Why Dempsey kept his Afghanistan visit secret

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, does not like to take reporters on his overseas travels, but even the Pentagon press corps was surprised when he appeared in Afghanistan unannounced this week. It had become standard practice in recent years that when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visits ...

DOD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sun L. Vega
DOD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sun L. Vega
DOD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sun L. Vega

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, does not like to take reporters on his overseas travels, but even the Pentagon press corps was surprised when he appeared in Afghanistan unannounced this week.

It had become standard practice in recent years that when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visits the war zone, he takes a rotation of reporters along with him. After all, he is the senior-most ranking U.S. military officer and senior military advisor to the president.

So in Thursday's Pentagon press briefing, Dempsey was asked to explain why he kept this visit secret.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, does not like to take reporters on his overseas travels, but even the Pentagon press corps was surprised when he appeared in Afghanistan unannounced this week.

It had become standard practice in recent years that when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visits the war zone, he takes a rotation of reporters along with him. After all, he is the senior-most ranking U.S. military officer and senior military advisor to the president.

So in Thursday’s Pentagon press briefing, Dempsey was asked to explain why he kept this visit secret.

"I kept it under wraps because I was afraid you all would ask to come with me," he said, jokingly. He also did not take Col. David Lapan, his spokesman.

"No, I kept — the truth is I originally planned to go to Pakistan to meet with [Pakistan’s military chief] Gen. [Parvez] Kayani, and because of some of the issues related to that film, he and I discussed postponing that visit," he said. The two generals did postpone. "And then, with the available time I decided to extend my trip in Afghanistan."

But by Dempsey’s own account, there appear to be few secrets that needed keeping on what amounted to a standard battlefield tour in Afghanistan and high-level meetings with President Hamid Karzai’s new defense minster, interior minister, and two corps commanders.

Reading from a statement, he said, "I actually returned from Afghanistan just yesterday. While there, I visited our troops in Kandahar and in Helmand province. I walked the ground at Camp Bastion."

"I also met with coalition and Afghan leaders, and I tell you this, the Afghan forces are not only gaining capability, but they also are importantly gaining confidence."

"I’ll also tell you that our Afghan partners are working with us to shut down the threat of insider attacks. As one Afghan army commander told me, insider attacks are an affront to their honor, at odds with their culture and their faith."

He later added, "I can tell you, without hesitation, they are taking this as seriously as we are."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the briefing that partnered joint operations had returned to normal, after a pause initiated by war commander Gen. John Allen. But Panetta and Dempsey were unable to give an exact count or percentage of operations that entails. Before the pause, U.S. Officials frequently said that 90 percent of operations in Afghanistan were partnered with Afghan security forces.

Dempsey has proven to be a quieter chairman than many of his predecessors in recent tims. He spoke to the issue in January, telling National Journal he would not be rushing to get on the Daily Show, rather picking and choosing when he wanted to leverage the bully pulpit.

Indeed, it was not the first time Dempsey has left journalists behind, and it likely won’t be the last. Reporters also were noticeably kept away during his swing through Southeast Asia this summer. He also did not take reporters on his previous overseas trip to a very public meeting of NATO military chiefs, held in Romania, at which NATO received an update on the Afghanistan war from International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. John Allen.That stop was followed by Dempsey’s visit to Turkey, where the chairman talked with his counterparts on NATO’s border about the Syrian civil war.

On that trip, Dempsey did give one interview, to the American Forces Press Service, an arm of the Pentagon’s massive public relations apparatus. He even made news, calling the insider attacks a "very serious threat."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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