What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The New Yorker’s Steve Coll reviews some of political-science literature on civil wars for clues about how to defeat ISIS, and how long it will take:

Rereading these works in light of the infuriating problem of the Islamic State, two discouraging findings stand out. In 1945, many civil wars were concluded after about two years. By 1999, they lasted, on average, about sixteen years. And conflicts in which a guerrilla group could finance itself—by selling contraband drug crops, or by smuggling oil—might go on for thirty or forty years. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been around since 1964, sustained in no small part by American cocaine consumption.

Coll also highlights a point that is, in my view, underappreciated.

Certainly there are ways in which ISIS is “beyond anything we’ve seen,” but focusing on what makes it unprecedented can obscure the historical patterns it fits, as well as the lessons those patterns can teach. As Coll, whose Pulitzer-winning book Ghost Wars documented how al-Qaeda took root in Afghanistan, points out, ISIS’s “army and its sanctuary, in Iraq and Syria, are not, in a structural sense, exceptional.” To wit:

From the American intervention in Somalia, in 1992, through the French intervention in Mali, in 2013, industrialized countries have been able to deploy ground forces to take guerrilla-held territory in about sixty days or less. The problem is that if they don’t then leave, to be replaced by more locally credible yet militarily able forces, they invite frustration, and risk unsustainable casualties and political if not military defeat. This has been true even when the guerrilla forces were weak: the Taliban possesses neither planes nor significant anti-aircraft missiles, yet it has fought the United States to a stalemate, and the advantage is now shifting in its favor.

The implication is that the U.S. could very well rout ISIS quickly with a ground invasion in the short term, while leaving in place the long-term conditions that could facilitate the return of ISIS or something worse. After all, as MIT’s Barry Posen pointed out in The Atlantic last week:

The seeds of ISIS were planted in Iraq when its parent organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, though battered, survived “the surge” of U.S. ground forces into the country beginning in 2007—the final and tactically most successful phase of the counterinsurgency campaign, which at its peak involved some 170,000 U.S. troops. Al-Qaeda in Iraq itself was born from the American occupation; a new occupation would produce the same kind of resistance, which ISIS or some other group could exploit.

So where does that leave us? Probably more of the same. Coll notes that one way to deal with long wars is “to accept that success will be a long time coming, and to adopt a posture of military and diplomatic patience and persistence.” This is what Posen might call a containment strategy, and it may be hard to sell during an election season. Containment, Posen wrote, “does not promise quick and easy victory.” But history suggests any victory will be slow and difficult.