Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

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The Killing Machines

Mark Bowden • The Atlantic

Considering the moral and legal justifications for drone warfare.

Sometimes ground assaults go smoothly. Take the one that killed Osama bin Laden. It was executed by the best-trained, most-experienced soldiers in the world. Killed were bin Laden; his adult son Khalid; his primary protectors, the brothers Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and Abrar al-Kuwaiti; and Abrar's wife Bushra. Assuming Bushra qualifies as a civilian, even though she was helping to shelter the world's most notorious terrorist, civilian deaths in the raid amounted to 20 percent of the casualties. In other words, even a near-perfect special-ops raid produced only a slight improvement over the worst estimates of those counting drone casualties. Many assaults are not that clean.

In fact, ground combat almost always kills more civilians than drone strikes do. Avery Plaw, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, estimates that in Pakistani ground offensives against extremists in that country's tribal areas, 46 percent of those killed are civilians. Plaw says that ratios of civilian deaths from conventional military conflicts over the past 20 years range from 33 percent to more than 80 percent. "A fair-minded evaluation of the best data we have available suggests that the drone program compares favorably with similar operations and contemporary armed conflict more generally," he told The New York Times.

When you consider the alternatives-even, and perhaps especially, if you are deeply concerned with sparing civilians-you are led, as Obama was, to the logic of the drone.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets

Peter Maass • New York Times Magazine

A profile of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who last January received "a curious e-mail from an anonymous stranger requesting her public encryption key."

It was dusk, and there was loud cawing and hooting coming from the jungle all around. This was mixed with the yapping of five or six dogs as I let myself in the front gate. Through a window, I saw Poitras in the living room, intently working at one of her computers. I let myself in through a screen door, and she glanced up for just a second, then went back to work, completely unperturbed by the cacophony around her. After 10 minutes, she closed the lid of her computer and mumbled an apology about needing to take care of some things.

She showed no emotion and did not mention that she had been in the middle of an encrypted chat with Snowden. At the time, I didn't press her, but a few days later, after I returned to New York and she returned to Berlin, I asked if that's what she was doing that evening. She confirmed it, but said she didn't want to talk about it at the time, because the more she talks about her interactions with Snowden, the more removed she feels from them.

"It's an incredible emotional experience," she said, "to be contacted by a complete stranger saying that he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know. He was putting his life on the line and trusting me with that burden. My experience and relationship to that is something that I want to retain an emotional relation to." Her connection to him and the material, she said, is what will guide her work. "I am sympathetic to what he sees as the horror of the world [and] what he imagines could come. I want to communicate that with as much resonance as possible. If I were to sit and do endless cable interviews - all those things alienate me from what I need to stay connected to. It's not just a scoop. It's someone's life."

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Meet The Dread Pirate Roberts, The Man Behind Booming Black Market Drug Website Silk Road

Andy Greenberg • Forbes

A profile of a virtual kingpin.

In February 2012 a post appeared on Silk Road's forums proclaiming that the site's administrator would henceforth be known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, a name taken from the dashing, masked protagonist in the fantasy film The Princess Bride -tellingly, a persona that is passed down in the film from one generation of pirate to another. He soon began to live up to his colorful alter ego, posting lofty manifestos about Silk Road's libertarian political ideals and love letters to his faithful users and vendors; he's even hosted a Dread Pirate Roberts Book Club where he moderated discussions on authors from the Austrian school of free market economics. Commenters on the site describe Roberts as a "hero," a "job creator," "our own Che Guevara" and a "name [that] will live [on] among the greatest men and women in history as a soldier of justice and freedom."

When I ask Roberts how he defines his role at Silk Road-CEO? Owner?-he tells me that he considers himself "a center of trust" between the site's buyers and sellers, a tricky task given that all parties want to remain anonymous. Silk Road has slowly demonstrated to users that it isn't a typical counterfeit-drug scam site or a law enforcement trap. It's made wise use of the trust mechanisms companies like eBay and Airbnb have popularized, including seller ratings and an escrow that releases payment to sellers only after customers receive their merchandise.

"Silk Road doesn't really sell drugs. It sells insurance and financial products," says Carnegie Mellon computer engineering professor Nicolas Christin. "It doesn't really matter whether you're selling T-shirts or cocaine. The business model is to commoditize security."

