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'A $34 Million Waste Of The Taxpayers' Money' In Afghanistan

NPR icon by Bill Chappell
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"On a recent trip to Afghanistan, I uncovered a potentially troubling example of waste that requires your immediate attention."

That's one of the opening lines of a letter the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction sent to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel this week. In it, Special Inspector General John Sopko detailed how a contract worth $34 million was used to build a facility U.S. troops will never use.

It's the latest in a string of reports on waste from Sopko, who recently detailed how the U.S. spent more than $770 million on aircraft for Afghanistan that its military can't use. In some cases, the best solution to the problem may simply be to demolish the facilities and destroy the equipment.

"If Congress appropriates the money, they will spend it," Sopko says of the U.S. military's construction arm, in a conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel on today's All Things Considered.

As for how this situation came to be, Sopko cites the reluctance to re-open complicated funding legislation as one possible reason. Getting answers has been complicated, he writes, due to the regular rotation of military and civilian personnel at bases in Afghanistan.

"The joke in my office is, we will eventually see a base where on one side of the base they're destroying it, while on the other side they're building it," Sopko says. "And they will probably meet in the middle."

The facility in question is at Camp Leatherneck, the U.S. Marine base in Helmand Province. The history of the project, originally intended as a command center for the "surge" of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, reveals gaps in planning, coordination, and execution, Sopko says.

Called the Regional Command-Southwest Command and Control Facility, the new building offers 64,000 square feet of space for more than 1,000 military personnel, including accommodations for a three-star general. It's the "Taj Mahal" of command centers, Sopko tells Robert.

"However, even under the best case scenario, only 450 people may be able to use the building today," Sopko told Hagel in his report, "which would result in excessive operation and maintenance costs because the cooling systems would be underutilized."

The Afghan government also isn't likely to be able to use the facility because it was built to U.S. standards — its electrical system uses 60 Hertz (cycles per second) and 120 volts, for instance, instead of the Afghan standard of 50 cycles and 220 volts, according to the report.

The Army asked Congress to fund the command center back in February of 2010, Sopko says. Less than three months later, a request was submitted to cancel the project. But it was begun anyway, and was completed last November.

"After the Army said it would not use the facility, the Marines were supposed to move in," Sopko tells Robert.

But in 2010, Sopko says, the Marine Corps general said, "I don't want it, don't build it, I won't use it. So stop construction. A year later, construction began."

When Robert asks if the project may have proceeded because no one wanted to cancel the contract for a private U.S. business, Sopko says he's still investigating why the construction was ordered to proceed — and who gave that order. But he doesn't fault the contractor, he says.

"The contractor did what they were told," Sopko says. "It's actually the best building I have ever seen in Afghanistan. It's better than my current headquarters — it's better than the Pentagon."

"It's just useless, you're saying," Robert says.

"It's just useless. It's a $34 million waste of the taxpayers' money," Sopko answers.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "There are plenty of buildings, and plenty of equipment that was purchased, that is not needed."

To the question of whether such projects were begun even as the U.S. military was pulling out of Afghanistan, Sopko says, "Oh, absolutely."

Aside from the financial impact, such construction projects can also come at an extremely high cost to everyone who works on them, as they require U.S. troops to provide security from militants' attacks during construction.

"People have lost their lives over that — building these buildings, or building roads, or building culverts — that we're never going to use," Sopko says. "That's the real tragedy of it."

And in proof that his earlier joke — about the military tearing one building down, even as they're building it — wasn't made entirely in jest, Sopko describes a recent finding by the Pentagon's inspector general, who just last month noted that the new command center's emergency exits had safety problems.

"So they spent another $100,000 to make repairs on a building that they're tearing down," he says.

Asked how that can be, Sopko says, "One hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing."

A veteran investigator, Sopko has been in his current position for about a year. And he says that despite the poor execution of construction projects that he has detailed, things are beginning to improve.

"We are starting to see people in the executive branch listen to us, and make some changes; we've seen a number of proposals in legislation coming out of our recommendations," he says. "So, we're getting their attention and we're slowly trying to turn around the ship. But a lot of money has already been wasted."

Earlier this year, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that U.S. agencies had "allotted $79.7 billion for reconstruction and relief in Afghanistan between fiscal years 2002 and 2012."

As for the command center in Afghanistan, Sopko says, "We're going to find out who continued the construction after the general said, 'Don't build it.'"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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