War and Politics: When the Overlap Causes Friction

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Hernandez Fonte / U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell in Kabul, Afghanistan in February 2011.

A nearly-familiar name re-entered the headlines this week in one of those stories I classify in the potentially scandalous, but more likely overblown and will be resolved eventually category.

Last month, allegations surfaced that Lieut. General William Caldwell, who until last year was in charge of training Afghan security forces, tried to obstruct an inquiry into widespread corruption among Afghan forces in October 2010. The accusations, laid out in a letter from Rep. Jason Chaffetz to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, insinuate that Caldwell delayed getting the Department of Defense inspector general involved because he did not want to embarrass President Obama close to the midterm U.S. congressional elections. Those are serious allegations.

For Caldwell, currently the commander of U.S. Army North, the unit responsible for homeland defense, it’s yet another instance where he has been accused of serious wrongdoing during his time in Afghanistan. Last year, then-Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings published an article accusing Caldwell of enlisted officers trained in psychological operations to brainwash American senators visiting Afghanistan. The story, based largely on a single source, who said he took part in said manipulation, wasn’t even trained in psy-ops, and a Pentagon investigation cleared the general of any wrongdoing.

So what will happen with the current controversy? Is there something to it, or will it turn out to be bunk like the Rolling Stone story? Earlier this week, Danger Room reported that Caldwell may have actually proposed the investigation he’s been accused of blocking.

Citing “a source sympathetic to Caldwell’s situation,” Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman report that Caldwell proposed getting the IG involved to his commander, General David Petraeus, and that while he did mention the U.S. elections, he did so in the context of “the 2nd and 3rd order effects.” The writers cite Caldwell’s emails, and the Pentagon’s IG’s office backed him up.

While it’s not surprising that Republicans would bristle at the thought of a uniformed general making decisions with the political benefits of a Democratic President in mind (so far, Republican congressmen have been the most outspoken of Caldwell’s critics), the situation does bring up the role of politics in war. We send our military to accomplish a mission, so politics should play no part in their actions, right?

Well, sort of. As I wrote last year, you can’t lead troops at any level unless you understand Clausewitz’s concept that politics drives strategy and strategy drives tactics. At the “stratosphere” level, as we used to call it (the one where commanders wear stars on their shoulders and must look a the big picture), this is acutely important.

In a decade of counter-insurgency war, commanders at all levels have realized that politics at all levels influences battlefield outcomes. They’ve fought in places where local politics, inter and intra tribal politics, geopolitics and yes, domestic politics have had enormous impacts on their missions. A good commander, especially one in the stratosphere, has to keep all of those factors in mind.

What does matter in Caldwell’s case is his motivation. The Danger Room report described an allegation that Caldwell blew up at a subordinate for initiating an IG investigation without Caldwell’s knowledge. But the motivation, according to their sources, was the impact on the Afghan commanders and trying to root out corruption within the context of Afghan culture. That’s both an incredibly complex and difficult task, one he felt might have been harder if an investigation started from on high, not at his unit.

For Caldwell, the ramifications of the ongoing congressional inquiries could be huge. This isn’t some single-sourced nonsense like the Rolling Stone piece, but it could turn out to be much ado about a complex misunderstanding. Caldwell was on a fast path to a fourth star, and people I’ve talked to who’ve worked with him and served under him say he’s an excellent commander. For that reason, and just because we’re interested, Battleland will stay on the story.