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.


Last Tango in Kabul, Matthieu Aikins, Rolling Stone.

While war raged across Afghanistan, expats lived in a bubble of good times and easy money. But as the U.S. withdraws, life has taken a deadly turn

"On the chilly evening of January 17th, a couple of weeks into what President Barack Obama had promised would be the last year of America's war in Afghanistan, a man walked up to the entrance of the restaurant and, as diners sat down to their meals, blew himself up, killing the guards and caving in the front door. Two more attackers followed, weighted down with ammunition and carrying assault rifles. There was nowhere to go. Some of the Afghan staff managed to jump from the roof, but everyone else was massacred at their tables, including Hamade, who tried to put up a fight with the pistol he kept in the restaurant. The whole thing lasted nearly two hours before the attackers were killed by the police. Among the dead were two young Americans who worked at the American University of Afghanistan, Lexie Kamerman and Alexandros Petersen. It was Petersen's fifth day in the country.

After the U.N.’s January 15, 1991 deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait came and went, Jarecke, now certain he should go, convinced Time magazine to send him to Saudi Arabia. He packed up his cameras and shipped out from Andrews Air Force Base on January 17—the first day of the aerial bombing campaign against Iraq."


The Interpreters: A VICE News e-Book, Ben Anderson, Vice.

As well as translating for American troops attempting to build relationships with Afghans, the interpreters played an essential role educating foreign forces about the local culture they so badly needed to understand.

"As the West withdraws, the outlook for many Afghans, and in particular the interpreters, is bleak. And while it's predictable that our leaders in Washington, DC cannot admit that the situation they are leaving behind in Afghanistan is almost the exact opposite of what was promised, it shouldn't be too much to ask that the tens of thousands of Afghans who put their and their families' lives at risk because they believed those promises would be fulfilled, should now be offered safe haven. Instead, a majority of the interpreters (approximately 70 percent) are being either denied transit to the United States, or left in limbo for years on end. Demonstrating once again their good faith, many I interviewed told me that even after waiting for years, they still believed that America would do the right thing and look after them.

Because they had to speak both of Afghanistan's official languages — Dari, the language of the northern ethnic groups and the Afghan National Army, and Pashto, the language of the southern Pashtun population and the Taliban — the interpreters are a diverse group, representing Afghanistan's various ethnicities. The multi-lingual tend to come from the cities, so when they were sent to work in the war-torn, mostly rural southern provinces, what they saw upset them deeply. They ranged in age from teenagers to men in their 50s who had seen the Russian occupation, the civil war, and the rise and fall of the Taliban. I met very few who were staunchly anti-Taliban or pro-government; most just seemed to believe that the war would eventually deliver their country from a seemingly endless cycle of violence. Most of them spent years on deployment, while US troops never did more than six- or 12-month tours. The job was so dangerous that the interpreters often lied to their families about what they were doing. If their neighbors suspected they were interpreters, it was assumed that the Taliban would soon be told and might come knocking. Three interpreters from the relatively small group I interviewed had relatives killed because of their work."


The Hedge Fund and the Despot, Cam Simpson and Jesse Westbrook, Buisnessweek.

A nefarious tale of collusion, elections, and economic bailouts in Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwe has few sources of foreign currency, but in March 2008, one asset it did have, platinum, hit a record $2,301.50 an ounce, almost doubling in six months. Some of the best of Zimbabwe’s platinum claims are along the southern tail of a narrow, 300-mile seam of ridges known as the Great Dyke. It’s one of the richest seams of platinum and related metals ever found. The English geologist Cecil Rhodes was the first to dream of exploiting the area’s wealth after he landed in southern Africa in the late 19th century with funding from bankers in the City of London. Ever since, companies with financing from the City and Wall Street have pursued wealth along the ridge.

Just weeks before the first round of elections in March 2008, Mugabe’s government took control of undeveloped platinum claims along the Great Dyke held by Anglo American Platinum (AMS:SJ), according to the company’s shareholder filings. (Anglo American is the world’s largest primary producer of the precious metal.) Then the government set out urgently to sell the rights."


