Trump's "New Approach" to the Mideast is Already Going On

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Listening to the U.S. presidential campaign, you would hardly know there is a real war going on in the Middle East, involving thousands of American men and women in the armed forces and intelligence services.

They are working in Iraq and Syria with local Arab and Kurd units and other allies fighting against Islamic State [ISIS] jihadists and in the midst of retaking territory that terrorist group has controlled.

In his speech yesterday, Donald Trump described ISIS as “on the loose” and controlling “large portions of territory.” He talked about a “new approach” of working with friends in the Middle East and pursuing “joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS” without any acknowledgment that is already the program going on – and with new successes.

Trump – as a presumptive commander-in-chief—or at least someone on his staff should have read last Wednesday’s press conference that Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the soon-departing commander of the joint allied task force combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had from Baghdad with Pentagon reporters.

MacFarland described gains being made and U.S. forces now helping Iraqi security forces build up a logistics and fire support base to prepare for the long-awaited assault on Mosul, the Iraqi city of near one million that ISIS took over more than two years ago.

At the same time, McFarland said the stage is being set to attack Raqqa in Syria, which ISIS has used as it operational headquarters since 2013.

These preparatory operations follow the taking back of half the territory ISIS previously controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of what they once held in Syria. These gains required some 50,000 allied air sorties the past year against ISIS that saw 30,000 munitions dropped. Along with fighting on the ground, MacFarland said these actions have resulted in some 25,000 enemy fighters killed.

It’s had its costs. Three Americans have died along with hundreds of Iraqis and Syrian allies who have “borne the brunt of this fight against our common enemy, and they, too, deserve to be honored and remembered,” MacFarland said.

“We’re going to try to get Mosul back as fast as we can. It’s one million people living under an oppression rule, under terrible conditions, and we’re going to push to get it back as fast as possible,” MacFarland said.

He pointed out that thousands of trained Iraqi troops are needed so that “you have enough forces to go in,” but “if you don’t have enough of the so-called hold forces ready, then the – the clearing forces will stay a little bit longer until there are enough follow-on hold forces.”

Noting that the Baghdad government “is in charge of this war” and “we’re here to support them,” MacFarland said the makeup of the Iraqi units going into predominantly non-Shia Mosul “is really their decision.”

He added, however, “I would say that if you’re going to bring Shia militia into a predominantly Sunni-Kurdish-Turkamen-Christian-Yazidi type of an area, that some political groundwork would need to be done to ensure that their presence is acceptable to the citizens that they’re there to assist and liberate.”

The situation outlined by MacFarland pretty well represents, in many ways, the approach toward ISIS that Hillary Clinton described in her June 2 foreign policy speech. “We need to take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground. We need to keep pursuing diplomacy to end Syria’s civil war and close Iraq’s sectarian divide, because those conflicts are keeping ISIS alive,” Clinton said.

Trump, carefully reading his speech yesterday from a teleprompter, said his “administration will not telegraph exact military plans to the enemy,” but he left off what he regularly says during his ad-libbed appearances, that it would all be done “quickly.”

MacFarland, when asked Friday how long it will take to defeat ISIS, responded, “The enemy gets a vote, it’s action, reaction and counteraction once the battle is joined. And I would say that anybody who thinks they know how fast or slow this could go, should come and work for me, because I’d love to know, too”

Just how much does Trump know about the area?

His remarks yesterday that the U.S. should have “kept the oil” in Iraq after the 2003 invasion of that country, citing “to the victor belongs the spoils,” again showed his ignorance of the area. The Iraq government ran the Iraq National Oil Company, having taken over oil concessions granted private foreign oil companies more than 50 years ago.  Trump’s claim, “If they had listened to me then, we would have had the economic benefits of the oil” is just outright wrong.

Last Thursday, Trump gave another example of how little he understands Iraq. Talking to the National Association of Home Builders in Miami Beach, Florida, he said the U.S. had spent $4 trillion in Iraq and “we have less power now in Iraq than the woman sitting in the front row who has never been to Iraq…We have no power in Iraq.”

At that very time, White House assistant Brett McGurk was sitting in on a series of meetings in Baghdad and Erbil between Iraqi leaders and those of the Kurdistan Region discussing plans for the liberation and stabilization of Mosul.

At the same time U.S.-backed Syrian forces captured Manbij, a former ISIS stronghold in the northern part of that country, while American-aided Libyan government troops made gains against pro-ISIS fighters who had established themselves in the key city of Sirte.

Maybe it’s time for Trump – and Hillary Clinton – to face reality and spend a few days away from campaigning in the United States and visit Iraq. They could talk to Iraqi leaders along with the American officers and troops they someday may command. It could help their understanding of the situation.

Two weeks ago, the White House offered both Clinton and Trump classified intelligence briefings.  I questioned at that time whether Trump might have trouble accepting them because he would have to listen to intelligence professionals tell him facts that conflict with what he has been saying on the campaign trail.

Those briefings were supposed to be announced at least ten days ago. What’s holding them up? Does one of the candidates not want to to be faced with the facts?

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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