The U.S. military is putting finishing touches on a $34 million regional headquarters in Afghanistan that may never be used as American troops pack up to come home.
The 64,000-square-foot command headquarters in Helmand province has a war room, a briefing theater and enough office space for 1,500 people, if there were any staying long enough to occupy it, according to a letter to the Pentagon from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
“It appears to be the best constructed building I have seen in my travels in Afghanistan,” wrote John Sopko, who serves as the government watchdog over military construction projects in the war-torn country. “Unfortunately, it is unused, unoccupied, and presumably will never be used for its intended purpose.”
The unused building is the latest among examples of defense mismanagement cited by Sopko in regular reports as years-long construction projects struggled to keep pace with shifting war plans. The Helmand command center, designed to support a surge of troops in 2009, risks becoming what Sopko called “a ‘white elephant’ to the Afghan government” as the 61,000 U.S. combat troops still in Afghanistan prepare to head home by the end of next year.
Why construction wasn’t halted remains a mystery.
As early as May 2010, Marine commanders in Afghanistan determined there was no need for the building, Sopko said in his letter. Yet the military issued a task order to begin construction in February 2011 and took ownership of the building in November 2012, he said.
While construction is complete, the building would still need communications equipment that may cost $3 million to obtain and install, he said.
“I am deeply troubled that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a construction project that should have been stopped,” Sopko said.
The Pentagon had no immediate reaction. “It’s going to take us a little bit of time to review the findings,” spokesman George Little said today.
Now the military must decide whether to tear down the building or turn it over to the Afghans, Sopko said.
“Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling -- destroying a never-occupied and never-used building or turning over what may be a ‘white elephant’ to the Afghan government that it may not have the capacity to sustain,” Sopko said.
The building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are “expensive to operate and maintain,” he said.
Sopko said he couldn’t get answers on why construction proceeded because of “the regular rotation of military and civilian personnel” in and out of the country.
He has given the Pentagon until July 25 to answer questions about the project.
While the fighting in Afghanistan continues, the U.S. is mounting what may become a $7 billion effort to withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan. It will require sending Humvees, helicopters, drones and 12 1/2-ton mine-resistant vehicles home by rail and truck networks stretching from Karachi to ports in the Baltic Sea. Much of the equipment that’s not needed for further use will be destroyed.
The Obama administration said this week that no decision has been made on whether to keep some U.S. forces in the country after 2014 for limited missions such as training Afghan forces and fighting terrorists.