Seeds of Doubt , Michael Specter, the New Yorker.

An activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops.

"Shiva, along with a growing army of supporters, argues that the prevailing model of industrial agriculture, heavily reliant on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, and a seemingly limitless supply of cheap water, places an unacceptable burden on the Earth’s resources. She promotes, as most knowledgeable farmers do, more diversity in crops, greater care for the soil, and more support for people who work the land every day. Shiva has particular contempt for farmers who plant monocultures—vast fields of a single crop. “They are ruining the planet,” she told me. “They are destroying this beautiful world.”

The global food supply is indeed in danger. Feeding the expanding population without further harming the Earth presents one of the greatest challenges of our time, perhaps of all time. By the end of the century, the world may well have to accommodate ten billion inhabitants—roughly the equivalent of adding two new Indias. Sustaining that many people will require farmers to grow more food in the next seventy-five years than has been produced in all of human history. For most of the past ten thousand years, feeding more people simply meant farming more land. That option no longer exists; nearly every arable patch of ground has been cultivated, and irrigation for agriculture already consumes seventy per cent of the Earth’s freshwater."


The Last Gandhi, Sadanand Dhume, Foreign Policy.

A single family has dominated Indian politics since independence. One man’s incompetence is about to bring it all to an end.

"Rahul Gandhi certainly has the lineage to succeed. He is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of prime ministers: Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989), Indira Gandhi (1966-1977 and 1980-1984) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1964). Although the family is not related to the independence leader Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi, Nehru was arguably his closest disciple. (Nehru's daughter Indira fortuitously acquired her last name -- it is not an uncommon one -- after marrying Feroze Gandhi, a Zoroastrian journalist and politician.)

In the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi's pedigree stretches back even further than it does in government. His mother, father, grandmother, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather have all headed the 129-year-old party that spearheaded India's fight for independence from the British. Motilal Nehru, the family patriarch -- a kind of Indian Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. -- was a wealthy lawyer who first became Congress president in 1919. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother, has served as party president continuously since 1998, longer than anyone else in its history. Indeed, apart from a brief interregnum after Tamil militants assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the party has been a family fiefdom ever since Indira took power in the 1960s. Accepting this lineage as gospel is virtually the first rule of belonging to the party."

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images; Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images; Sion Touhig/Getty Images; ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images


Saving Sinjar From a Super 8

How did a small community of Yazidis from Lincoln, Nebraska, convince the White House to go to war in Iraq?

It was on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 5, when Hadi Pir, a Yazidi man who had emigrated from Iraq to the United States after working as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, hopped into a van traveling more than 1,000 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Washington, D.C.

Pir, who had lived in the United States for less than three years, made the trip along with dozens of other Iraqi Yazidis living in Nebraska. They originally planned to simply hold a rally in front of the White House -- but a little over 48 hours later, on minimal sleep and dressed in wrinkled clothes, Pir found himself seated in a Capitol Hill conference room briefing senior U.S. government officials on the situation in Iraq. For Pir, this was not only a political cause -- it was personal: His two uncles were trapped atop Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq, along with all of his wife's immediate family.

"You know, the difference we made, we never imagined it was something we were going to do," he said.

Later that afternoon, from a Silver Spring, Maryland, hotel room, Pir watched President Barack Obama detail the plight of the Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar. The remarks paved the way for airdrops of humanitarian aid to the refugees as well as airstrikes, which U.S. officials recently announced had successfully lifted the Islamic State's siege on the beleaguered community.

Pir's tightly knit community in Nebraska -- the largest Yazidi population in the United States, at a little over 300 families -- first began to receive frantic text messages and phone calls from relatives and friends in Iraq on Aug. 3. Sunni fighters calling themselves the Islamic State were threatening Yazidis with death if they did not convert to Islam, the messages said, and residents were fleeing to the rugged mountain without food or water.

It was Pir's first-ever trip to Washington, and he had to leave his newborn daughter behind in Nebraska. The Yazidis who joined him "were just simple women and men," he said. "We didn't know anything about politics, but we came to plead for help."