Patrick Lux/Getty Images


Melissa del Bosque and Jazmine Ulloa Texas Observer

How the heir to a horse racing empire became an informant on the Zetas cartel.

Quarter horse racing was an expensive passion, especially in the midst of recession. The price of feed had skyrocketed. The drought had wreaked havoc on many horse farms, and some had folded. Most people didn't ask too many questions when presented with cash. Still, the way Jose Treviño did business was unorthodox. Nayen and the others ran their horses under a dizzying array of limited liability corporations. They also changed their horses' names, an uncommon practice, making it more difficult to track the lineage. The new monikers weren't subtle: Forty Force, Break Out The Bullets, Big Daddy Cartel. And there was a front company involved named Fast & Furious LLC, a chilling choice, as it was also the name of an infamously botched U.S. gun-walking operation in Mexico that had allegedly provided Los Zetas with weapons, including the gun later connected to the murder of a U.S. immigration agent.

By fall 2011, Graham was boarding and breeding at least 15 horses for Treviño and Los Zetas, and the maintenance bills were piling up. When Nayen suggested Graham open a bank account so he could transfer money for their upkeep, Graham opened an account at IBC Bank in Bastrop. That account would soon become another money-laundering conduit for Los Zetas. One day Graham received a call from an official at IBC telling him the bank was closing the account: Someone in Laredo had been depositing cash sums in $9,000 increments-just under the $10,000 reporting threshold required by the U.S. government, in an attempt to crack down on money laundering. Closing the account would be only a minor setback for the organization.

Al Bello/Getty Images

The Song Collector

Dorian Lynskey • Aeon

On the popular British folk singer travelling the countryside to record itinerant Irish Travellers.

A few months after this meeting, Robertson suffered a serious heart attack, coming very close to death. ‘I think he travelled back to his elders and retrieved the songs he heard as a child,' Lee says. ‘That was when he said, OK Samuel, this is how we're going to do it.' Robertson took Lee to a fabled highway outside Aberdeen where he ceremonially inducted him into the song-carrying tradition, handing him a ring, a drinking vessel and a talismanic pebble, the last of which Lee still carries with him. ‘Stanley was on another level of spiritual and cultural enlightenment,' Lee marvels. ‘He spoke Romany and Traveller cant [dialect]. He had psychic abilities that were unparalleled. He knew about astral travelling.' I sound a note of atheist scepticism and Lee smiles. ‘I was exactly like you,' he says. ‘For Jews, death is death: there's no afterlife. But the psychic behaviour was irrefutable. Everything that's happened to me, he predicted.'

After Robertson's death in 2009, Lee heard how his spirit continued to visit surviving relatives, who would tell him: ‘Fuck off, Stanley, you're deid! I cannae sleep!' For Robertson, singing itself was a kind of psychic communion with the dead. ‘Stanley called it the maizie,' Lee says. ‘This quality of bringing in the ancestors. The songs don't exist inside you, they're around you, and when you sing you breathe the song in from the ghosts that surround you.'

Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Sundance London

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Speaking with the Enemy

What Ho Chi Minh can teach us about bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Talks aimed at ending the Afghan war got off to a rough start last month when the Taliban hung a plaque outside their Doha, Qatar office that read: "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." The brazen attempt to present themselves as a government in exile prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call off the whole exercise -- even temporarily severing negotiations with the United States over a long-term security agreement between the two countries.

But the false start hardly signals the death of a negotiated settlement. And as the United States mulls whether or not to engage in peace talks with the Taliban, it would do well to bear in mind the lessons from past negotiations with the Chinese communist regime over the future of Korea from 1951-53, and with the North Vietnamese communist leaders over the fate of Vietnam from 1968-75.

In both cases, as Gideon Rose points out in How Wars End, the United States entered into negotiations with what many considered to be unsavory groups because it was unable or unwilling to pay the price required to defeat its opponents militarily. As a result, it was clear that the United States needed to accommodate them politically, regardless of concerns about their past behavior.

After a year of fighting in Korea, it was evident that the United States would not be able to drive the Chinese out of North Korea at an acceptable price. As General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in 1951 during the hearings on President Harry Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, "Korea was the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." Therefore, the United States began negotiations to end the conflict with the Chinese and their North Korean allies in the summer of 1951, approximately one year after the North Korean invasion.

