Addressing the war's failings means talking about policy, but before we do that, a reminder of why it matters.
An Afghan policeman stands guard after an street battle in Kabul last April. (Reuters).
For all that's been written about Afghanistan and the U.S.-led war, there's one big question that still looms: how did we get where we are today? As part of an effort to think this through, I have a new paper at the American Security Project. Its premise is to, as I write in the introduction, "establish a framework for understanding why the Afghanistan war is in
the state it is in, and how policymakers can avoid making similar
missteps in the future." But there's one important thing to stress, above what we got wrong or how fix, but why it's so important to address. And the answer is: lives.
The overwhelming number of articles about how "costly" the war in Afghanistan have been focus on money, which is fine as far as it goes, because we've spent so much money in Afghanistan and received very little for it.
But there is another cost that matters even more: lives. The go-to source for understanding how many have died in Afghanistan is iCasualties.org, where the count on coalition soldiers killed stands at just over 3,000 right now. But iCasualties only counts soldiers -- thousands of others have died in service to the war in Afghanistan.
When we include contractor deaths -- 2,800, according to a July 12 report in Bloomberg Government by Barry McGarry -- the number of coalition dead soars to almost 6,000.
Notably, no one compiles a comprehensive dataset of how many Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed during the last 10 years. Wikipedia comes close, though their counting is only current as of last summer. According to this obsolete number, more than 10,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed since 2003.
By most rough estimates, about 30,000 Coalition soldiers and civilian contractors have been wounded during this same period of time. An unknown number of Afghan soldiers and policemen have been wounded as well, though we can safely assume it is in the thousands (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates about 3,000 were wounded between 2007 and 2011).
As for civilians, The Guardian recently estimated just over 8,000 Afghan civilians were killed in combat between 2006 and 2011. The UN estimates more than 3,000 died in 2011 alone. There are no reliable counts before then, and afterward, the U.S.-led coalition force and the UN present widely different estimates. There are no overall estimates of civilian wounded.
This framing of cost is critical to understanding why we need to explore what else has gone wrong. There is an argument to be made that 16,000 or more dead is an acceptable amount of loss over ten years of war; and that almost 10,000 dead civilians is also relatively low by historic standards. But such an argument would miss the point: while the number of dead matter (and is high no matter how you examine it) the fact that the dead keep coming, month over month, year over year, matters on its own.
This doesn't immediately help us understand what's gone wrong, but it does help us frame the discussion and get a sense of the scale of the problem. That's not a policy guideline like the sort of think you'll find in my report, if you care to read it, but it is the reason that I wrote it in the first place.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
J.J. Abrams, the director tasked with bringing Star Wars back to the top of the crowded franchise heap, has always been happy to borrow. When he set out to make a new Star Trek and drag that moribund cinematic franchise back into blockbuster territory, he cheerfully swapped in some very familiar visual language to help it over the hill. Early on in the film, James Kirk (Chris Pine), nursing a desire to transcend his farmboy life, rides a motorcycle to see the U.S.S. Enterprise being built at a shipyard, and gazes up at it longingly. Star Wars fans would connect the scene to one at the beginning of the first 1977 film, when Luke Skywalker wistfully watches the dual suns of his home planet set; Star Trek's producers even called the scene "our Tatooine moment." Abrams has never exactly been a visionary artist, but he's a master of elevating the familiar—a fact made clear in the previews of his new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
From the beginning of the project, we've had the fundamental question in mind of what this site is—which is to say, both what it's become (as regular readers know, a lot's changed here over time) and what we want it to be. Is it the website of a magazine? Is it a news site? Is it, as James Franco possibly once suggested, a blog?
The answers, we recognized, are all in one way or another yes. But we figured we'd try a thought experiment: What if we described TheAtlantic.com as a direct, dynamic, digital extension of our core identity in journalism—as a real-time magazine?
That seemed to us both authentic and aspirational: an idea that captured what The Atlantic has been doing in new media for years and a framework that could bring the right focus to rebuilding TheAtlantic.com now.
