There has been relatively little speculation this election year about what could possibly be the "October surprise." In a normal presidential election year, this is a fun subject to speculate about when the actual news from the campaign trail gets dull and repetitive. This year, of course, that hasn't exactly happened -- the political news has been anything but dull and repetitive, in fact. Because of this, most political reporters haven't even bothered to wonder if an October surprise will happen, much less what it might consist of. The few articles I've seen have suggested two possibilities: Wikileaks releasing more of Hillary Clinton's emails, and Vladimir Putin launching some military adventurism somewhere in the world. Both, it's interesting to note, would aid Donald Trump's candidacy. Perhaps one or the other of these will happen, but I think there's a different October surprise out there, and one which (depending on the outcome) might help Clinton, not Trump.
I would direct everyone's attention to the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq. The war against the Islamic State in Iraq has been proceeding in fits and starts, but the news over the past year has almost universally been good for the Iraqi armed forces, and very bad for the Islamic State. The government forces have retaken huge swaths of the country, including the key cities of Fallujah, Hit, and Ramadi -- pushing the Islamic State back from being almost at the gates of Baghdad to positions far out in the desert, in the western part of the country. In the meantime, Kurdish forces have retaken an important supply route into Syria in the north. During this time, the Islamic State has not gained any ground at all -- the movement has been one-sided, as they have lost ground everywhere in Iraq.
But, as everyone knows, the big prize still remains in the Islamic State's hands. Mosul is a huge city which may still have up to a million civilians living in it. The city has slowly been surrounded on the north, east, and south by both the Kurds and the Iraqi forces. A key airfield was taken earlier this year which will be a base of operations for the final push to retake the city. Troops have been gathering, and the Iraqi government has even recently dropped leaflets over the city warning that the final push is about to begin. Just today, it was announced more Americans will be on the ground to aid the effort. From the article:
The battle for Mosul is not expected to be easy. Militants have been moving swiftly against would-be opponents in the city as they strengthen their defenses ahead of the expected attack.
In a statement on his website, [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] al-Abadi said his government had requested a "final increase" to the U.S. troop presence, but said U.S. service members would begin to go home immediately after the recapture of Mosul.
U.S. officials have not said exactly when the offensive will begin, but have suggested that it could get underway next month.
Next month is October. However, you can't just assume that this timetable will hold. The Iraqis have been saying they're about to start the final push for Mosul for many months now, and it hasn't yet happened. The White House has been saying all along that it'd like to see Mosul retaken "by the end of the year," which has allowed the Iraqis some flexibility. But now the end of the year is fast approaching, so the prediction that the final battle will begin in October is more believable than previous such proclamations.
The big sticking point has always been what happens after the city is retaken. Who will govern Mosul? Will the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government agree to boundary lines and shared responsibilities, or will they finish off the Islamic State there and then begin attacking each other? The solution to Mosul has always been political, but so far that's been rather elusive.
But assuming some sort of plan for the aftermath is agreed upon, the fighting could start very soon. It will probably consist of bombing Islamic State positions in the city, which might provide a lot of video for American news channels to show. Retaking Mosul will be a very big deal, since it has always been the biggest city -- in either Syria or Iraq -- under Islamic State control. Denying them this city means a real body blow for their dreams of a caliphate, to put it another way. Plus, if Mosul falls, there will only be scattered outposts of the Islamic State left in Iraq. Given six months or another year of mop-up operations, the Islamic State could be pushed out of Iraq entirely. So taking Mosul is pivotal to defeating the Islamic State altogether.
Most Americans don't know any of this, but they might learn all about it in October. The big question, of course, is what the fight for Mosul might mean to the presidential campaign. This will likely depend on how the fight goes. It's not going to be easy -- there are thousands of Islamic State soldiers in the city, they are extremely well dug-in (they've known they're going to be attacked for the past year), and the environment is urban, meaning street-by-street fighting (the worst possible military environment). Retaking Mosul is not going to be a walk in the park, and it might take a long time, in other words.
If the fight begins in October, but is not decisively over by Election Day, it's really anyone's guess how it will affect the race. If the Iraqis win back Mosul and expel the Islamic State by the time people in America vote, it would obviously be a big feather in President Obama's cap, and would likely help Hillary Clinton by giving her a "see, the plan is working" talking point to use. If, however, the fight is a disastrous failure for the Iraqis, it would obviously benefit Donald Trump, who could use his stock "Obama and Hillary don't know what they're doing" phrase to good political effect.
But the most likely outcome by the first week in November is that the fight is still underway. Perhaps the Iraqis and Kurds will have taken all the surrounding towns, and drawn the noose tight on the city -- but will still be bogged down at the city limits (where all the heaviest Islamic State fortifications have been constructed). What would that mean, politically? It's hard to predict, really. It will all depend on the public's perception of how the fight is going.
Republicans will quite likely accuse Barack Obama of scheduling the whole thing to affect the election. Obama will calmly point to statements made all year long that the Mosul fight was slated for "before the end of the year," and that the year is running out of months. But it'll leave Republicans in an odd place, because they'll essentially be arguing that the war against the Islamic State should now be slowed down for their own political benefit (of course, to be fair, they'd be arguing that Obama either sped the war up or delayed the fight until October for his own political benefit).
No matter who convinces the public that they're right, the dialog would change in a big way out on the campaign trail. An external event that neither candidate had anything to do with would shift the whole foreign policy debate. Depending on how it turns out, it could help one candidate or the other. Which, it seems to me, is the very definition of an October surprise.
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