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By Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. general in Afghanistan sought to stall an investigation into waste and abuse at a U.S.-funded hospital in Kabul, possibly for political reasons, current and former U.S. military officials told Congress on Tuesday.
Retired Colonel Gerald Carozza, who served as an adviser to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, accused Lieutenant General William Caldwell, then head of U.S. and NATO efforts to train Afghan security forces, and other senior officials of delaying a military investigation into allegations of corruption and patient abuse at the Dawood National Military Hospital.
"The evidence is clear to me that General Caldwell had the request (for a probe into the hospital) withdrawn and postponed until after the (November 2010 U.S. congressional) election and then, after the election, tried to intimidate his subordinates into a consensus that it need not move forward at all," Carozza told a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Carozza and several other former and current officials told lawmakers, who are examining whether military leaders blocked or delayed the hospital probe, that they struggled to get commanders to act on reports of entrenched problems at the U.S.-funded hospital.
According to the Oversight Committee, the United States has spent over $180 million on operating medical sites in Afghanistan, most of which is believed to have gone to Dawood, where NATO personnel oversee Afghan medical staff.
Lawmakers have also said that $43 million in U.S. aid was "missing" at the Kabul military hospital.
Photographs taken at the hospital in 2010 showed neglected patients suffering from problems including gangrene and maggots in their wounds.
Caldwell, who is now a senior Army official in the United States, and other military officials who oversaw the U.S. training effort in Afghanistan were not invited to testify at Tuesday's hearing.
Colonel Wayne Shanks, a military spokesman, said Caldwell "would welcome the opportunity to respond to any inquiry and I'm confident that once the facts are presented and examined, all allegations will be proven false."
Lawmakers have asked the Defense Department to examine whether military leaders had sought to cover up reports of abuse at the hospital in 2010, including reports of vital medicine being stolen while patients languished without proper care.
Beyond the possible diversion of U.S. supplies and funds, U.S. support for the military hospital takes on greater importance as NATO nations seek to foster an effective Afghan military. Providing Afghan soldiers adequate medical care will be crucial if local forces are to stand against the Taliban when foreign troops withdraw in coming years.
Subcommittee chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, seized on reports that Caldwell and other military leaders sought to deter hospital probes as what he said was proof of a Pentagon failure to provide Congress with accurate, timely information about its activities -- and shortcomings -- in Afghanistan.
Chaffetz said senior commanders in Afghanistan, including Caldwell and General David Petraeus, the then-head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan who now leads the Central Intelligence Agency, were briefed on the hospital's problems.
"Investigations were apparently delayed because of personal politics and an aggressive public relations campaign attempted to cloud the facts," Chaffetz said.
"I want the Pentagon to be on notice;- it will not be acceptable to hide documents," he later said.
The Defense Department has acknowledged problems at the hospital and has said that "investigations and corrective action" were under way.
The Pentagon's inspector general office has undertaken several investigations of the Afghan medical system, including the Dawood hospital, but officials declined to comment on whether the inspector general would conduct a separate probe into allegations senior officials sought to cover up problems.
While Carozza said Caldwell resisted suggestions of a new hospital probe even after the November 2010 congressional elections, Colonel Mark Fassl, former inspector general for the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, told lawmakers he was asked to retract a request for a stepped-up hospital probe shortly before the elections.
Fassl said that Caldwell brought up his relationship to President Barack Obama in discussing the potential probe ahead of the elections.
(Editing by Eric Beech and Cynthia Osterman)
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