Pir believes that the meetings the Yazidis held with government officials helped turn the tide within the Obama administration in favor of military action in Iraq -- the first of its kind since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011, ending an unpopular and costly war. The group held two separate meetings, one with State Department Undersecretary Sarah Sewall and the other with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

"We said, 'We know this mountain. We know this area. We know how we can get the people off [to safety],'" Pir said. "We told them our people are being slaughtered, dying of thirst -- this is going to be a massacre."

When he left the meeting with the State Department representatives, he said, many officials were in tears. A State Department official confirmed the meetings, describing the interactions as "humbling."

In the days that followed, as the siege on Mount Sinjar was loosened, Pir and a core group of three other Yazidis stayed behind in Washington, moving into cheaper accommodations in Maryland. Setting up a command center of sorts in a Super 8 motel room, they juggled phone calls and text messages from Iraq and remained in daily contact with the State Department, providing logistical information and humanitarian updates.

"We tell the State Department where exactly the people are, how many, when they move, where they move," he said. "They appreciate it. They told us, 'The people at the Department of Defense, they listen to you because they trust you.'"

Senior administration officials speaking on background said the information that Pir and his friends are providing is being used to determine where and when to carry out airstrikes in Iraq. Initially, the sources confirmed, the information was also used to coordinate humanitarian airdrops on the mountain.

Rather than shaping the administration's decision to use military force in Iraq, sources familiar with the Obama administration's decision-making process say that the Yazidis were effective in emphasizing the humanitarian component of a mission to save a beleaguered Iraqi minority. One longtime Washington lobbyist, who is currently working on behalf of the Syrian opposition, pointed out that measures aimed at protecting minorities in the Middle East always get more attention on Capitol Hill.

Reflecting on the apparent success of the Yazidi community's lobbying efforts for military intervention -- something those advocating on behalf of the Syrian opposition have been requesting for years -- the lobbyist said that perhaps the ultimate takeaway is: "Don't be Sunni."

Over the past three years, the House and Senate have adopted a number of bills aimed at expediting visa and asylum requests for Iraqi minority groups, especially Christians. The legislation has also called on the Iraqi government to offer minority religious groups greater legal protections. In 2013, both houses of Congress adopted legislation authorizing the appointment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and Central Asia -- despite protests from the State Department calling the creation of such a position "unnecessary, duplicative, and likely counterproductive."

Speaking on background, senior officials dealing with Iraq policy in the Obama administration rejected accusations that U.S. policy gives preferential treatment to minorities. Rather, they said, the decision to carry out airstrikes was based not on humanitarian concerns, but rather strategic and political ones -- and the deciding factor was the proximity of Islamic State militants to U.S. interests in the city of Erbil.

The unfolding humanitarian disaster on Mount Sinjar, one senior administration official said, was a "great concern" to the Obama administration -- but not the direct trigger for military action.

Regardless, Iraq's Yazidis were front and center in Washington in the days following the authorization of airstrikes. Members of the Nebraska Yazidi community estimated they gave more than 30 interviews to local, national, and international media outlets, a media sweep aided by the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, a Washington advocacy group specializing in Iraqi minority rights. The group's executive director, William Spencer, whom many Yazidis personally credit for facilitating their access to high-level officials in Washington, sat in on both the meetings with the State Department and the National Security Council ahead of Obama's Aug. 7 speech.

Now, two weeks after that spur-of-the-moment decision to drive to Washington, Pir says he is at once amazed by the change he believes he was able to achieve -- and frustrated by the limited scope of U.S. plans for further intervention.

While his side of the family in Iraq has escaped Mount Sinjar to the safety of Dohuk, in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled region, his wife's family has not been heard from in days. Pir is worried they have been killed or taken hostage -- and he wants the Obama administration to pursue a broader, more aggressive policy aimed at saving Iraq's minorities.

"The airstrikes and air cover saved thousands and thousands of lives," he said. "But if there were boots on the ground … we could save thousands and thousands more."

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images