Reporter's Notebook

The ISIS Conundrum
Show Description +

Scroll down for a running conversation from readers and others on the best ideas for responding to ISIS, inspired by The Atlantic’s project “What to Do About ISIS?,” featuring essays from a variety of foreign policy experts. Email us at

Show None Newer Notes

What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

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.

The satirist and frequent Atlantic contributor Karl Sharro, who has made it his mission to thoroughly complicate our understanding of everything from free speech to the Iran deal to Mideast conflict to the war in Yemen, has done it again. This time his target is what I’d call hammer-nailism: the tendency of analysts to reductively understand ISIS through the lens of their pet cause. Hence scientists and liberals claiming that climate change caused ISIS,  or a certain French economist arguing that income inequality facilitated the group’s rise.

Sharro’s assessment is just a tad wordier:

It’s actually one of the best distillations I’ve seen of the myriad roots of the Islamic State, and it speaks to why answering the question posed by The Atlantic's new project—What to do about ISIS?—is so devilishly hard, but also so important.