Afghan Filling Station's $43 Million Cost to U.S. Condemned

  • Natural-gas project should have cost $500,000, report finds
  • Inspector general says Pentagon can't explain `extreme' cost

Afghan soldiers are seen during a military operation on their way to Kohistan province from Sar-e Pol of Afghanistan on August 29, 2015.

Photographer: Mustafa Bag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The U.S. spent almost $43 million on a natural-gas filling station for autos in Afghanistan that should have cost about $500,000, according to an inspector general’s report.

“Even considering security costs associated with construction and operation in Afghanistan, this level of expenditure appears gratuitous and extreme,”John Sopko, the independent special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in the audit released Monday.

The filling station in Sheberghan, a city in northern Afghanistan near the country’s gas fields, was intended to show that it’s commercially feasible to use compressed natural gas for autos. It was part of an effort “to take advantage of Afghanistan’s domestic natural gas reserves and reduce the country’s reliance on energy imports,” Sopko wrote in a cover letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

Instead, the U.S. spent $42.7 million from 2011 to 2014 for construction and initial operation of the station, 140 times as much as a station in neighboring Pakistan. That included converting 120 Afghan vehicles to compressed natural gas so they could use the station. Sopko said converting a car costs $700 to $800, an expense unlikely to be shouldered by the average Afghan with income of $690 a year.

“One of the most troubling aspects of this project is that the Department of Defense claims that it is unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or to answer any other questions concerning its planning, implementation, or outcome,” Sopko wrote to Carter.

The inspector general’s report

The audit illustrates the challenges that war-ravaged Afghanistan faces in reducing its dependence on energy imports and exploiting an untapped array of natural resources. These include an estimated 15,687 billion cubic feet of undiscovered reserves of natural gas as calculated by the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as deposits of oil and natural-gas liquids.

The audit doesn’t allege mismanagement by the Afghan contractors that built and later took over the filling station’s operation, nor does it point to fraud and abuse. Instead, the audit cited a lack of planning, justification and oversight by the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which spent about $800 million before it was disbanded in March.

Sopko’s office uncovered the filling station example as part of a continuing review of task force operations. “All of this is especially troubling since” the task force was the Pentagon’s “premier program to improve the Afghan economy,” Sopko said.

Task Force Closed

Brian McKeon, the Pentagon’s principal deputy under secretary for policy, said in a letter included in the audit that the Department of Defense was unable to explain the gas station’s cost because the task force has closed and the departure of its personnel left no one with the expertise to do so. He said, though, that the department was prepared to provide access to task force records and help in locating its former employees.

Asked if the filling station was still operating, Sopko said in the e-mail “I don’t think anyone in the U.S. government knows what the status is, since gas station is outside of the security bubble” created by U.S. and allied troops. The task force, contrary to congressional intent, “didn’t hand over any of its projects” to the U.S. Agency for International Development when it was shuttered, he said.

The U.S. Congress has appropriated almost $109.6 billion for Afghan reconstruction, and $8.9 billion of that remains to be spent, according to the latest quarterly report published by Sopko’s office.

President Barack Obama announced in October that he was backing away from his pledge to remove most U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He now plans to keep 9,800 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan through much of 2016, and 5,500 will stay after he leaves office in 2017 to train and assist Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.

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