Pentagon Reporters Slam Defense Secretary's Silence on Afghanistan: 'Zero O'Clock Follies'

DoD_23Sept19
The Pentagon press briefing on April 25, 2019 before undergoing renovations. James LaPorta/Newsweek

In the rooftop garden of the Rex Hotel in Saigon, Barry Zorthian, an American diplomat and chief spokesman, would deliver the day's news filtered through the lens of the U.S. government. The room would be full of young, often skeptical journalists covering the Vietnam War. The reporters had a name for these daily military briefings: the Five O'Clock Follies.

Michael Hirsh, a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine, mentioned the briefings in an anecdote while covering the Kosovo Air Campaign in 1999: "There was the war the generals said they were fighting, complete with impressive body counts. Then there was the real war, which was an utter quagmire. It took several years before the American public understood the difference."

Desert Storm was no different—only the war and time had changed: the Four O'Clock Follies. "Gulf reporters get the daily statistics: the number of sorties, how many allied planes have been lost, how many enemies shot down, if any, how many scud missiles were launched and how the patriots did against them, and (to a limited extent) the amount of damage inflicted," wrote The Baltimore Sun in 1991.

The press briefings in Vietnam and during the Gulf War could turn contentious over non-denial denials or a public affairs officer's strategic pivot.

Some of the more seasoned reporters would ridicule the daily rundowns as government-issued propaganda while others saw the information as a critical baseline of information. Still, the briefings served both reporters and the public by establishing the official, on-the-record, narrative of what the Pentagon was doing on a day-to-day basis in the name of the people.

But in America's longest war—Afghanistan—the military's daily briefings have a name too: the Zero O'Clock Follies.

Suicide bombers and indiscriminate violence are rampant this month in Afghanistan as the country heads into presidential elections this week. Peace talks have collapsed and the press corps is told the U.S. war machine is firing on more cylinders than at any time in the last ten years—allegedly. Withdrawing without a deal seems likely, as does an expansion of the CIA's role in Afghanistan. And according to Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state and not of defense, said the U.S. military killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters in little more than a week after Trump ended yearlong negotiations.

But despite all that has occurred this month, it's been over a year since the Pentagon held a press briefing on Afghanistan. The last time was in August 2018 via telephone. No cameras.

Army General John W. Nicholson Jr., the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and of NATO's Resolute Support mission, bailed out of the briefing when pressed by Pentagon reporters on whether the Defense Department had overestimated the progress made in Afghanistan by claiming the country had "turned a corner." The phrase has been repeated ad nauseum.

Gen. Austin S. Miller, the current commander in Afghanistan, has not briefed the Pentagon press corps since taking command.

In an article published last week by Task & Purpose, an online news website covering military and veteran issues, Jeff Schogol, the publication's Pentagon correspondent, criticized the Defense Department for its silence, calling on the Pentagon to "man up."

Dan Lamothe of The Washington Post and other reporters covering the Pentagon agreed with the article on Twitter.

"The Pentagon is overdue to put its top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Miller [the commander of Resolute Support], in front of the American people to take open questions about a war that just turned 18," said Lamothe. "I would add: Neither Republicans in @SASCMajority nor @HASCDemocrats have held an open hearing."

October 7 will mark the 18th-anniversary next month of the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan—a war that has cost billions of dollars and left tens of thousands of families permanently shattered—and now that a political settlement with the Taliban seems further away than before, questions linger about what the next steps are for both Kabul and Washington. The Pentagon seems reluctant to provide answers.

In his Sunday column last week, Schogol ended with a question:

"While top military leaders may believe they are better off staying silent about Afghanistan, their silence certainly doesn't inspire confidence that the war is going well. How can we win if they are more afraid of the media than the Taliban?"

Unlike his predecessor, James Mattis, the former Marine general now making the rounds on Sunday talk shows, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper says he wants to hold more on-camera press briefings with the Pentagon press corps.

But a day after the Task & Purpose article published, the press corps received the only news that seems to come out of the Pentagon about the Afghan war: another U.S. service member was dead—the 17th this year.

James LaPorta, a staff writer for Newsweek, served eight years in the Marines and first deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, at the beginning of President Barack Obama's troop surge, then again in 2013, a little more than a year before combat operations officially ended. You can follow him on Twitter @JimLaPorta

Pentagon Reporters Slam Defense Secretary's Silence on Afghanistan: 'Zero O'Clock Follies' | Analysis