On Tuesday, President Trump told a group of senators gathered for a White House reception that “we’re doing very well in Iraq” where “our soldiers are fighting like never before.” He said this assessment was based on a long telephone call with Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Trump’s comments were interpreted by some critics as a slam against the American troops who fought in the Iraq War – if they are “fighting like never before” now, the argument goes, Trump must think the soldiers deployed to Iraq in the Bush administration were not fighting so hard.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed this criticism on Wednesday, saying President Trump was referring to “progress, particularly in Mosul, the way that they have taken back that city.”
“I think that for a long time, there was a lot of concern about Iran moving in and dominating parts of Iraq,” Spicer continued. “I think with the advice and consent of U.S. military advisers, there’s been tremendous progress at moving Iraq forward to an area of stability, and continuing to see the troops there in Iraq standing on their own.”
Spicer said the president pleased with the action that General Mattis and our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are taking to do that.”
“He was very proud of the work that our soldiers are doing over there in Iraq. There is a lot of work, and a lot of progress that is being made,” said Spicer. “The fight against ISIS is going extremely well, and he’s proud of it.”
Critics of Trump’s fight against ISIS dwell on mounting civilian casualties and confusion in Iraq’s military ranks, but Doyle McManus at the L.A. Times wrote on Wednesday that Trump “may actually win the war against the Islamic State”:
Under Obama, who waged a “light footprint” strategy with minimal U.S. troops, Islamic State lost most of the territory it once held in Iraq and almost a third of what it held in Syria.
But taking the extremist group’s most important strongholds, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria, was taking longer.
Enter Trump. The new president, after claiming he had a secret plan to win the war, told his generals to give him one in 30 days. They responded with an outline — a “skeleton plan,” in the words of Defense Secretary James N. Mattis – that could be described as Obama Plus: more bombing, more troops, fewer restrictions on commanders.
“The Obama strategy wasn’t failing, but it was slow,” James F. Jeffrey, a former ambassador (and former Army officer) who’s advising the administration, told me. “This is more — not only more troops, but more willingness to use them. It’s a change of maybe 20%, but it’s an important 20%.”
McManus notes the task at hand is more complex than Trump’s campaign rhetoric about “bombing the s**t out of them,” blowing up “every single inch” of the Islamic State and then bringing in oil companies to rebuild from the ruins. He gives Defense Secretary Mattis credit for influencing White House policy, which now appears to envision aggressive military victory over ISIS, followed by an extended troop commitment to achieve “stabilization.”