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Donald Trump wants a ‘sneak attack’ on Mosul, but reality is more complicated

Republican nominee Donald Trump poses with members of the audience after the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 2016. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Sunday that U.S. officials are “stupid” to disclose any details about the forthcoming military operation to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State. In the process, however, Trump overlooked numerous examples in which U.S. commanders have deliberately publicized some of their plans, either to make combat operations easier or to allow civilians to flee to safety.

Trump, in a pointed exchange during the presidential debate with moderator Martha Raddatz, said he “couldn’t think of any reason” for sharing information ahead of time.

“The biggest problem I have with the stupidity of our foreign policy, we have Mosul. They think a lot of the ISIS leaders are in Mosul,” Trump said, using an alternate name for the militant group. “So we have announcements coming out of Washington and coming out of Iraq: We will be attacking Mosul in three weeks or four weeks. Well, all of these bad leaders from ISIS are leaving Mosul. Why can’t they do it quietly?”

He later added: “How stupid is our country?”

Raddatz countered that there could be reasons military commanders have elected to share details about the planned mission, including “psychological operations,” in which information is selectively shared to achieve a desired outcome. She cited allowing civilians to flee as one example — a strong possibility in Mosul, a city of more than 1 million people.

Trump isn’t the first person to say that too many details about the fight against Islamic State have been disclosed. But the U.S. military has selectively done so in the past for specific reasons, while still retaining the element of surprise through the tactics they use.

In early 2010, for example, the Marine Corps publicized for days that it was about to launch Operation Moshtarak, a major offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Marine commanders did so in hopes that both civilians and Taliban insurgents would flee what became the district of Marja, a known stronghold for both poppy traffickers and insurgent fighters. The operation, although easier than some feared, nonetheless took months to complete and led to the death of dozens of coalition troops.

Similarly, the U.S. military erected a perimeter around the Iraqi city of Fallujah in fall 2004 ahead of Operation Phantom Fury. Despite facing stiff opposition from insurgents, U.S. commanders elected to drop thousands of leaflets on the city and forgo some elements of surprise in order to warn civilians to get out of Fallujah ahead of the fighting.

Both of those operations were obvious to people nearby, considering the thousands of troops that were put in place to carry them out ahead of time. The planned assault on Mosul may be even more obvious, however.

Coordination for it has required more than a year to hone, with U.S. military advisers training thousands of Iraqi soldiers and the government in Baghdad ultimately deciding when the assault on the city should begin. So-called shaping operations also have been taking place for months on the city’s outskirts, liberating scores of towns and villages surrounding the city. The United States also has established a base, Qayyarah Airfield West, southwest of Mosul and deployed hundreds of troops to it in recent weeks.

In Iraq, ‘all the pieces’ are now in place to take Mosul back from the Islamic State

As a USA Today piece pointed out Monday, every other major Iraqi city that the Islamic State held — including Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi — also has been taken back already from the militants, making it certain what the next objective is.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment about U.S. disclosures in the Mosul campaign on Tuesday, following a Defense Department policy not to comment on the election. However, Davis noted that details that have been released by the U.S. government about the coming operation match what Iraqi officials have been telling their own citizens in an effort to give them a chance to leave.

The dialogue about the battle of Mosul has been inflamed at least since February 2015, when U.S. Central Command authorized a background briefing for reporters in which an official said he expected the operation to take back Mosul could begin as soon as that April. Within weeks, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the briefing included both inaccurate information and future war plans and should have been handled differently.

Carter himself then appeared to draw concerns after telling the House Armed Services Committee in December 2015 that the United States was sending an elite “expeditionary targeting force” to Iraq to carry out raids against the Islamic State. Days later, Gen. Joseph Votel, then the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, said in a memo to the Pentagon disclosed by Foreign Policy magazine that he was concerned about too many details being disclosed and requested help to “get our forces back into the shadows.”

More on Checkpoint:
In Iraq, ‘all the pieces’ are now in place to take Mosul back from the Islamic State

U.S. adds more troops to Iraq ahead of Mosul offensive

Pentagon will send hundreds more troops to Iraq after seizure of key airfield