For Effective Counterterrorism, Abandon the Language of Defeat

One word has come to dominate the political discussion of American counterterrorism objectives: defeat. It has been used across the political spectrum. Yet the language of “defeat” is often at odds with an effective counterterrorism strategy promising unachievable ends that consistently make the United States and those politicians who promise defeat prone to failure when terrorist groups prove resilient.

In September 2001, President George W. Bush, laid out a wide-ranging objective for the so-called “war on terrorism,” stating, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” When President Obama took over, he continued an already occurring process of narrowing the focus of the war. His 2011 Counterterrorism Strategy stated, “this Administration has made it clear that we are not at war with the tactic of terrorism or the religion of Islam. We are at war with a specific organization—al-Qa‘ida.” Yet the strategy maintained the goal of defeat: “This Strategy articulates how we will achieve a future in which al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates and adherents are defeated—and their ideology ultimately meets the same fate as its founder and leader.”

As the Obama administration returned the United States to war in Iraq, and then extended the counter-ISIS war to Syria, the objective of defeat again emerged as a stated objective. Initially, the Obama administration presented relatively limited objectives for the counter-ISIS war of protecting U.S. persons and achieving a specific humanitarian mission. Yet the administration soon put forward an objective of degrading and destroying ISIS. Ash Carter, who became Obama’s Defense Secretary after Chuck Hagel resigned, would adopt the language of “lasting defeat.”

President Trump continued the language of defeat when he took over the war effort. Eight days into his term, he issued a presidential memorandum on efforts against ISIS declaring, “It is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated.” The new administration also renamed the Counter-ISIL effort to D-ISIS with the “D” standing for defeat though the actual mission did not change.

The language of defeat continues to hold sway even with prominent Democrats pushing for a new era of progressive foreign policy. For example, Senator Chris Murphy in 2017 criticized the Trump administration for having “no strategy to defeat terrorism” and in January 2020, tweeted, “The U.S. and our partners had ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq, but the Soleimani strike put all this in jeopardy.”

The language of defeat holds a particularly tempting power because it promises an end to the current moment of endless war, holding out the vision of a day when the military portion of counterterrorism is no longer necessary and the threat no longer exists. In some cases, when carefully defined in reference to specific objectives (for example discussion of the territorial defeat of ISIS’s holdings in Iraq and Syria as opposed to the group’s defeat let alone the defeat of its ideological resonance) the word defeat may have value.

The problem is that even when defined in such a way, the language of defeat often takes on a triumphalist life of its own — gaining societal meaning beyond the specifics of what politicians claim to mean. The litany of declared victories in America’s wars that turned out to be messaging failures is long: from Mission Accomplished (whether in 2003 or when Trump echoed it in 2018) to the criticism of Obama for saying al-Qaida was on the “path to defeat.”

In the case of the counter-ISIS war, the objective of enduring defeat often sidelined critical questions of what the war’s final political objectives actually were and whether those objectives were achievable or worth sacrificing for. Thus what might be represented accurately as a territorial defeat for ISIS simply enabled the re-emergence of those sidelined debates over end-states that largely ignored the signals coming from President Trump about his desire to get U.S. forces out.

Contributing to these failures is the fact that terrorist organizations are profoundly resilient, making calls for the defeat of a specific organization only slightly more sensible than the idea of defeating terrorism as a tactic. This is especially the case when terrorist organizations today have increasingly turned themselves into brands and franchises, decentralizing and divesting many of the characteristics that differentiated the organization from an ideology or tactic in the first place. The low barriers of entry to committing terrorism in the name of jihadist groups for one of any number of armed actors or even individuals makes maintaining a declaration of defeat in today’s media environment difficult.

The problems with the language of defeat are well-known to many counter-terrorism professionals. Former National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen has cautioned that the “D-words” like “defeat, destroy, or deny” tend to represent “very ambitious objectives that, even if we were maximally resourced, even if everything broke our way in the international environment, even if every positive projection of the international environment you could develop came true, we still would have struggled to meet those objectives on the kind of timeline we were setting for ourselves.” In 2015, Rosa Brooks, a former counselor to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, wrote regarding terrorism, “we need to … recognize it as an ongoing problem to be managed, rather than ‘defeated.’” Brooks added, “Politicians don’t like to say any of this.”

Of course, management can be done poorly. One could envision an approach that remains mired in the current seemingly endless counterterrorism wars while just embracing the inability to defeat the enemy. Echoes of such a stance can be seen in the rise of “mowing the lawn” language with regard to certain American military efforts. This framing refers to a strategic theory prominent in Israel that simply abandons the hope for defeat while remaining committed to military action as necessary.

However, the solution to this risk of militarized management is to hold a real debate on what U.S. objectives are, whether they achieve U.S. interests, and whether they do so in a moral and justifiable manner. The solution is also to develop and expand non-militarized tools for achieving U.S. objectives. Hoping for the defeat of terrorist groups is more likely to be a way to avoid that reckoning, effectively returning America to an unacknowledged mowing the grass policy, rather than a way to escape from the problem itself.

Those who seek to chart a more restrained path of American military power or a new vision of progressive foreign policy should do their best to avoid the language of defeat. Where politicians and advocates engage in the language of defeat, they should take particular care to contextualize the specifics of what they mean by defeat (whether territorial, organizational, or ideological) and how they would measure it. Even in such cases, the rhetorical power of using “defeat” as a shorthand comes with dangers that are likely best avoided by adopting the clarity of simply stating the desired objective without opening oneself up to the ease with which defeat rhetoric slides into embracing broad, transformative, and often unachievable objectives.