Pentagon Misspends Emergency Fund on Afghan Power, Skelton Says

Representative Ike Skelton
Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri chairs a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

The Defense Department is misspending at least $227 million on an Afghan power project from a U.S. fund designed to let combat commanders bankroll small, high- impact humanitarian efforts, according to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton.

The money is among the largest amounts spent so far from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, known as CERP. It’s being used to lease or buy generators and a year’s worth of fuel to provide more electric power to Kandahar, the southern Afghanistan city that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are trying to wrest from Taliban control.

“I do not believe that the use of CERP funds, which are intended to carry out small-scale, quick-impact projects, is proper or well advised,” however laudable the electricity project may be, Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, wrote in an undisclosed July 14 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Using the emergency response program fund for projects outside its intended scope may undercut congressional confidence and lead to spending restrictions in Afghanistan, Skelton wrote. The lawmaker leads one of the four congressional defense panels that control annual Pentagon spending.

“The department acknowledged, and is reviewing Congressman Skelton’s concerns regarding the use of CERP funds in Afghanistan,” a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lieutenant Commander Kathleen Kesler, said in an e-mail. “The department believes CERP is an important tool to further our objectives in Afghanistan, just as it is in Iraq.”

Emergency Response Fund

Congress has appropriated about $5 billion for the commander’s emergency response fund for Iraq and Afghanistan since fiscal 2003, according to Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

The pending fiscal 2011 defense budget includes an additional $1.3 billion, according to the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Skelton told Gates the emergency response program “has somehow been stretched to, among other things, justify funding an advertising supplement, building a porcupine habitat, allowing for the painting of at least two murals, building a hotel and partially building a convention center.”

Most of these “perceived abuses” occurred in Iraq, Skelton wrote.

Pentagon officials declined to answer questions about the overall cost of the Kandahar electricity project or the rationale for expenditures questioned by Skelton.

Porcupine Habitat

Army documents from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team indicate that $25,000 was spent in September 2007 to renovate a porcupine habitat at the Baghdad Zoo. The money repaired “an important civic and cultural facility for the local Iraqi citizens,” said a legal review endorsing the expenditure.

Separately, $5.7 million was spent in early 2007 on renovating a convention center at the Baghdad airport, Bowen said in an April 26 audit.

By acquiring three generators, the Kandahar project aims to provide 42 megawatts of electrical power per day to the city by Dec. 31, up from 16 megawatts today, according to Lieutenant Colonel John Dorrian, a military spokesman in Afghanistan.

Skelton wrote that a project “of this scale” should “clearly and properly” be handled by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“I think Skelton has raised some very valid questions,” said John Brummet, audit director of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

“We haven’t studied it but we would have similar questions,” he said in an interview.

“What is the appropriate agency or fund we should be using for energy projects of this sort and how are we coordinating it?” Brummet said. “USAID has spent an awful lot in the energy sector.”

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