Longform’s Picks of the Week

Longform’s Picks of the Week

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.


After Karzai, Mujib Mashal, the Atlantic.                 

A look back on Hamid Karzai’s presidency — and what will follow.

I had sat down with Karzai in his office to talk about his leadership and legacy. The president was wearing a long gray tunic beneath a loose navy sport jacket. His signature fur cap was folded on his desk, amid framed pictures of his three young children. Among the many books on the shelf behind him was a four-volume set of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, translated into Pashto. I had been warned by a longtime former aide that the president, 56 years old and remarkably fit (he spends 45 minutes on an elliptical trainer three times a week), hasn’t come to terms with the fact that his time in office is ending. Yet Karzai has also confided to people close to him that he believes America would do anything to get rid of him — even kill him — if he tried to extend his stay in the presidential palace.

The Karzai I met was, for the most part, relaxed, reflective, and confident of a smooth transfer of power, the first democratic transition in Afghan history. But the hour-long interview, as well as the four additional hours I spent with the president over two days, was punctuated by bursts of heartfelt anger at American officials for what he described as their betrayal.


The Next Breadbasket, by Joel K. Bourne, National Geographic.

Why big corporations are grabbing up land on the planet’s hungriest continent.

“If sub-Saharan African farmers can raise their yields to even two tons of grain per acre using existing technology-a fourfold increase and still a tall order-some experts believe they could not only better feed themselves but actually export food, earning much needed cash and helping to feed the world as well.

It’s an optimistic vision, for sure. Thailand currently exports more agricultural products than all sub-Saharan countries combined, and the specter of climate change threatens to hammer Africa’s yields. But the thorniest question is, Who will do the farming in Africa’s future? Will it be poor farmers like Chirime working one-acre plots, who make up roughly 70 percent of the continent’s labor force? Or will it be giant corporations like Wanbao, operating industrial farms modeled on those of the American Midwest?”


The CIA’s Favorite Novel, by Christian Caryl, The National Interest

Why the CIA helped sneak Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago into the Soviet Union — and how the censors ultimately won.

At some point, a photocopy of the Russian manuscript found its way into the hands of the CIA. A plot was hatched: Why not publish the book in its original tongue and smuggle copies back into the USSR? John Maury, the head of the agency’s Soviet Russia Division, penned some freelance literary criticism for his colleagues:

Pasternak’s humanistic message-that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state-poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system. There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches-political passivity-is fundamental. Pasternak suggests that the small unimportant people who remain passive to the regime’s demands for active participation and emotional involvement in official campaigns are superior to the political “activists” favored by the system. Further, he dares hint that society might function better without these fanatics.

Could anyone in Langley now write with such verve and insight about, say, the historical roots of Vladimir Putin’s irredentist views on Ukraine? I’m inclined to doubt it. But, of course, these were the days when the agency was still populated by pipe-smoking Yale grads who had spent their New Haven days boning up on the New Criticism and editing student literary magazines.


The Jihad Next Door, by Rania Abouzeid, Politico Magazine

The Syrian roots of Iraq’s newest civil war.

Now, as a result of ISIL’s victories, U.S. President Barack Obama, a man who campaigned on extricating the United States from “dumb” wars in the Middle East, finds himself potentially embroiled in another one. He is sending a small contingent of special forces to work with the Iraqi military, but many in Washington are urging him to take more decisive action against the ISIL militants sweeping across Iraq, seizing territory and oil facilities and threatening to sow chaos in Baghdad and beyond.

This was not inevitable. The Syrian revolution-and the hesitant, confused international reaction to it-paved the way for the resurrection of a militant Islam that would turn vast regions of Iraq and Syria into borderless jihadi strongholds and inch closer to redrawing the map of the Middle East-in practical terms if not on paper.


Nowhere Land, by David Conrad, Foreign Policy.

After 40 years of fighting in the desert for their unrecognized country, the people of Western Sahara may be on the cusp of collapsing into extremism — and it could be the thing that saves them.

Photojournalist Micah Albert and I made the 1,000-mile journey from the Algerian capital, Algiers, to Rabouni to see if we could find evidence of this purported hotbed of extremism in the Polisario-controlled camps. After months of investigation, including two weeks spent in the camps last September, we didn’t uncover a wellspring of terrorists in the desert. Instead, we found a SADR government desperate to maintain its claim over the shores of the Western Sahara and whatever resources might lie there – like the rich fisheries and the mines that provide most of the world’s phosphate. We found a population, inclusive of the Polisario army, that the U.S. government is indirectly, and perhaps unknowingly, spending millions of dollars each year to feed through a multimillion-dollar aid package provided by the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Food for Peace. 

The clearest truth that we found, however, is that Western Sahara is a vastly misunderstood place.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images; XAVIER BOURGOIS/AFP/Getty Images; GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Micah Albert