And Americans? The land that gave the world the iPhone, the Declaration of Independence, and the Kinsey Report prefers emoji that depict technology, royalty, and… eggplants.
These preferences were revealed in a new report from SwiftKey, a software company that makes keyboards for iOS and Android phones. The report describes global trends in emoji usage and breaks them out by country and by language. Like nations themselves, it seems, emoji usage is also shaped by culture, climate, and geography.
What else did the report find? According to SwiftKey:
The most-used category of emoji used are “happy faces.” Happy faces, sad faces, and hearts make up more than 70 percent of global emoji usage.
The video, 25 years later, is almost as recognizable as the song itself, even though it conjures up images of soft-focus karaoke backing tracks and a million drunken vocal renditions of heartbreak. The camera scans over a road flanked on either side by tall trees, while a figure clad in black walks across the screen. Then there’s a misty shot of a bridge, a couple of pigeons flap their wings, and Sinead O’Connor’s face comes into focus: shorn, oval-eyed, seemingly disembodied, and completely indelible.
“It’s been seven hours,” she sings, “and fifteen days/ Since you took your love away.” Beneath her vocals, there’s just the sound of a single synthesized string note, before the drum track kicks in on the seventh line, just as O’Connor’s voice becomes an unmistakably Gaelic wail: “I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant/ But nothing/ I said nothing can take away these blues.”
The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t use that expression when we talked by phone, but that’s what he described to me: a man at the center of an ever-churning machine processing vast amounts of news and data at his command.
“Sometimes we’re wondering what is the limit for a human being for absorbing this huge amount of information,” Peskov told me, “but, well, it’s really a very, very, very heavy job.”
Peskov, speaking fluent English, described the operation. “First of all, the information and press department of the presidential administration prepares digests on print media, on Internet sources, on domestic media—federal and regional.
“We have special people working around the clock, preparing TV digests. We’re recording TV news on the [Russian] federal channels for him during the day. Obviously, it’s very hard for him to watch news so we make digests, let’s say, zip versions of TV news, divided into issues.”
In the shower I share with my three roommates in my apartment in Mexico City, there are all the things you’d expect to see: a few bottles of Body Shop-brand shampoos and conditioners, and a bar of soap—the organic-looking brown kind with tiny splinters of unrefined material protruding from the surface. But there are also two bottles of Lactacyd, a brand of feminine wash.
“You should use it,” my roommate tells me. She’s an astute, outspoken woman in her early 30s who works as a journalist for one of Mexico’s most well-known liberal magazines. “It’s meant to get rid of or prevent infections,” she said.
For more than half a century, douches, or feminine washes, have been a staple in pharmacies throughout the world. Yet, here in the Distrito Federal, douching is a trend that seems to have gained serious momentum in the last two years, according to Karla Font, a Distrito Federal-based gynecologist with many patients who actively douche. A worker at Farmacía Paris in the Historic District told me that every day they sell at least 30 bottles.
One of the hazards of being paid to think out loud is that most ideas are wrong, and some of those wrong ideas are bound to be yours.
Several years ago, I wrote a column with Jordan Weissmann, now the senior business and economics correspondent for Slate, about how young people, gutted by the Great Recession, might turn against the culture of suburban homes and cars, the two big-ticket items that have powered the country through previous recessions. For many years, my chief frustration with the article was that the only words that commenters seemed to read were also the only three words we didn't write: "The Cheapest Generation," which was the headline. But this week, I have another frustration with the article, which is that, inconveniently, reality is messing with our prediction.
“Oh my God, can you grab him?” I shouted at the woman at the door, as my 3-month-old puppy darted out into the cold and I tried to stop my 6-year-old twins from following suit. She obliged, and I was able to get a proper look at her. It was in the 30s outside, unseasonably cold for Florida, and the young woman holding my squiggling puppy was wearing nothing but a light spring sweater, shivering and looking miserable. I invited her in.
Over a cup of coffee, she introduced herself as Tysharia Young and tried to do what she’d come to do: sell me overpriced magazine subscriptions. It was not the first time someone had knocked on my door for this purpose, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. Gainesville has had such issues with magazine sellers that our local police department recently issued a public warning.