Abandoning the Language of Defeat Is Harder Than You Think

The new National Security Strategy avoids the language of defeating terrorist groups, but the language lingers elsewhere.
Blog Post
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
Oct. 21, 2022

On October 12, 2022, the Biden White House released its National Security Strategy. The strategy’s discussion of counterterrorism provides further confirmation that the Biden administration is moving away from using the language of defeating terrorist groups when it discusses American objectives. The move is a positive one given that “defeat” tends to be somewhere between an incoherently slippery and impossible objective when it comes to terrorist organizations.

Yet, analysts should be cautious in their assessments of the extent of that shift. For two decades, the United States framed its counterterrorism objectives around the vision of a defeat of al-Qaeda and other groups. It will take more than a National Security Strategy that doesn’t say “defeat” to fully transform the United States’ counterterrorism framework.

The Move Away From “Defeat” as an Objective

The new National Security Strategy provides a major marker of the Biden administration’s intent to move away from the language of defeating and destroying terrorist groups. The words “defeat” and “destroy” do not appear in the strategy in relation to terrorism. When it comes to the use of military force, the strategy instead uses the language of degrade and disrupt. It states, “Where necessary, we will use force to disrupt and degrade terrorist groups that are plotting attacks against the United States, our people, or our diplomatic and military facilities abroad.”

The absence of defeat or destroy language should not be surprising. In March 2021, the Biden administration released its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, a document aimed at providing a sense of priorities and approach while the actual strategy was in development. Like the newly released strategy, the language of defeat and destroy was largely absent.

When Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall gave a speech in September 2021, laying out the administration’s sustainable counterterrorism framework, she likewise eschewed references to “defeat” instead using words like “disrupt” and “degraded.”

The Biden administration marks a particularly clear moment in the move away from the language of defeat. However, the move is the product of a larger trend towards a posture of sustainable counterterrorism. Indeed, President Obama discussed the importance of “sustainable counterterrorism” in a December 2016 speech. That speech still made reference to efforts to “defeating” and “dismantling” terrorist groups in a way Biden has generally avoided – although during the 2020 campaign Biden used similar language.

The Lingering Objective of Defeat

Even with the substantial rhetorical changes under the current administration, it is easy to overstate the extent to which the U.S. government has abandoned the objective of defeat.

One sign of the objective’s persistence is that the counter-ISIS war continues to be framed through the language of an objective of defeating ISIS. When Biden submitted his June 2022 War Powers Resolution letter, he stated that the U.S. was working with partners “As part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS.” The same language appears in Biden’s 2021 letter.

The website for Operation Inherent Resolve, the name for the campaign against ISIS describes its mission as advising, assisting, and enabling partners “to secure lasting defeat of ISIS and to enable the establishment of an enduring security cooperation framework." Multiple press releases from U.S. Central Command repeatedly describe ISIS’ defeat as the objective. Even the symbol for the operation has the objective of “degrade and ultimately destroy” written into its explanation of meaning. Meanwhile, the Global Coalition Against Daesh describes itself as “committed to degrading and ultimately defeating Daesh.”

The continued reference to “defeat” as an objective in the counter-ISIS effort even as the administration more broadly pulls back from such language is important. The U.S. did not describe its objective as the defeat or destruction of ISIS when it first began strikes on the group instead emphasizing limited objectives. Those limited objectives quickly gave way to the objective of defeating and destroying ISIS in reaction to the group’s escalation of violence in August 2014. This history illustrates how the language of defeat can resurge.

The U.S. effort against al-Shabaab in Somalia likewise suggests the lingering power of the objective of defeat. Recently, the U.S. has largely avoided references to the defeat of al-Shabaab as an objective. The language of “defeat” does not appear in the June 2022 War Powers Resolution letter with regard to U.S. actions in the East Africa Region (a section focused largely on Somalia and al-Shabaab). Most of U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) press releases regarding U.S. strikes in Somalia do not use the language of defeat instead emphasizing “The Federal Government of Somalia and the U.S. remain committed to fighting al-Shabaab to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians” or as one press release puts it, providing partners with the “the tools that they need to degrade al-Shabaab.”

However, the move away from the language of defeat in Somalia has not been complete. A press release regarding a September 18, 2022 U.S. strike states, “The U.S. will continue to support Somali and ATMIS partners in defeating al-Shabaab terrorists who threaten the peace and stability of Somalia.”

This reference suggests that the United States’ support for partners like the Federal Government of Somalia or the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) may in practice link the U.S. to stated objectives of defeat even as the administration ceases talking about its objectives in that register.

Notably, U.S. partners in Somalia have not been shy about describing their aim in terms of the defeat or destruction of al-Shabaab. On October 15, Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud published an op-ed titled “There is no turning back: We must finish off Al-Shabaab.” In it he wrote, “there has never been a time when I felt more hopeful about defeating Al-Shabaab than I am now” and “This group is a cancer in our system, and we must respond with our collective might to challenge and defeat them once and for all.”

Of course, the U.S. may have a different objective than its partners and still have reason to support their counterterrorism actions. However, the presence of such language at a time when the National Security Strategy calls for increased reliance on partners is a warning sign. Some version of the word partner appears in the strategy more than 160 times. With regard to terrorism the strategy touts a shift “from a strategy that is ‘U.S.-led, partner-enabled’ to one that is ‘partner-led, U.S.-enabled.’”

Where To From Here: Name the Limits

The Biden administration’s rhetoric regarding counterterrorism objectives represents a meaningful shift away from the language of defeat even compared to the late Obama administration. Yet, from the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria to strikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia, the language lingers.

National strategy documents bear particular importance as a signal of purpose even if implementation lags. Yet, the administration’s strategy does not explicitly state or justify a shift away from the language of defeat. Instead it just ceases the language’s use.

Without an explicit and justified change, it becomes harder to shift the approach of U.S. government implementers who continue to use the language of defeat - let alone to shift the objectives of non-U.S. partner forces. Silence also raises the prospect that phrases like “degrade” or “disrupt” will allow the unlimited objective of total defeat to fill in as the end point of the process when limits are not explicitly set out. Finally, the tendency to not explicitly discuss changing objectives and approaches – what some describe in the context of U.S. policy around drone strikes as the Fight Club approach to dealing with forever war – makes it easier for supposed changes to fall by the wayside when conditions or political priorities change.

The best way for the Biden administration to give more substance to its apparent shift away from the language of defeat is to clearly specify the new, limited objectives for the use of U.S. military force whether in Syria, Somalia, or elsewhere. That requires more than ceasing the use of a particular set of words.