- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
GOP nominee Donald Trump has indulged a fondness for conspiracy theories that seems inversely proportional to his chances of winning the White House.
In Trump’s latest, President Barack Obama launched the offensive to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State, because he “wanted to show what a tough guy he is before the election.”
There are a few things wrong with the businessman-turned-politician’s assessment, offered at a rare Sunday rally in rural Florida.
While Iraqi and U.S. officials are closely coordinating the fight against the terrorist group, which has held Mosul for more than two years, both Washington and Baghdad have made clear Iraq is calling the shots. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the military operation last Monday, with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirming shortly after. The troops leading the assault are overwhelmingly Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga; only a few hundred of the thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq are on hand to coordinate air strikes and advise.
At times, Baghdad’s lead has even caused open frustration among the U.S. military brass — the operation suffered numerous false starts — making it hard to believe that Obama’s political calculus and the U.S. electoral cycle somehow decided Iraq’s military strategy.
In a recent example, to the Americans’ chagrin, Baghdad plans to utilize its Iranian-backed Shiite militias to the west of Mosul, despite their reputation for human rights violations, including during the fight for Fallujah this year. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city, and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad promised in the wake of international outcry after Fallujah that the militias wouldn’t enter the city.
The launch of the Mosul fight wasn’t exactly an “October surprise.” Encircling missions have been going on for months, and the Iraqi government been planning, and delaying, the offensive, for more than a year. American officials have for just as long been trying to speed it up.
In fact, Trump has previously hit the Obama administration for announcing military actions in Iraq, such as dropping leaflets or firing warning shots to give truck drivers’ notice before a strike. Iraqi forces dropped leaflets over Mosul in March urging civilians to rebel against ISIS control ahead of a (not so) imminent attempt to retake the city.
Such warnings can save innocent lives, and make the business of urban warfare a bit less fraught. For example, American B-52 bombers have been dropping pamphlets over Mosul in recent days, warning residents to remain indoors and stay away from known ISIS locations when the Iraqi Army enters the city.
They can also serve to intimidate ISIS fighters, potentially encouraging them to flee in advance of the offensive, as Martha Raddatz pointed out while moderating the second presidential debate, a notion military historians and experts back up.
Trump hit the Obama administration for not launching a “sneak attack,” and followed up in the last debate by suggesting the timing was intended to help rival Hillary Clinton. In reality, everybody, including the estimated 4,500 ISIS fighters holed up in Mosul, knew an assault on the city was coming. Military analysts note that strategic targets, like Iraq’s second city, are obvious objectives; so was Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, yet the allies assaulted it head on.
The attack on Mosul is turning out to be a total disaster. We gave them months of notice. U.S. is looking so dumb. VOTE TRUMP and WIN AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2016
But only a week after the offensive began, there are some encouraging signs. The campaign gained momentum late last week when Iraqi special forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters opened up a new front to the north and east of Mosul, inching to within a few miles of the city. It was the closest coordination to date between Baghdad and the Kurdish forces, which have often been at odds.
If U.S. military and U.N. officials have long warned of a hard slog to take back Mosul, that’s because of a whole lot more than ISIS getting a heads up.
As many as 1.5 million people still in the city could be targeted, caught in the crossfire, forcibly expelled or used as human shields, according to the U.N. Early reports tell of ISIS fighters executing civilians. That adds an extra layer of complication for troops, aid workers, and international organizations, who are bracing themselves for an exodus of families across a landmine-strewed battlescape.
Plus, Obama isn’t running for president anymore, making it unclear what benefit he may have achieved with timing meant to enhance a “tough guy” image.
Trump, on the other hand, is on the ballot on Nov. 8. And on Sunday, amid continued bluster about rigged elections, skewed polls, and a biased media, he seemed ambivalent about his whole presidential adventure.
“Are we glad that I started? Are we happy?” Trump asked the crowd. “Well, I’ll let you know on the evening of Nov. 8 whether I’m glad.”
Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/Getty Images