The United States military spent millions of dollars on a shining new command center in the Helmand province of Afghanistan — a center that will never be used and is now likely to be completely demolished.
A new letter out on Wednesday from the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) criticizes the construction of the $34 million base, which appears to be the result of an extremely expensive lack of communication within the Department of Defense. According to the letter, a senior military official told SIGAR’s John Sopko that the facility was designed for a military division that never deployed and “subsequently, a decision was made not to construct the facility, but inexplicably the building construction started and is now complete.”
Spreading out over 64,000 square feet, the building was designed for maximum of 1,500 staff, and includes a war room, briefing theatre, and offices for senior military officers including a three-star general. Unfortunately, by the time the project was nearly completed, the surge of Marines in the south of Afghanistan that convinced Pentagon officials that such a command center would be needed dropped from 20,000 to around 7,000. Today, only 450 people may be able to use the building, which Sopko warns would result in “excessive operation and maintenance costs because the cooling systems would be underutilized.” So at present, the building instead stands empty and unused.
The Washington Post profiled the base on Wednesday as well, calling attention to the fact that nobody actually stationed in Helmand wanted the center to be constructed in the first place. Three yeas ago, according to the Post, the top Marine commander there told U.S. headquarters in Kabul that the new base was “unnecessary” and too opulent in its design, saying his plywood-walled headquarters at Camp Leatherneck were more that sufficient to support the incoming surge of Marines. “What the hell were they thinking?” an Army general is quoted as asking. “There was never any justification to build something this fancy.”
Despite it being handed over to the U.S. government in Nov. 2012, the building still isn’t completely finished. Another $1-2 million worth of communications equipment is still needed within the base to make it fully operational, the result of the project finally being called off this spring. Military officials told Sopko that the command center is an “example of what is wrong with military construction in general —once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop.” The Washington Post also highlighted similar projects, including a $45 million facility to repair armored vehicles that is now being used solely to sort through equipment being shipped out of the country, and $80 million spent on a State Department consulate building that was then abandoned as too vulnerable to attacks.
Making matters worse, the building can’t simply be turned over to the Afghans once U.S. combat troops depart at the end of 2014. The project was built to support American construction standards, rather than Afghan, making it physically incompatible with the Afghan power grid without a costly overhaul. In addition, the cost of maintaining such a facility would also likely be far more than the Afghan government would be willing to commit. The result: the building in all its shining grandeur will likely be demolished having never been put to its intended use.
The waste seen in Afghanistan has been staggering and a sign that lessons from the reconstruction projects in Iraq have so far gone unheeded in Afghanistan. The Special Inspector-General for Iraq Reconstruction on Tuesday testified before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa for the final time, laying out just how problematic “building the plane in flight” as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan has been. In response, SIGIR Stuart Bowen has called for Congress to establish a U.S. Office of Contingency Operations whose sole job would be to plan for the sort of reconstruction projects seen in the last decade.