A novel way forward in the battle against the Islamic State

Roadside barbers wait for customers in Kabul, Afghanistan on Nov. 29, 2015.

Editor's note: This is Chatter, our morning rundown of what you need and want to know around the world. Fortunately for us all, you can have Chatter emailed to you every day. Just sign up here!


Scott Atran is an author and anthropologist. Last week he wrote an almost 11,000-word essay on the Islamic State from the perspective of an anthropologist. And it is a must-read.

Atran makes the case that the Islamic State is much more than just a backward terrorist group, and argues that much more than a military response is going to be necessary to stop it. He looks deep into history and comes to the conclusion that the Islamic State is the beginning of a global revolution: a rejection of the nation-state order that appeals to people of all kinds.

"… there is also a subliminal joy felt across the region for those who reject the Islamic State’s murderous violence yet yearn for ... the end to a nation-state order that the Great Powers invented and imposed. It is an order that has failed, and that the US, Russia and their respective allies are trying willy-nilly to resurrect, and it is an order that many in the region believe to be the root of their misery. What the ISIS revolution is not, is a simple desire to return to the ancient past. The idea that ISIS seeks a return to medieval times makes no more sense than the idea that the US Tea Party wants to return to 1776.

The Caliphate seeks a new order based on a culture of today. Unless we recognize these passions and aspirations, and deal with them using more than just military means, we will likely fan those passions and lose another generation to war and worse."

Atran’s essay is based on interviews with current and former Islamic State fighters, and with youth in neighborhoods in France and elsewhere where sympathy for the Islamic State is high. These are people who are looking for a way out of the status quo, he says.

“Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. The Caliphate is an attractor to all of these young people, providing purpose and freedom from what they have come to see as the vice of a meaningless, material world.”

Perhaps above all, Atran writes, the Islamic State seeks an end to the neocolonial order that Britain and France imposed on the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

“In the spring of 2014, when [the Islamic State] bulldozed the border markers between Iraq and Syria, it generated a sense of liberation and joy for many across the region and beyond. Unlike the US and the other great powers, including Russia and China, many people in the region do not consider the current mayhem to result from failed states that now must be revived and reinforced at whatever cost, but to emanate from the expedient fictions that created those states in the first place.”

In the end, Atran offers some ways forward. So it’s important to read it all the way through.


In 2008, the Pentagon bought 20 refurbished cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force. The planes were in bad shape and the army had to resell most of them for scrap metal. In the end, $486 million was wasted on worthless planes.

This kind of thing happens again and again in Afghanistan, with little accountability. No one was punished for the bad planes. More than $25 million was blown on a sparkling headquarters that nobody ever used. A military officer told ProPublica that it was “probably not bad in the grand scheme of things.” What he meant was: What’s $25 million in a sea of trillions?

The misspent millions eventually added up to billions. ProPublica pored over more than 200 audits, special projects and inspections since 2009 and built a database to add up the total cost of failed reconstruction projects. “Looking at the botched projects collectively — rather than as one-off headlines — reveals a grim picture of the overall reconstruction effort and a repeated cycle of mistakes,” the investigative outlet reported.

In all, it found at least $17 billion in questionable spending. The real total is probably much higher. The audits only cover a small fraction of the projects that were launched in Afghanistan. What’s worse, none of the projects this money was spent on were required to show results. Officials tracked dollars spent, not impact. As one official put it: Reconstruction efforts are “like a child sports game where everyone gets a trophy.”

Everyone but the American taxpayer.


Peru has a trash problem. There is a serious shortage of official waste disposal plants. Illicitly dumping garbage — into a river, over a cliff, or in front of your neighbor’s house — is routine. Prosecutions, however, are rare.

To address the problem, technology has been added to nature. A handful of large black vultures, part of a giant vulture army found all over the country, have been outfitted with GoPro video cameras and GPS. The vultures, inevitably, end up at dumps, plenty of them unsanctioned. And their with GoPros and GPS systems attached, they are leading investigators to the illicit trash as well.

Problem solved. Now the government just needs to figure out how to offer functioning waste removal services to its citizens.