Once our soldiers leave the theater, all that will remain is a clinical and codified policy of assassination writ large
A man carries a bag over his shoulder as he pulls a suitcase in Kabul
On Wednesday, the New York Timesreported that Pakistani officials, eyeing President Obama's spurious timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, are "watching as the war, in their view, goes badly and are waiting for their share of the Afghan spoils." The report added that Pakistan's generals and spymasters "appear to have little incentive to bargain away their demands or to modify their side of the ledger," confident that the president lacks the political will to see the war through. In December, U.S. forces will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. Those combat troops deployed as part of the surge will come home in September 2012. If there is a strategic military reason for that particular date, David Petraeus is unaware of it. David Axelrod might have a keener insight on the matter.
Last month, Stanley McChrystal told the Council on Foreign Relations that we're just over the 50 percent mark in Afghanistan. The retired general noted that where we're providing security, "The change has been stunning. The ability to move crops around, the ability to apply governance and whatnot, has been good." But that requires boots on the ground and men with rifles. Where the Coalition footprint is light, meanwhile, the Taliban "campaign of assassination is terrifying to people, because it makes everyone feel under threat." During his recent confirmation hearings to take the helm at CIA, General Petraeus called the president's withdrawal plan "a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended." In Petraeus-speak, this was the equivalent of banging his shoe on the table.
Ten years ago, who would have thought that victory in Afghanistan meant luring the Taliban to the bargaining table? And who would have been surprised when the Taliban then assassinated our proxy negotiator? (There's no need to reach back ten years; in 2010, the Taliban said point blank that they intended to kill members of the High Peace Council.) With the military security option all but exhausted (and thus unavailable to support the remarkable work of civil affairs teams), and diplomacy a hopeless endeavor, the United States and Afghanistan can now look forward to an eternity of Predator drones primed with Hellfire missiles.
It would be hard to improve on essays by Jane Mayer and Conor Friedersdorf on the immorality of drone warfare. But drone warfare is what we're left with. Sherman famously said, "There's many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory but it is all hell." Small communities know that hell and reel when their sons become men, become infantrymen, and never return from third world wastelands. Military spouses know that hell when chaplains in Class A uniforms knock at the door, hats in hand. Combat veterans know that hell better than anyone. And collectively -- oftentimes tragically -- the results of war inform our culture and serve as society's most effective moderating influence. There are many good reasons to go to war, but when we don't, it's often because we know how terrible a thing it is.
Humanity can be found and understood in the best and worst of war. But drones change the equation. It's the worst kind of war, a frightening new enterprise that we've embraced, celebrate, and laugh about. But there's something dishonorable about it. It's the aerial equivalent of roadside IEDs. It's the only kind of war America seems willing to fight anymore, and that is what we're leaving behind in Afghanistan. To be clear, "fairness" should never be an objective of war. But almost by definition, this is not war. Once our soldiers leave the theater, all that will remain is a clinical and codified policy of assassination writ large, with virtually no public scrutiny. It won't be front-page news when drones vaporize innocents, and it won't be front-page news when drones vaporize al-Qaeda operatives, because we've got no skin in the game. It's just robots hunting ghosts.
How long will Afghans agree to that? Are we even asking? Or will this silent non-war be negotiated with our man in Kabul, who, until he was convenient to this administration, was deemed corrupt and incompetent? And how long will Pakistan allow missiles to materialize from nowhere and leave behind craters and corpses? How about the next government, and what are we prepared to do if they say no? The White House has established a precedent that borders are just fine for the people at Rand McNally, but meaningless in the context of drone warfare. Consent of the Congress is a quaint relic; as proven in Libya, the president doesn't need authorization so long as we get a nice snuff film at the end.
Afghanistan is a war worth seeing through. Last week, I spoke with Michael Yon, a writer who's spent four years, cumulatively, in Iraq and Afghanistan -- three of those in combat. According to Yon, as withdrawal moves from concept to reality, "Many troops see their actions will be for naught. They've done their parts and have succeeded when properly resourced, but they see the presidential decisions for what they are. The unit that I last embedded with, 4-4 Cav, was clearly making progress and they know it, but they also see the light at the end of the tunnel is turned off, and that's due to politics. We waited a long time to get serious here, and never got totally serious."
At any rate, says Yon, "The war is largely forgotten. Soldiers who have been going back on leave and are shocked when many Americans don't realize that there is a no-kidding war going on here. I've done my best to highlight some of them." He adds, "The trajectory of the war favors the enemies. If the president precipitously reduces our footprint, the war will be lost. The good news (for somebody) is that most Americans don't seem to realize that we are still in a war, so they won't realize that we lost."
But at least we fought a war that could be forgotten. As America turns to drone technology, more than ever we will be fighting wars we never knew about in the first place.
A series of damaging stories about the president's methods of consoling grieving Gold Star families represent the president’s latest entirely self-inflicted wound.
The question to President Trump on Monday sounded relatively innocuous: “Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” It’s certainly not the kind of question that seemed likely to set off several days of heated controversy.
But the hubbub that has ensued, centering on Trump’s response to the deaths of four soldiers in Niger and, more broadly, the way he deals with grieving military families, is yet another example of how this president inflicts crises on himself. This pattern has happened several times since Trump entered office, with the tussle over the size of his crowd on Inauguration Day and his claim that Barack Obama “wiretapped him.” In each case, Trump’s bluster and his seeming obsession with Obama have led him to commit serious unforced errors.
