Trump’s idea for a “sneak attack” on ISIS in Mosul isn’t actually possible

Donald Trump, a man who doesn’t know when to stop talking, wishes the US military would stop talking about its plans to help retake the ISIS-held city of Mosul.

During Sunday’s debate, Trump said Gens. George Patton and Douglas MacArthur would be “spinning in their grave” over the Pentagon’s public discussions of the coming push to reconquer Mosul. Trump has refused to answer any questions about his own strategy for fighting ISIS because he says he wants to maintain the element of surprise. On Sunday, he said the US had tipped its hand too early, giving ISIS time to get key leaders out of the city and bolster its defenses.

“Why can’t they do it quietly? Why can’t they do the attack, make it a sneak attack, and after the attack is made, inform the American public that we’ve knocked out the leaders, we’ve had a tremendous success?” Trump asked. “Why do they have to say we’re going to be attacking Mosul within the next four to six weeks?”

On its face, it seems like a reasonable question. The wars we see in movies and on TV tend to involve well-trained troops swooping in at night to overrun enemies who had no idea they were coming. They don’t tend to involve PowerPoint presentations with maps of the areas that will be hit and a rough chronology of how the attack will unfold.

Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes clear that Trump is wrong on two counts. First, there are legitimate military and political reasons why operations as big as the coming Mosul fight can’t be prepared in complete silence. And second, ISIS isn’t stupid, and the US hasn’t said anything publicly that the group didn’t already know.

“An ISIS that didn’t know there’d be an attempt to retake Mosul would be an ISIS that was too stupid to have taken Mosul in the first place,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University. “If ISIS wasn’t already preparing, they’d be guilty of military negligence, and we would be delighted that they’re so incompetent.”

Or as Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put it, “There’s no sneaking up on the other side’s capital. We didn’t sneak up on Berlin in World War II, and we’re not going to do a surprise attack on Mosul either.”