After more than six months and several letters of inquiry, the U.S. chief watchdog for reconstruction in Afghanistan is still waiting for the U.S. Army to explain why it invested $36 million in taxpayer money to construct a building that's been abandoned, left unfinished and could possibly end up in enemy hands when troops withdraw from the region next year.
The 64,000-square foot "Command and Control Facility" -- which includes spacious empty offices with dark wooden desks and leather chairs, cubicles and a briefing theater -- is located at Marine Corps Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, an area known for poppy cultivation and where U.S. Marines faced some of the most dangerous fighting in the region.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction is investigating the Army’s $36 million “Command and Control Facility” that sits unfinished and abandoned at Camp Leatherneck. (Photo courtesy of SIGAR)
"When millions of dollars are wasted on something like this, there’s absolutely no excuse," House Armed Services Committee member Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) told TheBlaze.
[sharequote align="center"]"When millions of dollars are wasted on something like this, there’s absolutely no excuse."[/sharequote]
Hunter said more investigations are necessary as the U.S. prepares to draw down in the upcoming year.
"It’s careless and it’s wasteful," Hunter said. "Worse, bad funding decisions are not limited to mission in Afghanistan. There are still programs that are either unnecessary or don’t align with priorities. Now, with a tighter budget and constraints ahead, the Pentagon is going to have to do a significantly better job at managing costs and that’s one thing for sure that Congress — the right committees specifically — will also have to do better at.”
The facility drew the attention of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko, after the Army invested tens of millions of dollars into constructing the massive warehouse building and then requested additional millions to finish the work. The office opened an investigation and formal inquiry in July, SIGAR officials said.
The Marine Corps in 2010 actually requested the building project be canceled, deeming it "not necessary in order to execute our mission," but the Army decided to go through with it based on the possibility that Camp Leatherneck would be selected to hold remaining troops beyond the 2014 drawdown, according to an Army report.
But that report, by Army Major Gen. James Richardson, the deputy commanding general for U.S. forces in Afghanistan who ultimately approved the project, didn't satisfy SIGAR officials.
"It's almost like the fox guarding the hen house," said an Army official who works in Afghanistan and spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Army is not going to find anything wrong with what they did because they did it."
Photo courtesy of SIGAR
In a Nov. 27 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command; and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. and international coalition commander in Afghanistan, Sopko wrote that Richardson's report "raises additional questions, and has prompted my decision to restart SIGAR’s investigation."
"Gen. Richardson’s report does not respond to my initial inquiry, nor does it fully address the issues associated with the 64,000 square foot building. ... In addition, Gen. Richardson’s report fails to address the underlying conditions that resulted in the construction of this $36 million building that apparently no one wanted or needed. Without identifying and correcting these deficiencies it is almost certain that similar wastes of taxpayer dollars will occur," Sopko wrote.
SIGAR officials told TheBlaze Thursday that they have yet to receive a response to their inquiries as to why the facility was allowed to be constructed as the U.S. is preparing to draw down.
"My concerns are magnified by the Army’s conflicting reports on this building," Sopko wrote in the November letter.
Sopko was referring to the Army’s first May investigation, which "found that the building was neither wanted or needed, and suggested that it could be converted to a gymnasium and movie theatre so that it would not be a total loss."
Photo courtesy of SIGAR
Richardson's report noted that the Marine Corps commander at Camp Leatherneck sent a memo in May 2010 requesting the building project be canceled. Richardson in his report concluded that the Army's decision to continue the project over the Marine commander's request was acceptable, based on the possibility that the base would be one of those selected to hold some of the remaining troops beyond the 2014 draw down.
A U.S. military official told TheBlaze that prior to any construction or investment, the "Marine Corps decided there was no need the facility anymore and requested a cancellation of the project ... if it was an enduring base forces would not be drawing down, they would consolidating at Camp Leatherneck."
Six months later, Richardson’s new investigation stated that the facility was "needed after all, and recommends that more money be spent to complete the building and that someone should be ordered to “occupy and use [it] for its original purpose.”
A Defense Department representative told TheBlaze they have "received the letter from SIGAR and are preparing the appropriate response."
Of the $10.6 billion invested into Afghanistan and reviewed by Sopko since he took the helm as inspector general in July 2012, roughly $6.7 billion is considered "to be at risk of waste, fraud and abuse," according to a SIGAR report issued in July.
Overall waste is believed to be in the hundreds of billions since the start of the war and "what happens when we leave -- if the country falls into the hands of the Taliban, we've given them a $36 million warehouse to process their heroin or to be used by the enemy," a military official said
The estimated 71 percent of possible fraud over the past year and half is unwarranted and wasteful, said Steven Bucci, former assistant secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld and now a senior defense analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"As to the waste, it is inevitable in war, but in this case we knew things were drawing down, commanders told them they didn't need it, and they built it anyway," Bucci told TheBlaze. "That is just plain stupid. There is no excuse for that. We have to do better."
[sharequote align="center"]"That is just plain stupid. There is no excuse for that. We have to do better."[/sharequote]
A U.S. Central Command told TheBlaze that the original request for the building was "based on requirements to support the surge in Afghanistan, and based on CENTCOM's strategic vision of the base as part of an enduring presence in Afghanistan, the process to complete the facility continued. The investigation further determined consideration was given to stopping the project or changing the scope of the project, but the project was continued because Camp Leatherneck was under consideration to be the enduring base for U.S. forces in the south."
"The construction and furnishing of the facility is already complete. However, further construction and improvements have been halted until a final determination is made as to the future of the facility," the representative said in a statement."The final disposition of the facility remains undetermined but its long-term use has not been ruled out."