The staggering scope of the country’s infrastructure initiative—and what it means for the international order
The Pakistani town of Gwadar was until recently filled with the dust-colored cinderblock houses of about 50,000 fishermen. Ringed by cliffs, desert, and the Arabian Sea, it was at the forgotten edge of the earth. Now it’s one centerpiece of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, and the town has transformed as a result. Gwadar is experiencing a storm of construction: a brand-new container port, new hotels, and 1,800 miles of superhighway and high-speed railway to connect it to China’s landlocked western provinces. China and Pakistan aspire to turn Gwadar into a new Dubai, making it a city that will ultimately house 2 million people.
China is quickly growing into the world’s most extensive commercial empire. By way of comparison, after World War II, the Marshall Plan provided the equivalent of $800 billion in reconstruction funds to Europe (if calculated as a percentage of today’s GDP). In the decades after the war the United States was also the world’s largest trading nation, and its largest bilateral lender to others.
A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.
There were six hours during the night of April 10, 2014, when the entire population of Washington State had no 911 service. People who called for help got a busy signal. One Seattle woman dialed 911 at least 37 times while a stranger was trying to break into her house. When he finally crawled into her living room through a window, she picked up a kitchen knife. The man fled.
The 911 outage, at the time the largest ever reported, was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
Despite claiming he was better at consoling the families of slain servicemembers than his predecessors, Trump offended the family of La David Johnson and skipped calls and letters to other grieving loved ones.
Thirteen days after Sergeant La David Johnson was killed in Niger, and a day after Donald Trump boasted about his actions to console grieving families in contrast to his predecessors, the president called Johnson’s family Tuesday night.
It didn’t go well.
Representative Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, was with widow Myeshia Johnson when Trump called. “She was crying the whole time, and when she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part,” Wilson told MSNBC.
“He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’—something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
By lavishing infrastructure dollars on illiberal governments, Beijing is supplanting American soft power.
Along a major tributary of the Mekong River in northeastern Cambodia sits the newly opened Lower Sesan II Dam hydropower plant. The 400-megawatt dam will produce badly needed electricity for the country, but at the cost of potential major ecological damage and the eviction of some 5,000 families from the area. Such consequences are unlikely to sink the fortunes of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman leader who, for 32 years, has relied on the largesse of foreign governments to fund infrastructure projects: For this latest venture, he has China to thank for footing the more than $800-million bill.
In the past, Southeast Asian nations largely turned to the United States and its Western partners to finance such undertakings; in exchange, several of them would maintain the trappings of a democratic society. But under President Donald Trump, America’s waning regional influence is opening the door for China to expand its footprint in the region, even if that means Beijing must deal with illiberal, repressive autocrats seemingly determined to remain in power forever. “I believe I can live at least 30 more years, therefore I can continue as prime minister for 10 more years. It is not difficult for me,” the 65-year-old Hun Sen remarked at the inaugurationfor the dam last month.
A new study shows that families act on insufficient information when it comes to figuring out where to enroll their children.
A person trying to choose their next set of wheels might see that car A made it farther than car B in a road test and assume it gets better gas mileage. But that’s only true if the two tanks are filled with the same substance. Putting high-octane gas in one and water in the other, for example, provides little useful information about which car makes the most of its fuel. A new working paper titled “Do Parents Value School Effectiveness?” suggests that parents similarly opt for schools with the most impressive graduates rather than figuring out which ones actually teach best. The study joins a body of research looking critically at what it means for a school to be successful.
Take the work of Erin Pahlke, for example. The assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College saw research showing that girls who attend school only with other girls tend to do better in math and science. The trick, she said, is that those studies didn’t analyze “differences in the students coming into the schools.” As it turns out, those who end up in same-sex schools tend to be wealthier, start out with more skills, and have parents who are more proactive than students who attend co-ed institutions. In a 2014 meta-analysis, Pahlke and her colleagues reviewed the studies and found when examining schools with the same type of students and same level of resources—rather than “comparing [those at] the public co-ed school to [their counterparts at] the fancy private school that’s single-sex down the road”—there isn’t any difference in how the students perform academically. Single-sex schooling also hasn’t been shown to offer a bump in girls’ attitudes toward math and science or change how they think about themselves. In other words, it often looks like single-sex schools are doing a better job educating kids, but they aren't. It's just that their graduates are people who were going to do well at any school. They’re running on high-octane gas.
High in the Russian Far East lies Wrangel Island, a harsh landscape that supports a surprisingly diverse ecosystem.
High in the Russian Far East, in the Arctic Ocean, lies Wrangel Island, a harsh landscape that supports a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. Wrangel, about the same size as Yellowstone National Park, is home to musk oxen, Arctic foxes, polar bears, and several other species of land mammals, and is visited by more than a hundred species of migratory birds. The island was one of the last refuges for woolly mammoths on Earth. Today, biologists are studying the island’s animals and plants to monitor the effects of the warming climate and the growing presence of humans in the Arctic. Photographer Sergey Gorshkov visited Wrangel and returned with these photos, recently published in the online magazine bioGraphic.