In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive in 1968 demonstrated that after nearly a decade of war -- and despite the claims of Lyndon Johnson's administration, the presence of more than 500,000 American boots on the ground, and a massive bombing campaign -- the United States was not breaking the will of its North Vietnamese foes and Viet Cong allies. The war had become a stalemate. Therefore, shortly after the Tet Offensive, Johnson announced he would not run for reelection, called a halt to the bombing, and offered to begin negotiations with the North Vietnamese, an offer that was quickly accepted. However, the negotiations failed to produce results quickly, as the North Vietnamese believed that time was on their side in achieving their goal of creating a unified Vietnam under communist control.

The parallels to Afghanistan are striking. The Taliban are still supported by about 30 percent of the Afghan population, and by roughly two-thirds of the Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in the country. After 12 years of military operations, moreover, the United States has not been able to destroy them or prevent them from having some future role in Afghanistan's political landscape. But talking to the Taliban does not mean that the United States condones their past or potential future behavior.

A second lesson from Korea and Vietnam is that peace talks will not conclude quickly, and will not bring an immediate end to the fighting. The Korean negotiations lasted twice as long as the fighting that preceded the talks, and while the negotiations were being conducted the United States and its partners suffered about half the total casualties of the war. The negotiations with the North Vietnamese, meanwhile, lasted almost five years, during which time the United States again suffered half the casualties of the war, as each side tried to maximize its leverage at the Paris talks. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Taliban continues to conduct offensive military operations against Afghan and NATO forces after opening its office in Doha, just as the Chinese and North Vietnamese did after the United States began negotiating with them. In fact, it would be surprising if the Taliban undermined their negotiating position in Doha by halting military operations in Afghanistan.

Third, we should not expect Karzai to play a positive role in talks about the future of Afghanistan. South Korean President Syngman Rhee, who wanted to see Korea united under his control, actively tried to scuttle the negotiations in June 1953, just as the United States and China were about to finalize an armistice agreement by releasing tens of thousands of Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war from their South Korean camps. Likewise, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu refused to support an agreement that then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart had concluded in October 1972, publicly opposing a provision that mandated withdrawal of American military forces 60 days after the conclusion of hostilities, even though the agreement left him in power, because he feared that without American forces he would not be able to prevent the North Vietnamese from overrunning the South. Karzai's refusal to particulate in talks with the Taliban, therefore, should come as little surprise.

Fourth, the terms of any negotiated agreement will not ultimately decide the outcome of the conflict -- and nor will the outcome be known for years after the agreement is concluded. The armistice in Korea has held for 60 years; America's South Korean ally has become a stable and prosperous democracy; and China, America's adversary in the Korean War, has become a partner in certain areas, now standing as one of the United States' largest trading partners and occasionally helping rein in North Korea's irrational behavior. The South Vietnamese government, meanwhile, lasted only 26 months after the American withdrawal. Within two decades, however, the United States restored diplomatic relations with communist-controlled Vietnam and now cooperates with its government to deal with China's increasingly assertive behavior in the region. None of this could have been foreseen by negotiators at the time the conflicts came to an end.

Finally, the United States will have only a limited role in deciding the fate of its allies once hostilities end. South Korea remained a dictatorship for more than 30 years after the signing of the armistice, and while the American military presence may have helped deter another invasion by the North, it did not prevent the North Koreans from capturing an American ship in 1967, shooting down an American military aircraft in 1969, or developing nuclear weapons in 2005. When the North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam in early 1975, their forces quickly met with stunning success, partly as a result of a number of strategic blunders by Thieu, but mostly as a result of the fact that Congress, responding to the wishes of a war weary public, cut aid to South Vietnam in half and mandated an end to military operations. In addition, by 1975 South Vietnam was plagued by runaway inflation, high unemployment, and low morale. If the United States is able to conclude an agreement with the Taliban that gives them a role in governing Afghanistan, the extent of their influence will be determined in the final analysis by whether Karzai's successor wins the support of the Afghan people by holding fair elections and governing for the benefit of ordinary Afghans. It will not be determined by the United States.

These lessons should give pause to those with objections to talking with the Taliban on moral or strategic grounds. Taliban leader Mullah Omar may be a very distasteful opponent, but both Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh were equally distasteful. To those who would refuse to negotiate with the Taliban, stop and consider what would have happened if the United States had applied such criteria to its Chinese and Vietnamese communist opponents during the Cold War.