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Good Reads: on Afghan wars, German spies, and the 'American Spring'

This week's best stories look at lessons we should have learned from a decade of war in Afghanistan, from intelligence failures, and from press accounts of the American Revolution.

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The drone blowback 'fallacy'

It has become conventional wisdom that America’s newest military weapons, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, have become so controversial in the societies where they are used that they actually end up aiding the opposition. In Pakistan’s borderlands, in Afghanistan, and increasingly in Yemen as well, drone strikes – no matter how precise – inevitably kill civilians as well as enemy combatants, a fact that diminishes the US’s military gains because it causes more people to join the anti-American cause.

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Christopher Swift, in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, visits Yemen’s conflict-ridden tribal areas and concludes that the “blowback” effect of America’s drone war is a bit overstated.

Al Qaeda exploits US errors, to be sure. As the Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen correctly observes, the death of some 40 civilians in the December 2009 cruise missile strike on Majala infuriated ordinary Yemenis and gave AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] an unexpected propaganda coup. But the fury produced by such tragedies is not systemic, not sustained, and, ultimately, not sufficient. As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic.

Problems at German spy agency

The resignation of Heinz Fromm, the president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has given a quick peek into the spooky world of intelligence gathering. Mr. Fromm stepped down because of his agency’s inability to keep tabs on Germany’s growing and increasingly violent neo-Nazi movement. (Even a casual viewer of “Hogan’s Heroes” can see why that might be a problem.)

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