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There was never an ideal time in eliminating IS

With the Islamic State (IS) entrenched in Mosul and parts of Iraq since 2014, its reign of terror in Iraq’s second largest city has been almost unhindered. So when the long-awaited battle to liberate the city finally arrived, for many it could not have come soon enough, yet others argue that the battle could have been launched prematurely.

The planning for the liberation of the city has been protracted, bogged down by lengthy negotiations between various sides.

In many ways, these delays, as much as it meant that IS could commit further atrocities and solidify its control over the cities, were unavoidable.

There are a number of angles to this, not least the military side of the equation. The Iraqi army suffered an embarrassing defeat against IS and in many ways, it was the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces that were instrumental in stopping IS on the doorsteps of Baghdad and later in reclaiming lands.

The Iraqi forces needed to take stock, rebuild and revamp its image. Going into Mosul prematurely, especially if it meant a further embarrassing defeat for Baghdad and the Iraqi forces would have been catastrophic.

Both the Iraqi and Kurdish forces needed logistical and military support against a well-armed and well-prepared enemy.

The humanitarian element cannot be ignored; any battle needs meticulous planning to avoid mass civilian casualties. If the human cost was too high, then this would forever stain any victory and worsen local animosity.

Then there is the political angle. Without addressing the fragmented ethno-sectarian landscape that fuelled the advance of IS, Iraqis could not claim a decisive victory and this has proved tough.

Any force needs to be balanced based on these ethno-sectarian sensitivities. The Coalition forces, Kurds, Shia or Sunnis could not take a unilateral role in the liberation or the post IS era.

These elements take time and even today there isn’t a comprehensive agreement on the future make-up of Mosul. However, as the post-2003 Iraq has proved that political agreements in Iraq can take an indefinite amount of time if agreements are achieved at all.

Iraqis and the coalition could not wait endlessly to resolve every aspect and there was never a ‘perfect’ time for any operation. The fact that the battle was eventually launched weeks before US presidential elections and end of Barack Obama’s tenure was bound to stoke the conspiracy theorists, none more so than presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Trump had strongly criticized the US-led offensive in Mosul as losing the “the element of surprise” and thus allowing IS leaders to escape. “Why don’t we just go in quietly, right?” Trump decried.

Furthermore, Trump alleged that the timing of the offensive was designed to boost Hillary Clinton’s campaign and make her “look good.”

A victory in Mosul would indeed spell a good ending for Obama and a warmer beginning for Clinton, but it’s hardly that simple or predictable.

Against a well-armed, motivated and unpredictable enemy such as IS, no one can guess how the battle would unfold or impact the presidential elections. Ironically, it could suit both presidential candidates. For example, if the Mosul battle takes a turn for the worse, the Trump camp could well capitalize.

Iraqi, Kurdish and Coalition forces have stressed the importance of thorough planning many times over the past 2 years. U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter indicated in February 2015 that success was more important than timing in any attempts to take Mosul.

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has long emphasized that “the post-liberation period must be prepared for” to avoid a repeat of these tragedies.

In terms of the element of surprise, it’s almost impossible given the complex landscape. Given the difficulty in capturing cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit that were much smaller than Mosul, any operation needed a sizable force.

It’s hardly possible to discreetly deploy thousands of troops, tanks, and weapons. The IS defence needs to be gradually softened through airstrikes and blocking their supply lines. Any brazen and miscalculated offensive would result in high casualties and hit morale.

This was highlighted by a Mark Kimmitt, a retired army general and former senior Pentagon official, “Strategic surprise is rarely accomplished, but tactical surprise — the how and where of low-level attacks — is kept secret.”

More importantly, civilians needed to be given every opportunity to escape the ensuing violence.

And IS leaders are more intelligent than to wait to be picked off by coalition forces, especially if they escape through mainly barren lands to Syria.

There was a never going to be a perfect timing or political environment to suit all parties. Even today, there are many looming dangers of a post IS Iraq that are unaddressed. Either way, getting rid of the tyranny of IS did not come a day too soon.

First Published: Kurdistan 24