By Noah Shachtman
Wired Danger Room, September 12, 2012
One of the Army’s top generals went before Congress Wednesday to deny that he was a shill for the Obama White House and a careerist so concerned with his own advancement that he covered up “Auschwitz-like” conditions at an Afghan hospital.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV’s words were reinforced by e-mails presented to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and by the testimony of his fellow witnesses, Defense Department Deputy Inspector General Kenneth Moorefield and Maj Gen. Gary Patton. All three batted away accusations from former subordinates and from House Republicans that Caldwell slow-rolled a 2010 investigation into corruption and maltreatment at the Dawood National Military Hospital in order to curry favor with the Obama administration during an election year.
“I supported all audits and assessments into any aspect of our command,” Caldwell said. ”In fact, at one time during my tenure we had in excess of 27 simultaneous audits or assessments by multiple government agencies external to the command. All of this was done so we could remain as transparent as possible.”
And as for an alleged tirade about the political implications of an investigation into Dawood, Caldwell added that “at no time” during discussions about the inquiry “did I make such a statement.”
But that may not be enough to rescue the reputation of a general once thought to be among the Army’s brightest stars. It certainly won’t be sufficient to erase the images that have emerged from Dawood of starving patients, maggot-infested wounds, and feces covering the hospital floor. Questions still remain about why it took Caldwell’s team so long to find out about the nightmarish conditions, and how quickly they moved to put an end to the horror.
Not long ago, Caldwell was so well-considered that he was given command of one of the service’s most storied units — the 82nd Airborne — and asked to take on arguably the central mission of the Afghan war: training and overseeing Afghanistan’s security forces. Caldwell received flattering press coverage, despite a rocky turn as the spokesman for the American campaign in Iraq. Subordinates, colleagues, and even the general himself made it known that he would be a fine candidate to lead the entire war effort in Afghanistan.
Events at Dawood may have changed all that.
The facility has long been known as a swamp — a place where patients struggled to get doctors’ attention, and pills slipped out the back entrance by the pallet-load. Conditions at the hospital were so awful — and its administration was so corrupt — that the Pentagon’s inspector general has conducted seven different investigations into the place.
In October of 2010, Col. Mark Fassl, who served as the IG for Caldwell’s training command, found the problems to be so endemic there that he emailed a request for help from the Department of Defense’s main inspector general back in the States. According to Fassl, Caldwell blew up when he heard about the plea.
“How could we think to invite the DOD IG [the Pentagon inspector general] in during an election cycle?” Caldwell was accused of asking. Especially when President Obama “calls me Bill,” the general supposedly asked.
By itself, the allegation of political interference was toxic. Generals are, in theory, supposed to be completely apolitical creatures (although it’s nearly impossible to get a star without successfully navigating Washington’s halls of power). But what made Fassl’s accusation even worse was that, the following month, the training command learned that conditions at Dawood weren’t just lousy. They were akin to a concentration camp.
Caldwell was able to explain the “calls me Bill” statement away; Caldwell said the phrase was used months earlier, when the president used the general’s first name during a video teleconference. It was a surprise, because he and Obama didn’t have much of a relationship. “I think anybody who has the president of the United States call them by their first name probably remembers that,” Caldwell added.
Caldwell was also able to explain why he was upset at the timing of the request to the Pentagon IG. Caldwell said a new inquiry should ultimately have as its goal the removal of Afghanistan’s notoriously corrupt surgeon general, Ahmad Zia Yaftali. Doing that would require the help of Caldwell’s boss, Gen. David Petraeus, and the Afghan civilian leadership. Better to get them on board first before reaching out to Washington.
Those steps were taken. The inspectors came shortly thereafter — in fact, it was “he quickest we have ever responded to any mission,” Moorefield said. The surgeon general was eventually canned.
But that still leaves the question: Why did it take so long — until November, 2010 — for Caldwell’s command to find out about the real conditions at Dawood? Caldwell became Afghanistan’s trainer-in-chief in November of 2009. His troops were working with the Afghan National Army’s medical corps for nearly a year. How could they have missed the skeletal patients, the lack of soap, or the open buckets of feces and urine sitting next to substandard food?
Caldwell has dodged scandal once before. He was accused by another subordinate of running an illegal psychological operation on a group of senators. The charges turned out to be largely bogus. But the near-miss — combined with the inquiries about Dawood — have taken their toll on the former leading light. After Afghanistan, Caldwell was given a relatively low-profile assignment, as head of U.S. Army North in Texas. He was not given a promotion to four-star general, despite nearly five years at his current rank and widespread praise for growing the Afghan security forces. Compared to the awful events at Dawood, it’s no tragedy. But it is an unexpected turn.