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.


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.


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


Africa Rising?

The race to build the continent's tallest building is on … finally.

For thousands of years, African architecture was on top of the world -- literally. Up until the early 14th century, if you stood on top of Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza, at its original 481 feet, you were standing on the tallest man-made structure in existence. It was a record held by the pyramid for nearly four millennia, before it was beat out by the spires on the Lincoln Cathedral in England, completed in 1311.

Since those ancient glory days, however, architectural superlatives have largely passed the continent by. If you're looking for the biggest, or the tallest, you're unlikely to find it in Africa (with one notable exception: the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca does feature the world's tallest minaret). Unlike much of the rest of world, which has been consumed by the high-stakes race to build more ultra-tall skyscrapers (like the Mile High Tower currently being mooted for construction in Saudi Arabia), Africa is not a continent obsessed with height. Ever since the fall of the pharaohs, a confluence of factors -- an abundance of land, a shortage of funds, and cultural preferences -- have led Africa to build out, not up.

Africa's tallest building -- the stout concrete monolith that is Johannesburg's Carlton Centre -- would barely register in the crowded skylines of Hong Kong or New York, measuring just 731 feet tall. The Empire State Building is double that. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building, is nearly four times as high. And yet, the Carlton has held onto its continental crown for 40 years, with no other building in Africa coming within 160 feet of its summit. (One caveat for architecture anoraks: a "building" needs to involve some form of human habitation, as opposed to a structure like a radio tower.) In addition to its diminutive stature, the Carlton has begun showing its age: Its exterior is threadbare; the carpets are fraying; the windows could do with a good scrub. "Visitors to the 'Top of Africa' have been known to feel a little let down," wrote the Guardian's David Smith last year.

For some architecture companies and developers, flush with cash from Africa's much-touted economic boom, the once-formidable Carlton has begun to look like something of an easy target. The competition to build the "tallest building in Africa" -- the most achievable superlative in the skyscraper business -- is starting to look like a real race.

Leading the pack is the Symbio-City complex in Centurion, South Africa, a satellite town of the capital Pretoria. The centerpiece of the project will be a monster 110-story building of offices, shops, apartments, and conference facilities, housed in a multilayered tower, which, at 1,466 feet, would make it a real player in the global skyscrapers game -- if it gets built. The complex has the support of the local municipality, which sees it as part of a broader program to regenerate the somewhat grungy Pretoria and its surroundings. But it still needs to secure planning permission (expected by 2015) and sign up tenants. Tellingly, its completion date has already been pushed back from the initial 2018 to 2022.

Not to be outdone, Ethiopia has also jumped into the running to knock the Carlton off its perch. The proposed project -- slated for the capital Addis Ababa -- will be a 99-story standalone tower that's meant to reach a cheeky 1,469 feet, just pipping the Symbio-City proposal. On completion, the Chinese-backed tower will be named the Meles Zenawi International Centre, honoring the late Ethiopian president -- if, that is, his currently lofty reputation hasn't been downgraded by the prevailing powers-that-be by the proposed 2017 completion date.

Ghana, too, has joined the race with the Hope City project, launched by President John Mahama in March. Hope City is supposed to be Africa's answer to Silicon Valley, a $10 billion technology hub just outside Accra, where budding entrepreneurs will be nurtured and start-ups launched. The design envisages six towers of different heights, the tallest being 75 stories and 902 feet tall, connected by a system of sky bridges. This is meant to evoke traditional Ghanaian compound houses, but the drawings actually bring the conical towers of Great Zimbabwe to mind.

Hope City is running into a few early difficulties, however. After settling on a town called Dunkuna as the location for the site, in May developers RLG Communications suddenly moved the project to a different town, Prampram, in the Greater Accra Region, citing difficulties in acquiring land but not going into much further detail. Ghana's Independent newspaper, however, chalked up the surprise switch to "the displeasure of the gods," claiming that Dunkuna residents weren't happy with RLG because they did not seek the blessing of traditional leaders.

This wouldn't be the first time that cultural considerations have kept Africa's architecture earthbound. In South Africa, for example, one Johannesburg architect told me that urban planners tend to avoid incorporating high-rises into their plans because they can be hard to sell. In one township south of Soweto, custom has it that people need to be able to touch the ground in order to stay close to their ancestors -- something impossible from anything other than the bottom floor. Multi-story apartment buildings remain the exception rather than the rule in South Africa and low-cost government housing projects are almost always single-story developments.

Indeed, Africa's great works of traditional architecture -- aside from the pyramids -- are generally set low: the ellipses and conical towers of Great Zimbabwe, for example, or the mud mosques in Mali, which appear as if carved from the surrounding desert, and are renewed each year in remarkable community rebuilding ceremonies. Even Africa's most recent high-profile entry into the annals of modern architecture -- Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a recreation of the ancient Library of Alexandria -- at 105 feet doesn't seek to break through the clouds.

But it takes more than questions of cultural sensitivity to stop development -- and economics, too, has played a role in keeping the continent's buildings at a height that might be politely called "sensible" -- like your aunt's shoes. I spoke to Rodger Warren of Rodger Warren & Associates, the lead architect and developer on the Symbio-City project, who explained that Africa has long had more land available for development than it knows what to do with, making it always cheaper to go for a sprawling approach. Indeed, the sprawl of African cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Lagos is legendary, rivaling the best that Los Angeles has to offer. This kind of development comes with its own problems, of course: Services get stretched too thin, efficient public transport becomes impossible, and an over-reliance on cars increases pollution.

South Africa, which might have led a skyscraper revolution in Africa a few decades ago, saw a mini building boom in the 1970s (which produced the Carlton, among others), but the timing was not to be: Anti-apartheid sanctions strangled the economy, leaving little money available for ambitious construction projects and stopping the boom in its tracks. But the South African economy has recovered since then, and the development of the Gautrain -- a high-speed commuter railway linking Johannesburg and Pretoria -- is a first glimmer that Africa may be moving toward a different urban development model. "This created the opportunity for high-density vertical cities, as many people are able to commute to work and back without being caught up in the congested access roads," said Warren. One speedy railway does not a real public transport system make, though: Even with the Gautrain, Warren's design has to incorporate a private shuttle service that will connect the building's inhabitants to the Gautrain station.

The African skyscraper boom feeds nicely into the "Africa Rising" narrative, and there's some truth to this: The towers, if and when they're built, will be concrete-and-glass symbols funded by private developers. Put another way, that means real companies are willing to sink real cash into these projects -- the Ethiopian, Ghanaian, and South African governments aren't planning to spend any of their own money (although all welcome the prestige they will generate).

They are also a symptom, however, of a malaise which African cities, by and large, have failed to treat. The rapid urbanization of the past decades has placed new pressures on land, resources, and infrastructure; building high-rises is a good first step, but none of these projects competing for the title of Africa's tallest building -- designed by and for elites -- begin to grapple with the larger questions about the future of urban Africa.

Whoever does grab the title, it's unlikely to be for long. The skyscraper bug has bitten Africa, and developers on the continent finally have enough money and know-how to get the blueprints off the drawing board. Let the race to the top begin.