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FACT CHECK: Should Mosul Campaign Have Been A 'Sneak Attack,' As Trump Said?

Donald Trump's go-to criticism of U.S. military strategy for the Iraqi city of Mosul is that it should have been a sneak attack.

The Claim

"They announced four months ago, three months ago, 'We're going into Mosul. We're going to get the leaders of ISIS because they're living in Mosul,' " he said in the final debate. "Guess what? Twelve minutes later, the leaders, they left. They're not stupid. They left. Whatever happened — remember what the great generals called the element of surprise? The element of surprise."

The Question

Is Trump correct that the U.S. talked about attacking Mosul three or four months ago and that the "element of surprise" would have been a better strategy?

The Short Answer


The Long Answer

Experts say Trump is missing some basic elements of the situation. First, leaders of the Islamic State are based in its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, in neighboring Syria. Second, the U.S. has been talking about attacking Mosul for more than a year — before Trump was in the presidential race. Third, analysts say there are good reasons to talk openly about what the U.S. and its allies are planning.

"Trump seems not to understand rudimentary elements about the use of force," said Kori Schake, a defense policy adviser for the George W. Bush administration and senior policy adviser for John McCain during his 2008 presidential run.

"For example, the moral and operational value of separating civilians from combatants — that is the purpose of telegraphing the approach on Mosul. It's to allow civilians to flee the city, which is a humanitarian gesture underscoring the difference between coalition forces and ISIS."

That's important both for humane reasons and to avoid supporting ISIS propaganda. But it's not just about being nice. Schake calls it "a practical measure to make identifying ISIS easier and reducing the prospect for them hiding among the population."

As for that "element of surprise"?

"Announcing the Mosul battle is important messaging to those civilians trapped in the city to flee if they can," said Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute. "[Trump's] monologue about the Mosul battle revealed ignorance with the dynamics on the ground, the multiplicity of actors, and the regional dynamics."

Trump's critique seems more focused on criticizing the Obama administration and the Pentagon than analyzing the situation in Mosul. In some appearances, he goes as far as actually complimenting ISIS.

"By the time we attack them, all the guys that we want are going to be gone," Trump said at a Charlotte, N.C., rally on Oct. 14. "They're very smart. How stupid are the people that run our country?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 1, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to a 2012 presidential run by John McCain. That campaign was actually in 2008.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.