Lt. General William B. Caldwell IV the former Commanding General at the United States Army North (Fifth Army) and the Army Commander of Fort Sam Houston. Lt. General Caldwell and I explore new approaches for resolving global conflicts, the effectiveness of the Afghan Security Forces and prevention methods for terrorist infiltration, hurricane preparedness today and the impact of sequestration on America’s national security.
Gabrielle Reilly: I want to explore a new approach to resolving conflict anywhere in the world. As I have traveled the world I was most impressed by how the people of Vietnam were so peaceful and prospering after such a short period since the Vietnam War. They actually have a national holiday that loosely transcribes as being called “Remember to Forget” encouraging the culture to forget past wrong-doings and focus on the future. After talking to some of the commanding US Generals, they describe how they cannot begin negotiations in many regions like Afghanistan until the tribal leaders have outlined hundreds of years of wrongdoings. It is an interesting contrast between the cultural attitude of Afghanistan and Vietnam and how it has impacted on the fortune of the country in what I refer to as “cultural evolution.” If you cannot forgive (I’m not saying forget) the past, it has been proven time-and-again that you will perpetuate the conflict into the future. America has prospered as a country in part because its cultural sophistication of not being so caught up in personal pride, ego and honor that is so prevalent throughout many countries in the world. For example, President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton could publically hate on each other throughout the presidential campaign one moment and then respectfully work together the next. In many of the regions of the world (for the most part countries in conflict) these two would be arch-enemies for generations because of the words said publically during the presidential campaign. So I’m wondering if it would be wiser to focus on educating leaders on this cultural evolution that leads to peace, before we even begin to discuss policy. What are your thoughts on that?
General Caldwell IV: I completely concur with you. Every time I sat down with Afghans, whatever particular sect, we did recount the last hundreds of years and why we are where we are, and they are very clearly aware of it. So your point is well taken. I watched that movie “Lincoln,” recently and what really struck me was that even here in the United States, 150 years ago, we had the North and the South in this brutal war with hundreds of thousands killed across the United States, but now we have been able to put that aside and rejoin ourselves as one union and continue moving forward without harboring animosity and hatred. Now if you were to go into states like South Carolina or Virginia they’re all part of the Union, they see themselves as American citizens.
Gabrielle Reilly: I try to find solutions. It seems to me that with all the technology we have available and with the Internet there are so many ways to infiltrate into cultures to improve their living standards. Perhaps before our Western leaders go into a negotiation with a tribal leader they could show a short video or something to demonstrate the great advantages of letting go of the past so they can create a prosperous future. Negotiations may be far more constructive if the leaders attitudes are in the right place.
General Caldwell IV: A challenge we would have to first regard is, whether it be Afghanistan or some other culture in the world, what is in their own religion or general philosophical beliefs that would enable them to specifically address that issue. I am not a student of the Koran or that philosophy, but I think there must be something that would say to “Put your past aside.” And work toward the future.
What I saw in Afghanistan is that people are so illiterate that they are greatly influenced by anyone who had a voice. And if someone was radicalized or trying to turn people to a particular direction, they had a much easier time doing that than in the United States where people have a much higher level of education.
Gabrielle Reilly: So I guess we need loud voices explaining a new way of looking at the world… a voice that is not trying to convert people or change their traditions, just improve their outlook on life and therefore their peace and success. Let me think on that one. What is your opinion of the effectiveness of the Afghan Security Force today, after you served there?
General Caldwell IV: After spending two years over there working very closely with them -- I am not seeing them day-to-day now like I was then -- but I can tell you that while I was there I was extremely optimistic about their potential and about what they could achieve in the future. The situation in Afghanistan will never look like it does in America. People need to understand that up front. We’re not trying to make it look like America. Nor are we trying to make their military or their police look like they would in America. That’s not our intent. Our intent is to make them capable enough to handle the threats that exist within their country, and also capable enough to help protect their people from the threats that exist in their own country.
Gabrielle Reilly: That’s so smart to focus on not creating a cookie cutter American democracy, which could obviously never work. Are you referring to threats like the 20,000 Taliban that may come back in when we withdraw?
General Caldwell IV: Exactly. They may not need as large a force as we currently have over there. They will need a capable military force, a capable police force, and a capable air force.
Gabrielle Reilly: How do you weed out the potential terrorists that could infiltrate?
General Caldwell IV: That was an ongoing challenge the whole two years I was there. The first thing we did was to institute an eight-step vetting process to help preclude infiltrators from coming through the training programs into the police or army, and we found that very effective. Every week there were young men that we were not allowed to come in because something from one of these eight steps we go through, would pop up. In fact, we’re weeding out people right up front. What I have found though is that it’s the impersonators, not someone in the police or in the army, but someone who puts on a uniform and impersonates a soldier or a policeman and does something that kills coalition forces. That’s going to be an ongoing challenge. Before I left, we had instituted this Guardian Angel principle: at all times one of our men and women would have to be in a vigilant or protective posture looking out for the others, to make sure that if someone was impersonating a policeman or soldier we were vigilantly looking for it, and able to take immediate responsive action.
Gabrielle Reilly: So let’s focus back on mainland America… What changes if any have occurred since Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy?
General Caldwell IV: It is dramatically different. I was in Hurricane Katrina. I took the federal forces to New Orleans. They put 5,000 of us there working for the mayor of New Orleans on what they saw as priority missions. Today we have a much more deliberate and intricate plan. For example we gathered in San Antonio for a three-day period to rehearse our preparations and look at the possibility of hurricanes coming into the United States, with all the federal agencies and department of defense coming together so that we’re as ready as we can possibly be. And when one hits the United States, we have all had a three-day period of re-evaluating all our procedures. To work together as a team if another hurricane hits the Unites States and requires some kind of response. So that we can quickly help whatever state or states require assistance.
Gabrielle Reilly: What is your assessment of the levees of New Orleans today?
General Caldwell IV: I am incredibly impressed by what The United States Army Corps of Engineers has done to shore up the levees. They have done an excellent job. We have also learned a lot of lessons. I don’t think anyone quite envisioned something like Hurricane Katrina coming in. But today I would be quite comfortable that if another hurricane of the Katrina type came into New Orleans, the levees would hold this time.
Gabrielle Reilly: How has the sequestration affected the Army’s transition plan? Is it inhibiting it or driving it?
General Caldwell IV: It’s actually going to start driving it more in the future. It’s already had an impact. We see it in some things immediately today. As we go forward, If sequestration continues as it is currently laid out we will see that the drawdown of the U.S. Army instead of just drawing down to 80,000 of the force from our high of 570,000 to 490.000, that it may in fact happen more quickly, and we’re not sure that 490,000 will be the final number. It could be something lower than that.
Gabrielle Reilly: Given that sequestration was a straight across the board strategy of cuts, how have you been able to juggle the cuts that may have been needed in one area more than others?
General Caldwell IV: That’s been very challenging. We’ve recently got a little bit of relief out of the bill that was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President. We have a little more flexibility on where the cuts are being made. But no matter how you look at it, it is going to have an impact on the overall readiness of our United States Army. It will be degraded from what it is today. I think everyone agrees that the United States military has to also participate in reductions like the rest of our U.S. government is doing... At the same time, we need to make sure that every time we do that, we carefully weigh the risks, the potential threats out there in the future and the need for military force and readiness levels against what we’re doing to it.
Gabrielle Reilly: Thanks very much for sharing your perspective and experience. This has been one of my favorite interviews.