Longform’s Picks of the Week
The best stories from around the world.
Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.
The A-Team Killings, by Matthieu Aikins, Rolling Stone
Last spring, the remains of 10 missing Afghan villagers were dug up outside a U.S. Special Forces base — was it a war crime or just another episode in a very dirty war?
In the fall of 2012, a team of American Special Forces arrived in Nerkh, a district of Wardak province, Afghanistan, which lies just west of Kabul and straddles a vital highway. The members installed themselves in the spacious quarters of Combat Outpost Nerkh, which overlooked the farming valley and had been vacated by more than 100 soldiers belonging to the regular infantry. They were U.S. Army Green Berets, trained to wage unconventional warfare, and their arrival was typical of what was happening all over Afghanistan; the big Army units, installed during the surge, were leaving, and in their place came small groups of quiet, bearded Americans, the elite operators who would stay behind to hunt the enemy and stiffen the resolve of government forces long after America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan officially comes to an end.
But six months after its arrival, the team would be forced out of Nerkh by the Afghan government, amid allegations of torture and murder against the local populace. If true, these accusations would amount to some of the gravest war crimes perpetrated by American forces since 2001. By February 2013, the locals claimed 10 civilians had been taken by U.S. Special Forces and had subsequently disappeared, while another eight had been killed by the team during their operations.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
No Morsel Too Miniscule for All-Consuming NSA, by Scott Shane, the New York Times
Despite the breadth of intelligence swept up in NSA eavesdropping, the programs have a dismal track record in actually preventing attacks.
The agency and its many defenders among senior government officials who have relied on its top secret reports say it is crucial to American security and status in the world, pointing to terrorist plots disrupted, nuclear proliferation tracked and diplomats kept informed.
But the documents released by Mr. Snowden sometimes also seem to underscore the limits of what even the most intensive intelligence collection can achieve by itself. Blanket N.S.A. eavesdropping in Afghanistan, described in the documents as covering government offices and the hide-outs of second-tier Taliban militants alike, has failed to produce a clear victory against a low-tech enemy. The agency kept track as Syria amassed its arsenal of chemical weapons – but that knowledge did nothing to prevent the gruesome slaughter outside Damascus in August.
The documents are skewed toward celebration of the agency’s self-described successes, as underlings brag in PowerPoints to their bosses about their triumphs and the managers lay out grand plans. But they do not entirely omit the agency’s flubs and foibles: flood tides of intelligence gathered at huge cost that goes unexamined; intercepts that cannot be read for lack of language skills; and computers that – even at the N.S.A. – go haywire in all the usual ways.
NSA via Getty Images
The Nazi Anatomists, by Emily Bazelon, Slate
How the corpses of Hitler’s victims are still haunting modern science — and American abortion politics.
By that time, German anatomists had accepted the bodies of thousands of people killed by Hitler’s regime. Beginning in 1933, all 31 anatomy departments in the territory the Third Reich occupied-including Poland, Austria, and the Czech Republic as well as Germany-accepted these corpses. “Charlotte Pommer is the only one we know of who left this work because of what she learned about the bodies,” says Sabine Hildebrandt, a historian and anatomist at Harvard Medical School.
Unlike the research of Nazi scientists who became obsessed with racial typing and Aryan superiority, Stieve’s work didn’t end up in the dustbin of history. The tainted origins of this research-along with other studies and education that capitalized on the Nazi supply of human body parts-continue to haunt German and Austrian science, which is only now fully grappling with the implications. Some of the facts, amazingly, are still coming to light. And some German, Austrian, and Polish universities have yet to face up to the likely presence of the remains of Hitler’s victims-their cell and bone and tissue-in university collections that still exist today.
This history matters for its own sake. It also matters for debates that remain unresolved-about how anatomists get bodies and what to do with research that is scientifically valuable but morally disturbing.
David Silverman/Getty Images
One Day in the Life of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, by Neil Buckley, FT Magazine
He is Russia’s most famous prisoner, the former oligarch who built Yukos oil and was seen at Davos and the White House — until he dared to cross Vladimir Putin.
His fallout with Putin had many causes. Khodorkovsky dared to confront the president with a thinly veiled allegation of top-level corruption in a televised meeting in February 2003. He tried to build a private oil pipeline to China, contravening state policy. He engaged in aggressive lobbying against increases in oil taxes. He negotiated to sell a stake in Yukos to America’s ExxonMobil. He was simply too independent. He refused to take his place in the matrix of competing interests and clans, of state and private oligarchs, held in check not by rule of law but, as Russians say, po ponyatiyam, “by understandings” – with Putin as arbiter.
As a prisoner of conscience, Khodorkovsky is a flawed figure. He used dubious schemes
to squeeze minority shareholders out of Yukos; investors who tangled with him are still vitriolic. His philanthropy was motivated partly by a desire for share price-boosting respectability.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
The Seduction of George W. Bush, by Peter Baker, Foreign Policy
How the president of good and evil bromanced Vladimir Putin. And how a warm friendship turned to ice.
Looked at in the context of time, Obama’s own dashed aspirations to build a new partnership with Moscow seem to echo his predecessor’s experience. Bush thought he could forge more meaningful ties with Russia in his early years, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and for a time seemed to make significant headway with a nuclear arms treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, only to become frustrated as the two countries diverged, eventually coming into overt diplomatic conflict during the Georgia war of 2008. Obama likewise came into office intent on pushing the “reset” button and similarly saw early progress with a nuclear arms treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, only to find his efforts increasingly thwarted by the same Putinist revanchism. Whether the recent Russian-American collaboration to disarm Syria’s chemical stocks will turn out to be a more enduring foundation for change remains to be seen.
If Obama were to look back at his predecessor’s experience, though, he might recognize how easy it is to misjudge Moscow’s intentions by superimposing American ideas of what Russian interests should be rather than understanding how Putin and his circle of KGB veterans and zero-sum-gamers actually see those interests. Again and again, Bush and Obama have assessed Russia through an American prism and come away disappointed that the view from the Kremlin looks different than they thought it ought to.
Artyom Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images