WASHINGTON - US assurances that Islamic State rebels were on the defensive even as they drove Iraqi forces from the key city of Ramadi are typical of the often unwarranted optimism that has characterized US public comments on the conflict, analysts said on Tuesday.
In the period before Iraqi troops retreated over the weekend, senior US military officials played down the strategic importance of the city, the capital of the vast western Anbar province, and said advances being trumpeted by Islamic State social media were just short-term gains.
"We firmly believe Daesh (Islamic State) is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria, attempting to hold previous gains while conducting small-scale, localized harassing attacks, occasional complex or high-profile attacks, in order to feed their ... propaganda apparatus," Marine Corps General Thomas Weidley told reporters on Friday, two days before Ramadi's fall.
Retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, now at American University, said part of the US portrayal of the conflict was due to the "fog of war, not knowing what's actually going on on the battlefield, not being able to see what's occurring."
But he and other analysts noted US military officials may have been pushing too hard to portray events in a positive light instead of preparing the public for a long, hard struggle.
"I think there has probably been an unwarranted amount of optimism about progress against ISIS over the last six months or so," Barno said, using one of the group's acronyms.
He said Ramadi was the group's biggest success since it captured Mosul last year and declared itself an Islamic caliphate.
"So it's a very big deal and I think it was really unanticipated by the White House and ... probably by the Iraqi government as well," Barno said.
Anthony Cordesman, a defence analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said US public comments about the battle against Islamic State had done little to clarify the deep internal divisions among Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds that underlie the conflict.
"We haven't learned much since the days of the Vietnam follies," he said, referring to the much-criticised military press briefings during that war.
"There is always this tendency on the part of the PR (public relations) people to spin things, always present the most favourable case, rather than prepare people for the fact that some things are very difficult and uncertain," he added.
Barno and Cordesman both said the fall of Ramadi pointed to weaknesses in the overall US strategy. Barno said the level of US air strikes were "pinpricks" compared to what was required.
In the aftermath Iraqi retreat from the Ramadi, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday the administration was looking at ways to "tweak the strategy" in Iraq, but he also downplayed the loss as part of the ebb and flow of conflict.
"We have to sort of decide what our approach to these issues is going to be," he said. "Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?"