Everything Trump Got Wrong About ISIS in The Second Debate

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
U.S. Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (R) and Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump participate a town hall debate against Republican nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 9, 2016. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

In a heated second presidential debate Sunday night, a red-faced and visibly nervous Donald Trump faced questions about the 2005 tape that showed him boasting of sexually harassing women. Moderator Anderson Cooper asked him: "You described kissing women without their consent and grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?"

The construction magnate denied that he had ever sexually assaulted a woman and proceeded to make an incredible change of subject to, yes, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). What does the radical Islamist group have to do with his lewd comments, one might ask? According to Trump, his comments were just "locker room talk" in a "world where you have ISIS chopping off heads and frankly drowning people in steel cages," going into the gory details of ISIS's propaganda videos. He excused his actions by saying there are worse things happening in the world and, essentially, he suggested that his offensive comments—despite vying for arguably the most important job in the world—are not significant.

On the attack at every opportunity against Clinton, Trump proceeded to use the ISIS ISIS ISIS argument throughout the debate. He made it clear that he believes the Obama administration not only aided the creation of the group but has failed to defeat it as quickly as he could. But while doing this, he made a series of erroneous statements about the militant group and the battle to defeat them.

Syria, Russia and Iran are "killing ISIS"

Trump opposed what his running mate Mike Pence called "provocations by Russia" and his suggestion that the military should "be prepared to use military force to strike" the Assad regime. He said Washington should "knock out ISIS" and proceeded to say that the militaries of Moscow, Damascus and Tehran are "killing ISIS."

But Assad's regime views all rebel groups as extremist organizations, with ISIS just one of those, targeting these groups with airstrikes in coordination with the Russian air force and Iranian ground troops. Tehran's ground forces are helping the Syrian army to reclaim territory from the rebels and Russia, just a week after the beginning of its bombing campaign in Syria in September 2015, had launched more than 90 percent of its strikes against the moderate Syrian opposition, and not ISIS, according to the Pentagon.

The battle to oust ISIS from territory in Syria and Iraq is actually being undertaken by the U.S.-led coalition from the air, Kurdish forces on the ground in Iraq, and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds and Arabs in northern Syria. Washington is arming these ground forces and providing tactical and logistical support. The only ISIS-held city liberated from ISIS control by Assad's forces, backed by Russia, since Moscow's entry into the conflict is the ancient city of Palmyra in March.

Clinton and Obama created the "vacuum" for ISIS

Trump made the case again that Obama and Clinton played a key role in the founding of ISIS through their decision to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2011. This is not true, not on its own, anyway. ISIS already existed in an earlier form, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, from the beginning of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 under the stewardship of Abu Musab Zarqawi, later becoming the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006. Therefore, if anything, the foundations of the group lay with the Bush administration. ISI morphed with Syrian jihadis to create "ISIS" in 2013, capitalizing on the power vacuum caused by the Syrian conflict.

Assad largely left the group unchallenged to rise in the country's east, where it captured Raqqa, the city that would become its de-facto capital. It is true that the U.S. withdrawal stopped setbacks against ISI, but the rise of ISIS cannot be laid solely at the feet of Obama's decision. Other factors, such as the sectarian leadership of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, allowed the group to capture areas of predominantly disaffected Sunni populations.

The rise of ISIS is a complex picture, more so than the one Trump presents. Another fact that undermines Trump's claim is that he himself called for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2007, saying at that time Washington should "declare victory and leave."

Mosul: "They think a lot of the ISIS leaders are in Mosul"

Trump made this claim as if none of ISIS's leadership remain in Mosul. Reports have suggested that key ISIS members are attempting to leave the city, and the group is preparing a network of tunnels to make its escape when the U.S. and Iraqi forces launch their offensive on the northern city, expected to start later this month. ISIS's self-proclaimed caliph is believed to be living in the villages of Baaj, some 160 kilometers from Mosul, according to Iraqi sources.

But the U.S.-led coalition is attempting to target and eliminate the group's leadership on a daily basis in the city, or in the surrounding areas that ISIS still controls. Coalition strikes killed two ISIS leaders, Basim Muhammad Ahmad Sultan al-Bajari, ISIS's deputy minister of war, and Hatim Talib al-Hamduni, an ISIS military commander in Mosul, on June 25.

U.S. officials have said that in the last month alone, U.S. strikes have killed 13 ISIS leaders in Mosul who had overseen the city's capture in June 2014 and its defense for more than two years. So the U.S.-led coalition is in fact succeeding on this front.

Make Mosul a "sneak attack"

Trump chided the U.S.-led coalition for not making the impending offensive on Mosul a secretive and lightning attack. But such an operation would be virtually impossible and would result in the loss of more civilian lives than the current strategy of encircling the city and taking ISIS-held territory surrounding the city step-by-step.

Mosul is a city of more than one million people, one that ISIS has held for more than two years, and considers to be its biggest prize, where Baghdadi announced the creation of its self-proclaimed caliphate. It also controls large areas around Mosul, that Iraqi forces would have to bypass to reach Mosul.

The only possible surprise would be to airdrop thousands of Iraqi troops into the center of Mosul, an option that is completely unrealistic on both a practical and strategic level. This is not a compound in Abbottabad. ISIS knows Washington and Baghdad are coming. They have already recaptured Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah from ISIS.

Any conflict to retake Mosul will be protracted and require a vast number of ground troops, intensive coordination with Kurdish and Iraqi forces, not to mention the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. Humanitarian groups have warned of some 700,000 civilians fleeing the city. Trump's approach would maximize the loss of civilian life in the city, rather than ensure the minimum, as the current strategy plans to achieve.

"ISIS has a good chunk" of Libya's oil

Trump attempted to score points over Clinton in the debate by pointing to her failure over Libya as secretary of state, going further by repeating the claim that ISIS has captured large amounts of oil in the North African country.

"Look at what she did in Libya with Gadhafi. Gadhafi's out. It's a mess. And, by the way, ISIS has a good chunk of their oil. I'm sure you probably have heard that."

But many have not heard that because it's not true. The toppling of Gadhafi has made the country more unstable, with rival militias vying for influence in a civil war that had effectively split the country into western and eastern power centers. ISIS grew in the country as its leadership dispatched aides to set up a new affiliate in the country that was wracked by chaos. The group has attacked oil fields in Libya but has not been able to hold on to any substantial depots and refine the resources that are there. Its reasoning behind attacking oil facilities was simply to disrupt the Libyan government's revenues.

It therefore controls no oil in Libya. Experts have said that some oil fields may have come under its control near the central coastal city of Sirte, the only city it controlled in the country. But pro-government militias have pushed the group from the areas surrounding Sirte and its control of the city is now contested, almost eradicated completely. Others have said that they may have only extorted money from militias in control of oil terminals, making their involvement in Libya's oil indirect. Therefore, unlike its oil operation in eastern Syria, where control of oil fields brought in millions of dollars of revenue, Libya has not been as lucrative for ISIS.

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