WASHINGTON (CNN) — The military offensive against ISIS underway in Mosul, Iraq, has been a long time in the making.
In fact, US and Iraqi officials have repeatedly discussed the planning underway to retake the second-largest city in Iraq and the strongest ISIS base in the country — a strategy that has been roundly and repeatedly criticized as loose talk by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Why do they have to say we’re going to be attacking Mosul within the next four to six weeks, which is what they’re saying? How stupid is our country?” Trump said during the second presidential debate on October 9, referring to the impending battle that got underway Monday.
Indeed, how much to disclose about military operations has long been a contentious issue among military planners. Some see it as part of a commitment to democratic transparency, while others see tactical drawbacks, including the loss of the element of surprise.
Critics of President Barack Obama, for instance, panned him for announcing withdrawal timelines for troops in Afghanistan, saying that doing so encouraged the Taliban to wait out the US troop presence.
In the case of ISIS and the effort to reclaim Mosul, however, military officials are making the case for the release of information — even as they abstain from addressing Trump’s comments directly. Asked generally about the publicity surrounding the Mosul offensive before it had begun, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said last week that much of it was originating from Baghdad.
“These are statements that the government of Iraq itself has made, and they have been very forthcoming about what the plan is, and they have done it largely in the name warning civilians in Mosul to be ready for it and try to get out if they can,” Davis told reporters.
Others see the efforts as helping to encourage resistance within Mosul as the Iraqis geared up to take back the city.
But a spokesman for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Col. John Dorrian, told the Associated Press that such pronouncements encourage ISIS fighters to lay down their arms.
Davis added that the encircled ISIS fighters remaining in Mosul ahead of the attack were experiencing “a very large-scale loss of morale.”
At the debate, Trump also charged that the public revelation of information was allowing the ISIS leadership to flee, saying, “All of these bad leaders from ISIS are leaving Mosul.”
But Davis, who declined to get into intelligence specifics, said that movement of ISIS leadership can actually make them more vulnerable to targeted strikes.
“We do see ISIL leadership moving a lot, they do move, but they do so again at their own peril. I think that they know as well as anybody that anytime they are moving, that’s when they are at the greatest risk,” Davis said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terror organization.
But US officials also acknowledged that there are benefits to certain levels of operational secrecy, including for Special Operations Forces operations like raids against ISIS leaders.
One such clandestine operation included the capture and interrogation of an ISIS chemical weapons expert. That mission was carried out by the so-called Expeditionary Targeting Forces, a group of some 200 Special Operations troops assembled in northern Iraq to gather intelligence and pursue ISIS operatives on the ground by either capturing or killing them.
The operation was only disclosed after the US carried out a series of follow-on strikes against ISIS chemical weapons facilities.
A US defense official also pointed out that many of the military operations by its Iraqi allies are also carried out in secret, noting that Iraqi troops moved on Qayyarah West and seized it from ISIS without any notice at the urging of US advisers.
The official added that the military would continue such operations in secret when it is tactically advantageous.
And some experts think that in the case of Mosul, at least, more secrecy would not have much impact.
A defense official noted that it would be hard to mask the thousands of Iraqi troops encircling Mosul before they began their operation on Monday.
Still, he said last week that many of the aspects of the final assault, including the exact timing and direction, would remain secret — and they did.
“The war has been unfolding at such a snail’s pace, there wouldn’t have been any serious value in not talking about it,” Tomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington told CNN.
He said that ISIS fighters have been digging in and preparing for an eventual attack in Mosul for over a year and that the increased publicity had not changed their behavior.
Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst, added that locally publicizing military offensives to clear civilians and demoralize the enemy was “pretty typical” when going into a heavily populated areas, noting that the US military did something similar when clearing Fallujah back in 2004.
But Donnelly said that the publicity in Western media was largely geared toward building support for the intervention among the American public.
The former spokesman for the US-led coalition told reporters in May that informing the public is an important part of the fight.
“We know that they are out there very actively messaging. They use this same medium to both recruit and to terrorize,” US Army Col. Steve Warren said of ISIS.
“It is a duty to fight that. This war is being fought on a lot of levels, as is every war in history. It’s being fought with bombs, American and coalition bombs. It’s being fought with Iraqi and Syrian bullets. But it’s also being fought with words,” he said.
“We have a real duty to America who entrusts us with blood and treasure,” Warren said.
“I think I have a duty to hold this institution at least somewhat accountable; to explain how we are spending that money and to explain how we are bringing that blood, those sons and daughters into this fight, and how we’re doing it.”