The military’s upbeat assessment puts Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in an awkward position. His repeated criticism of the handling of the operation means its success could cast shadows on his argument to be the next commander in chief, while his decision to take on the Pentagon once again highlights the sacred cows he has been willing to slay during his unconventional campaign.
For weeks, Trump has lambasted the coalition effort to re-capture the city of Mosul from ISIS, calling the undertaking a “total disaster” and saying the US and its allies were “bogged-down” there even as defense officials say they are encouraged by the progress being made.
“The campaign is on track and moving forward according to plan,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Monday.
“There’s no question that counter-ISIL forces continue to have the momentum in this fight,” he added, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terror organization, also known as Daesh.
Yet Trump repeated his critique of the operation on Monday.
“Did we give Mosul enough advanced notice?” he asked rhetorically during a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Whatever happened to the element of surprise?”
Trump’s view contrasts with the assessment of military officials, who have laid out the reasons why they are discussing some — though not all — elements of the Mosul operation.
And, so far, they can point for back-up to developments on the ground to take back Iraq’s second-largest city and key holdout for ISIS.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter “continues to be encouraged by what he is seeing,” Cook said, describing the campaign as proceeding on schedule.
Cook’s view was also echoed by the US special presidential envoy for the counter-ISIS coalition,Amb. Brett McGurk, while speaking Friday in Rome.
While McGurk acknowledged that the campaign for Mosul “will be a long-term effort,” he said that “every single objective has been met and we continue to move forward.”
On the same day, the military spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, US Air Force Col. John Dorrian, went even further.
“They were able to get to those places faster than they anticipated that they would,” he said of local forces. “So, the Iraqis continue to be successful in the engagements against Daesh.”
Because Trump has made a concentrated effort to slam the conduct of the Mosul operation, its success could undermine his claim of superior judgment as commander in chief in the final days before the November 8 election.
Non-incumbent candidates for political office always have to walk a fine line while military operations are ongoing. Typically, this involves commending the troops on fighting on the ground while simultaneously blasting the politicians in charge.
But Trump has shown a readiness to deviate from this political playbook, as he has repeatedly done for others throughout the 2016 campaign.
In contrast, then-Sen. Barack Obama made sure to praise the military even as he was highly critical of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq during the run-up to his own campaign for the presidency.
Obama called George W. Bush’s decision to deploy thousands of more troops as part of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at reducing violence a “course that will not succeed” during an interview that year with PBS’s Charlie Rose.
Despite slamming the Bush administration, Obama still offered praise for the US troops on the ground, saying they had “performed brilliantly” and calling Gen. David Petraeus, the surge’s architect, an able and competent leader.
Trump’s recent statements on Mosul don’t include these qualifiers of praising the US military officers in charge or the US troops on the ground, though Trump has offered general praise for US troops in other situations.
“Donald Trump is testing lots of what we thought we knew about American politics, including that no one gets elected running against the troops,” said Kori Schake, a former senior Bush official, who has endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016.
Schake, who was one of the 50 Republican national security officials that penned an open-letter slamming Trump earlier this year, argued that the Republican nominee’s comments on Mosul were undercutting morale.
“The particular way he’s done it is bad for morale of American forces as well as the allies bearing the brunt of the fight,” she told CNN.
Clinton has been quick to knock Trump for his criticism of the Mosul campaign.
Following his tweet labelling the assault “a disaster,” Clinton told a rally in New Hampshire last week, “He’s basically declaring defeat before the battle has even started. He’s proving to the world what it means to have an unqualified commander-in-chief. It’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Chief among Trump’s criticisms has been the absence of secrecy from the fight, though most analysts believe that given its size and scope, total secrecy and surprise in an operation like Mosul would be impossible.
Pentagon officials have also noted that because the Iraqis were leading the operation, the timeline and discussion of the assault was determined by the government in Baghdad.
Military officials also pointed out that many aspects of the final attack were indeed kept under wraps.
The former dean of the Army War College, retired Army Col. Jeff McCausland, told The New York Times that the candidate’s assessment was off the mark.
“What this shows is Trump doesn’t know a damn thing about military strategy,” he said.
Trump fired back Wednesday when asked about McCausland’s remarks on ABC.
“You can tell your military expert that I’ll sit down and I’ll teach him a couple of things,” he said.