- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2016

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s recent call for a “sneak attack” against the Islamic State in Iraq drew snickers from the national security establishment in Washington and elsewhere, but the idea that the Obama administration is unwisely telegraphing its battle plans to retake the group’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul has sparked a debate in political and military circles.

As the clock winds down on the contentious presidential election season and the beginning of what could be a lengthy and savage fight for Iraq’s second-largest city, those divisions are quietly coming to a head.

The outspoken Republican presidential nominee confounded conventional understanding of warfare when he suggested that U.S. forces launch a “sneak attack” against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. His proposal, during the second presidential debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on Sunday, was in reference to the battle to liberate Mosul.

“Why can’t they do it quietly and do the attack and make it a sneak attack, and after the attack is made inform the American public that we have knocked out the [Islamic State] leaders and have a tremendous success?” Mr. Trump said.

Announcing such plans beforehand, he said, gave Islamic State fighters in Mosul the opportunity to either fortify their defenses or plan an escape before the onslaught of Iraqi and allied troops.

“Why do they have to say we are going to be attacking Mosul in four to six weeks? How stupid is our country?” he said during a heated exchange with debate moderator Martha Raddatz.

The element of surprise has long been considered a critical weapon in the arsenal of war-fighting techniques. Even in the modern age of radar and electronic communications, unexpected attacks have brought celebrated successes for U.S. forces, from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s surprise Inchon landing during the Korean War to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous “Left Hook” that outflanked Iraqi forces in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. By contrast, U.S. officials and their allies have openly talked of the timing of the Mosul assault and of the positions and missions of the various elements of the allied coalition ahead of the attack.

Earlier this month, officials with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq announced that training for the final tranche of Iraqi units pegged for the Mosul attack is nearly complete, clearing the way for the long-anticipated campaign to retake the city.

A dozen Iraqi army brigades — 10,000 to 20,000 troops — backed by over 5,000 U.S. service members are expected to kick off the Mosul operation within a matter of weeks.

The deployment of 615 U.S. troops to the main American base south of Mosul this month was the “final increase” needed before the siege, said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Mr. al-Abadi and President Obama have repeatedly said that the Islamic State would be driven out of Mosul by the end of the year, yet delays in planning for the operation have put that timeline in doubt.

In response, Mrs. Clinton reminded her Republican rival that a complex military operation like Mosul required diligent planning to give the mission even a plausible chance of success.

The time needed to coordinate the basics of the Mosul plan is compounded by the need to bring together the constellation of Iraqi, Kurdish and foreign forces and to ensure those disparate groups do not turn their guns on one another after the city’s fall, she said.

“I do think that there is a good chance that we can take Mosul [but] we all need to be in this. And that takes a lot of planning and preparation,” said the Democratic candidate and former secretary of state.

No surprise

The message from the Pentagon as to whether U.S. forces were tipping their hand to Islamic State leaders, giving the group an advantage on the imminent attack on Mosul, was clear.

“It’s no surprise to people that we are going after Mosul,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Thursday.

Although he made clear that Iraqi and Kurdish commanders, and their U.S. counterparts, were keeping specifics of the Mosul battle plan under wraps, wresting the city from Islamic State control has been Washington’s top priority since the beginning of operations against the terrorist group two years ago.

“We’re not going to reveal details about how that’s going to be carried out, [and] to their credit [the Iraqis] aren’t going to do that as well,” Mr. Cook told reporters at the Pentagon.

“But nobody should be surprised by the notion that the fight for Mosul is close and that we have every intention of achieving that goal as soon as possible.”

That has not dissuaded conservative members of the national security community from throwing their support behind Mr. Trump’s assessment of how the White House is waging war against the Islamic State.

“The U.S. has lost all credibility by repeatedly saying we’re going to attack Mosul. It’s the boy who cried wolf one too many times,” Chris Harmer, senior defense analyst with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told the Washington Examiner shortly after Mr. Trump’s remark Sunday.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, lashed out at the White House’s disclosure of information about the Mosul operation.

“Never in our memory can we recall an instance in which our military has knowingly briefed our own war plans to our enemies,” the lawmakers wrote to Mr. Obama in February.

“These disclosures not only risk the success of our mission, but could also cost the lives of U.S., Iraqi, and coalition forces,” they wrote.

But Michael Knights, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees with the Pentagon’s stance.

“The militants have noticed the noose tightening around the city. The offensive will last months and involve thousands of troops, who are assembling in combat formations outside the city to cut off supply lines. There’s no way to keep that buildup secret,” Mr. Knights told USA Today this month.

“You [just] can’t sneak up to someone’s capital city,” he said.

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