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By Gareth Porter. This article was first published on IPS News.
WASHINGTON, Sep 13 2012 (IPS) – Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the former commander of NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan, denied to a U.S. Congressional panel Wednesday that he had cited the impact on Congressional elections in opposing the timing of a request for an investigation of high-level Afghan military corruption and its impact on neglect of patients at the Afghan National Military Hospital (NMH) two years ago.
But Caldwell and his former deputy, Brig. Gen. Gary Patton, both made statements suggesting that Caldwell had indeed wanted to stop the investigation by the Department of Defence Inspector General (DOD IG) because it might give ammunition to opponents of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
The hearing, attended by only five members of the House Government Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, reflected the lack of political interest in Washington in a scandal that might have been expected to generate a major national debate.
Although both Caldwell and Patton were questioned on the allegations that Caldwell had cited U.S. elections in opposing the proposed investigation, there was no effort by committee members to determine what actually happened. Nor did they show any interest in the larger issues posed by the episode.
The scandal involves “Criminal Patronage Networks” – the term used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan itself – extending all the way to Mohammed Qasim Fahim, the former commander of the Northern Alliance, who is the country’s vice-president but more importantly, leads the tight-knit group of Tajik generals who control the Afghan National Army.
In the late summer and autumn of 2010, Caldwell’s aides gathered evidence that the criminal military network had systematically looted tens of millions of dollars of U.S. medical supplies and other assistance, leaving virtually nothing for patient care at the NMH.
The patients were left to lie in filth and die of untreated wounds and malnutrition, as U.S. military personnel assigned as mentors at the hospital documented during that period.
It was in that context that the IG for Caldwell’s command, Col. Mark Fassl, initiated the request for a DOD IG investigation. In testimony before the subcommittee Jul. 24, Fassl recalled that Caldwell had been angry about a request for a DOD IG investigation of the national military hospital so close to U.S. Congressional elections.
Fassl testified that he had been reprimanded by Caldwell in two separate meetings Oct. 29. 2010 for having made the IG request. Fassl recalled that, in the smaller staff meeting, Caldwell had said, “How could we do this or make this request with an election coming?”
Caldwell went on to remark that President Barack Obama “calls me Bill”, according to Fassl’s testimony, which was supported by Caldwell’s judge advocate, Col. Gerald Carozza.
Caldwell denied in his testimony that he had invoked the election as a reason for delaying an IG investigation. He admitted that he was “very upset”, but said it was only because he felt it would harm his strategy for the removal of the corrupt Afghan surgeon general in charge of the hospital, Gen. Ahmad Zia Yaftali.
“We had not yet set conditions with our partners,” said Caldwell. “The only reason we were bringing this outside team in was to remove Yaftali. I would need the president (Hamid Karzai) to do it.”
Caldwell did acknowledge, however, that he had told his staff on another occasion that, after he had briefed President Obama on the Afghan National Army, the president had “referred to me by my nickname”.
And Patton’s testimony appeared to confirm Fassl’s claim that the 2010 Congressional elections had been mentioned by both generals in discussing the request for the IG investigation. Describing an Oct. 29 staff meeting at which Caldwell was not present, “My recollection was that the subject of elections was discussed very briefly and dismissed and had nothing to do with my request.”
Patton did not say who brought up the subject of elections at the meeting or why, suggesting that it was Patton himself who had done so.
No subcommittee member questioned Patton on the point.
Caldwell also strongly implied that he had indeed been concerned about potential domestic political fallout from such an investigation.
“When you don’t do the necessary coordination,” he told the panel, “you have second and third order effects. You could have those in the United States who would use it in the wrong way.”
Caldwell did not elaborate, and was not asked to clarify the statement.
The committee also failed to question Caldwell and Patton about Fassl’s testimony clearly contradicted Caldwell’s claim that he had only been concerned with getting buy-in from Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak and President Karzai.
Fassl testified said that Patton had insisted at the same Oct. 29, 2010 meeting on changing the proposed IG investigation into an “assistance visit”, which he suggested would be perceived by the Afghan authorities as “less intrusive”.
On Nov. 2, 2010, Fassl testified, Caldwell again “screamed” at Fassl and two other officers about their introducing the idea of an IG investigation of U.S. assistance to the medical programme. “There is nothing wrong with this command that we can’t fix ourselves,” Caldwell said, according to Fassl.
Then after another deputy commander, Canadian Brig. Gen. David Neasmith, urged Caldwell to allow the DOD IG investigation to proceed, Caldwell approved it, but “strictly as assistance to improve logistics channels for ANA’s medical supplies”, according to Fassl. “It was not to mention ‘Auschwitz-like’ conditions at NHM.”
The subcommittee did not ask Caldwell and Patton about that testimony.
When IPS asked Patton directly following the hearing if Caldwell had insisted on limiting the IG mission to “logistics” issues and excluding conditions at the hospital, Patton responded, “The IG mission did what it was directed to do.”
When the question was repeated, Patton turned and walked away.
Caldwell also sought claim that he was unaware of the shocking conditions at the NMH when the IG investigation came up. “(T)he first time patient neglect (at NHM) was brought to my attention was Nov. 10, 2010,” he declared to the panel.
That claim was questioned, however, by committee members as straining credibility.
Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz pointed out that Caldwell had sent an e-mail to then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan David Petraeus Sep. 25, 2010 saying that military corruption was resulting in “hundreds of ANA (patients) being denied care”.
Col. Schuyler K. Geller, then the command surgeon for the training mission and now retired from Army, was one of those gathering the information on the impact of corruption on patient care at NMH. Geller told IPS in an interview that the horrific “Auschwitz-like” conditions were being documented in reports filed almost every day by U.S. military “mentors” stationed at the hospital beginning in August.
Geller sent those reports through Gen. Neasmith to Gen. Patton, so Caldwell would have been informed of the actual conditions in the hospital, according to Geller.
“But he can say Patton didn’t tell me,” Geller told IPS.
Caldwell continued to try to keep the conditions at the hospital secret in 2011. A memo dated Sep. 12, 2011 signed by Geller’s replacement as command surgeon prohibited any pictures, videos or audio recordings of conditions in the hospital from being “shared outside this command, transmitted by e-mail, or duplicated in any way without prior approval of the Command Surgeon.”
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.