US should investigate alleged abuses at Afghan hospital

The photos of Afghan patients at the US-funded Dawood National Military Hospital in Kabul are troubling. Injured Afghan soldiers, photographed by US military whistleblowers, are seen on beds at their country’s premier military hospital, suffering from gaping wounds, some with maggots crawling out of them. One patient’s arm has a pair of scissors sticking through it. Feet are swollen, yellow, and blackened as gangrene and necrosis have set in.

The photos, given by US whistleblowers to congressional investigators and published on the website Buzzfeed, appear to be the starkest evidence of mistreatment that went on at Dawood despite the awareness of US and NATO officials. The whistleblowers, US military personnel who visited the hospital, told a congressional committee last week that senior officials blocked attempts to shed light on abusive medical practices by the hospital’s Afghan staff. Military officers said that US Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, in charge of training Afghan forces for NATO until last year, told subordinates to withdraw a request for an independent Pentagon investigation into the actions of Afghan doctors, who sometimes sought bribes in exchange for proper care. Caldwell quashed a probe in 2010 because he feared a political backlash in the United States and from Afghan leaders, the whistleblowers said.

Caldwell’s defenders have said that he wanted an investigation led by Afghans. But that’s not a good excuse for allowing abuses to continue. While exposing hard truths may rile relations between the Afghan government and the Western countries ushering it through infancy, the dangers of allowing abuses to continue is far greater. By doing little to investigate Dawood, US and NATO leaders showed a tolerance for negligent Afghan leadership that undermined their broader mission of stabilizing the region. There are obvious sensitivities in the relationship between the United States and Afghan leaders, but basic standards of decency shouldn’t be subject to negotiation.