War & Conflict

Donald Trump and the mythology of ISIL's rise

Trump offered no new ISIL strategy, but recycled old myths that continue to persist.

A Trump-supporter pins an anti-ISIL badge on his hat during a campaign rally in South Carolina [Getty]

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was mentioned 27 times during the second US presidential debate.

Donald Trump invoked it immediately after he was asked about sexual comments he made in 2005, deflecting attention away from his "locker room" talk. When later asked about his taxes, he also avoided the question by referring to ISIL (also known as ISIS).

US election 2016: Clinton, Trump clash in first debate

Referring to ISIL was a diversionary tactic, yet Trump failed to articulate a concrete strategy for defeating it. His ideas on ISIL tapped into pre-existing myths developed from the partisan discourse in Washington after the 2014 fall of Mosul, while his other critiques demonstrate Trump’s complete ignorance of military strategy.

Myth 1: ISIL emerged out of a vacuum

During the debate, Trump said: "ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment."

Trump's critique had already been lodged on his website, part of a narrative that developed in Washington after the rise of ISIL in 2014.

OPINION: US elections - what the polls won't tell us

The crux of this argument is that if Obama fought harder to keep a residual American military force in Iraq, it could have prevented ISIL from capturing Mosul in 2014. Thus, the withdrawal of US forces in 2011 created a "vacuum" in which ISIL could re-emerge.

The major problem with this narrative is that it forgets that there is a sovereign nation, Iraq, that made a decision on a complete withdrawal, regardless of how much pressure Obama could have exerted on Baghdad.

The major problem with this narrative is that it forgets that there is a sovereign nation, Iraq, that made a decision on a complete withdrawal, regardless of how much pressure Obama could have exerted on Baghdad.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in 2008, agreed to the Status of Forces Agreement with the Bush administration, ensuring the withdrawal of US forces by 2011.

Pressure on Maliki came from domestic Iraqi political factions, particularly Shia groups linked with Iran, that sought a complete US withdrawal. The blame game against the Obama administration argues that he could have fought harder to allow such a force to remain after 2011.

However, there was one issue on the Iraqi side that would have precluded Obama stationing this residual force. The Iraqi parliament would not grant immunity to American soldiers.

The Iraqi refusal is embedded in Middle Eastern history, where foreign military forces with immunity smacks of imperialism. For example, one of Ayatollah Khomeini's most famous sermons in 1964 criticized the Shah of Iran for granting immunity to US military personnel in Iran.

There was no way the Iraqi state would have given in to this agreement, and there was no way any US administration, whether it was Republican or Democrat, would station troops in Iraq without such protection.

Iraq's former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki [REUTERS] 

Myth 2: Syria and Russia are 'killing' ISIL

Trump said, "I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS and they have lined up because of weak foreign policy."

This sentence should have been in the past tense. Syria, Russia, and Iran did "kill" ISIL in Palmyra in the spring of 2016. However, this alliance has generally refrained from targeting ISIL in Syria, but rather other rebel forces in Aleppo, a battle that continues at this moment.

When Trump said "Iran is killing ISIS", Tehran, in an alliance with the Iraqi Shia militias, is targeting ISIL forces in Iraq, not Syria.

OPINION: Hurricane Hillary, Tornado Trump

For most of the Syrian civil war, ISIL has weakened rival rebels. "Killing ISIS," in Trump's words, has never been a priority for Damascus as long as ISIL aided the state's efforts to weaken the other Syrian rebels, particularly in Aleppo.

Myth 3: Mosul can be attacked 'quietly'

Trump said, "So we have announcements out of Washington and coming out Iraq. We will be attacking Mosul in three weeks or four weeks. So all of these bad leaders from ISIS are leaving Mosul. Why can't they do it quietly? Why can't they do the attack and make it a sneak attack and after the attack is made inform the American public that we have knocked out the leaders."

Mosul is a sprawling urban centre, and the expulsion of ISIL will require months of street-to-street urban combat.

Before the actual battle, Iraqi military forces will besiege the city. These preparations have already taken months, requiring the mobilisation of Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and Kurdish fighters. There is no way these preparations could be done quietly.

Trumpisms regarding Iraq did not emerge in a vacuum, but are symptomatic of a continued, deliberate misunderstanding of Iraq's culture and politics in Washington policy circles.

In regards to Trump's other critique, the United States has in fact used the "sneak attack" to "knock out" ISIL's leaders.

In May 2015, American special forces killed Abu Sayyaf, who managed ISIL's oil and financial operations. 

In August 2016, a coalition air strike killed Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, ISIL's spokesman. Both Abu Sayyaf and Adnani were killed in Syria.

Trump's fear of the leaders leaving Mosul does not mean that ISIL's leadership cannot be eliminated elsewhere.

Trumpisms and ISIL

Trump's success could be attributed to his "trumpisms", pithy slogans and scapegoating that take on a self-perpetuating nature among his followers, such as Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks.

However, Trumpisms regarding Iraq did not emerge in a vacuum, but are symptomatic of a continued, deliberate misunderstanding of Iraq's culture and politics in Washington policy circles.

Even an issue that one would think could overcome the partisan divide, combating ISIL, contributes to the divisive rhetoric that has characterised this American election cycle.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an associate professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of the forthcoming The Modern History of Iraq, 4th edition.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera