen—or maybe sixteen—correspondents survived from both newspapers, including only two from the Tribune, which had once had eleven. (The numbers were unclear, because the company also kept a few Los Angeles Times correspondents on contract.)

“There’s no right or wrong choice,” said the big boss, adding that he thought I could use my expertise covering the war on terror in Chicago. The gangs must have really stepped up their game.

I could hardly blame the company—it was, after all, bankrupt, and foreign news cost a lot of money. My bureau cost about $120,000 a year in expenses alone. The Tribune foreign desk was essentially eliminated, almost quietly, just as the newsroom loudly promoted a class for “Advanced Twitter.” The Los Angeles Times would run the company-wide foreign desk, and the new foreign editor would be the same man who had written the competing Los Angeles Times story on Afghan Star, the one that had run the same day as mine and put me squarely in Sam Zell’s crosshairs. Curses—my nemesis. I felt sad and numb and rejected, almost like a spurned lover, but this rejection felt even more personal. I loved this job, I was this job. If I didn’t have this, what would I be?

I was given time to think about the metro offer, and I did think. I knew everything in Afghanistan was increasingly messed up. “America, Fuck Yeah” was the future. Many talented Afghans were leaving, including Farouq, whom I thought had abandoned his dreams of ever studying outside Afghanistan. He sent me an e-mail when he won a prestigious scholarship to a university in the West—to study communications, not medicine. I was not surprised—if Afghanistan ever got rid of the mullahs and warlords, that guy could run it. (Once, Farouq had told me how he would police a traffic roundabout with a hammer, breaking the windows of traffic offenders. “Believe me, people will enjoy my roundabout,” he had opined. That was his philosophy of governance in Afghanistan, the necessity of a strong hand.) Back in Pakistan, Samad continued building his life in his mother’s tiny apartment, washing his car fifty times a day. His wife was now pregnant, even though he barely had any money. Yet if all Samad ever had in his life was his family and his car, I knew he would be happy.

Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to dominate the news. The day after I was deemed irrelevant, news leaked that the term “war on terror” also was. The Obama administration preferred “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Days after that, Obama announced his much anticipated new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. After more than seven years, the region had finally become a situation.

“The situation is increasingly perilous,” Obama warned.

An editor e-mailed me that night, asking if I had anything I’d like to add to a story on Obama’s speech. I said I was sick, and I kind of was. Within a month, that editor was laid off.

I still didn’t know what I would do, but I had to leave Pakistan and Afghanistan for now if I wanted to hold on to my salary. I also knew I had to get out of here if I wanted to get any perspective. Samad, ever the wounded puppy, started to cry when I told him and called me his sister. Large tears pooled in his large brown eyes.

“Stop it,” I said. “You’re killing me.”

Friends in Islamabad decided to throw me a going-away party at the house where I was staying. But that night, as I drew on eyeliner, I heard a distant thud outside. I chose to ignore it and went back to my eyeliner. Samad soon ran inside the house, knocking on my bedroom door.

“Boss, big bomb, maybe Jinnah,” he announced, agitated.

“No. No way. Not tonight.” I had moved on to mascara.

“Yes, boss. Tonight.” He smiled.

Samad still didn’t understand my syntax all that well. Jinnah was the giant supermarket closest to this neighborhood, where foreigners always shopped.

“I can’t fucking believe this.”

Samad looked at me. “Yes, boss?”

“Can you go check it out?” I asked.

“Yes, boss.”

He ran off.

A Swiss friend called, panicked. She was hiding with her boyfriend in a closet, the Swiss version of a safe room. She heard shots in all directions.

“I don’t think I can make it to your party,” she said.

I called Samad, now curious. Maybe I needed just one bomb for the road.

“Come pick me up.”

He really didn’t need to drive. We could have walked to the bombing, which was not at a supermarket but in a grassy median a couple of blocks away. A man had blown himself up near a tent filled with Pakistani security forces. Eight had died.

More than a hundred journalists were there, scribbling on notebooks, jostling for position. It was like old home week. A friend and I walked near an ambulance. Shots rang out. We dropped to the ground. Pakistani men in cream-colored salwar kameezes threw themselves on top of us and fondled us back across the street, over to the other journalists. I started laughing. This was the perfect going-away party for Pakistan. A senior police officer insisted that the situation was under control, even as shots ricocheted through the neighborhood, an alleged second bomber ran loose, and a group of elite armed soldiers darted in front of the house where the party was supposed to be.

“Should we still have the party?” I asked a friend from the Associated Press.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “Otherwise, the terrorists win.”

I certainly didn’t want that. So we threw the party, and most people came, filled with that need for alcohol and numbness that by now I knew accompanied any terrorist attack. (Tammy stayed home—she was too depressed about Pakistan.) At the end of the night, fueled by booze, socks, and a treacherous marble staircase, I fell. The next morning, I woke up with a knot the size of a golf ball on my forehead. I left Pakistan a few days later with a concussion and slight double vision, and without telling my bosses. And that, I later realized, was how Pakistan should always be left. With a head injury.

Pondering my options on the flight home, I realized I would rather scoop out my eyeballs with a rusty spoon than go back to my life from seven years earlier. This came as a shock. The newspaper industry was hemorrhaging jobs left and right—by the end of that year, more than forty thousand jobs would be cut. I should count myself lucky to hold on to any job at any major newspaper. But after covering these countries, after writing about life and death and chaos and war, I knew I couldn’t just write about frenzied families and carefree couples in Chicago, the paper’s new target demographic. I couldn’t move backward. My heart wouldn’t be in it because my heart would still be somewhere halfway around the world, wearing a flak vest.

I decided to do something I had never done before. Quit. And, in a move that many deemed insane, I decided to go back to Afghanistan to have a quiet place to figure out what I wanted to do next. Maybe it was the story, which had burrowed into my bloodstream, or the concussion. And maybe it was the newspaper industry, and the fact that no one was willing to pay for the news anymore. Only a few weeks after I quit, the bare-bones Tribune newsroom would be forced to lay off more than fifty people. The same day, the company’s bosses would ask the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to pay more than $13 million in bonuses to almost seven hundred people deemed essential to the future of the company. Still, Sam Zell couldn’t stop talking about Afghanistan. That same night, he would tell a group of college students: “I’m not going to the Chicago Tribune for news about Afghanistan.” Of that, I was absolutely certain.

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