In recent debates and speeches Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has remarked that the United States government is using poor strategy by announcing the coalition effort to re-take Mosul from ISIS in Northern Iraq. “Why can’t they do it quietly? Why can’t they make it a sneak attack? And after the attack is made, inform the American public that we’ve knocked out their leaders,” Trump said.
His accusation about America’s strategy in Mosul has been oft repeated, but does it hold any merit? A sneak attack that uses surprise seems all but impossible in this case. ISIS knows that the coalition is going to make a push to re-take the city at some point. However, one could argue that they don’t know when we would launch the attack.
Keeping the actual date of the attack a secret is also impossible. Unlike the D-Day landing in France, the force assaulting Mosul consists not just of Americans and Canadians, but also Kurdish Pershmerga, Iraqi military, and Shia militias. The war plans for capturing Mosul are in-depth, involve the moving of military logistics, and are all done with indigenous forces as the primary actors. To think that these foreign forces will maintain strict OPSEC would be to profoundly misunderstand the region. Keep in mind that all of the Iraqi boots on the ground are armed not only with AK-47s but also with smartphones.
Furthermore, in order to deconflict amongst friendly(ish) units surrounding Mosul, communication has to be in multiple directions and open. Do the Iraqi forces have encrypted radios? Can we share classified information with Shia militias? Nope. That means that some public statements need to be made. Additionally, by making public announcements, it is easier to prepare for the humanitarian campaign that will ensue during the capturing of the city. It also allows for the dropping of military PSYOPS pamphlets over the city. If a stupid pamphlet drop gets even 5% of the enemy to drop their weapons and desert, it means that there are 5% less soldiers that the coalition has to fight on the ground.
As the Mosul offensive kicks off, Donald Trump’s comments appeal to “common sense” but don’t have much practical application in a realistic military strategy that involves complicated international politics and multiple local actors on the ground.