A taxpayer-funded program designed to promote free market principles in Afghanistan spent $150 million on luxury accommodations and private security guards when much cheaper options existed.
That's according to government-appointed investigators reviewing the record of the Task Force for Business Stabilization Operations (TFBSO), a Pentagon project that was shuttered last year after spending $800 million to jumpstart the Afghan economy.
"We are concerned that this may be another example of US government officials not looking out for American taxpayers' dollars," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction or SIGAR, John Sopko, told VICE News.
Sopko leads a team of investigators tasked by Congress to uncover waste and abuse in the Afghan war effort. On Thursday, he released a letter that accused the Pentagon of spending 20 percent of the project's $800 million budget on a range of luxury items, including multi-course meals served in private villas to would-be-investors, a small army of private security contractors, and 24-hour snacks for visiting dignitaries.
SIGAR suggested that the accommodations were unnecessarily lavish. "If TFBSO employees had instead lived at Department of Defense facilities in Afghanistan, where housing, security, and food service are routinely provided at little or no extra charge…it appears that taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars," SIGAR noted in a letter to the Pentagon demanding an explanation for the expenses.
But according to Paul Brinkley, the former head of the Task Force in Afghanistan, private security and separate accommodations were necessary to promote business development in a war zone. "Operating outside of military or diplomatic installations was elemental to [the Task Force's] successes and was clearly sanctioned by Pentagon leadership as well as the Congress," he said in a statement provided to VICE News. "We had one mission: help bring normalcy to Afghanistan by encouraging sustained economic growth and employment for the Afghan people and the creation of an Afghan middle class. Everything we did was focused on that goal."
The Pentagon told VICE News that it had received the SIGAR letter and would respond in due course. It did not provide any more details about the accommodations, private security contractors, or the decision to house the Task Force outside of existing Department of Defense facilities.
From 2009 to 2014, the Task Force worked to steer international capital to Afghanistan by taking investors on tours of the country and providing training to the Afghan government and private businesses. The goal was to develop Afghanistan's natural resources, integrate it into the global economy, and build a middle class.
The record of that Task Force has been a source of serious controversy, with the Pentagon and SIGAR accusing each other of misdirection and dishonesty. SIGAR says the Pentagon not only of wasting millions of dollars on unnecessary projects — including what it called "the world's most expensive gas station" — but also refuses to hand over documents that would illuminate the money trail.
SIGAR confirmed to VICE News that several criminal investigations are now underway in connection with the Task Force's activities in Afghanistan, but declined to elaborate further.
The Pentagon has countered that all relevant documents are available in a special reading room in Washington, DC. The Pentagon is refusing to hand over documents directly because SIGAR released an earlier cache of documents — which revealed embarrassing spending habits — to reporters at Propublica in response to a FOIA request.
A senior Pentagon official told VICE News that they did not trust SIGAR to handle the documents with care.
There's also conflicting reports about about the willingness of former Task Force officials to be interviewed by investigators.
SIGAR claimed in Thursday's letter that the decision to opt for private security and accommodations was made initially by Paul Brinkley, the Task Force's first director who stepped aside in 2011. But SIGAR says Brinkley has refused to speak with them. Brinkley insists that he hasn't heard anything from SIGAR and would be happy to discuss his tenure as director.
Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has taken up SIGAR's cause and demanded the Pentagon be more cooperative. Senator Grassley responded angrily to Thursday revelation that Pentagon spend $150 million on accommodations and security. "The assertion that task force employees had to have outside housing and security to set an example for private companies sounds like US Grade A baloney,' he told VICE News in a statement. "The concerns raised in SIGAR's letter don't inspire confidence that the Task Force took care with spending"
Some of the details in the most recent SIGAR letter were confirmed to VICE News by Colonel John Hope the top military official for the Task Force in Afghanistan for the last 9 months of its existence. Colonel Hope has since turned whistleblower and is publicly criticizing the Task Force for wasteful spending.
He told VICE News that the business people and DC offcials the Task Force brought to Afghanistan had expensive tastes. "They don't want to come to the war zone and suck the dust with everybody else," he said. "If a CEO or COO comes though, they are accustomed to staying at nice places, and that's what happened."
As chief operations officer on the ground, Hope was in charge of arranging transport and accommodation for the investors and officials who parachuted into Afghanistan. "The Pentagon folks prefered us to call our accommodations 'safe houses,; but what they were really very nice villas all around the country set up for visiting folks from DC," he said. "It wasn't like anything else I'd experienced in my other tours of duty I can tell you that — that was much more austere."
He confirmed to VICE News that at the villa where he was stationed in Kabul a fully staffed kitchen we're available 24 hours a day to cater to the needs of visiting guests. SIGAR also revealed that the Pentagon procured an "investor villa" that it outfitted with "upgraded furniture," and "three-star" accommodations." These plush lodgings were folded into larger contracts with security firms, and given the available documents it's not possible to itemize how much money was spent purely on accommodations, and how much went to private security details.
Hope agrees with Brinkley, however, that the private accommodations and private security helped the investors and visiting dignitaries be more agile. "We were in civilian cloths, off the base in villas, so that we could move effectively, at fairly low risk," he said. "Anything that was clearly military would have been a bigger target for attacks." Hope's beef with the TFBSO is what he calls a "lack of results" from those investor meetings that he facilitated. "I don't know of a single project that was really successful long term" he said.
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Hope also charges the Task Force with misleading investigators who are now trying to assess its effectiveness.
He claims to have sat in a meeting with the last head of the TFBSO Joseph Catalino in January, 2015 where Pentagon employees were encouraged to disrupt the SIGAR investigation, and delay the release of documents as long as possible. The Pentagon has declined to comment on Hope's allegations.
But since Hope began to criticize the Pentagon, he claims that his superiors have retaliated against him by refusing to give him a performance evaluation, and thereby holding up his next assignment. Senator Grassley has intervened on Hope's behalf, and written Defense Secretary Ash Carter to inquire about the alleged retaliation against the Colonel.
In Thursday's letter SIGAR also pressed the Pentagon to provide a list of investors who visited Afghanistan with the Task Force, and to specify how fruitful those trips actually were. No such ledger of successful investors trips has so far been compiled, but VICE News asked Colonel Hope to help compile a provisional a list of investors who visited Afghanistan during his 9 month tenure.
He recalled one specific delegation of Virginia-based corporations who visited Afghanistan and stayed in the Task Force villa in Kabul in September 2014. Publicly available documents show that that delegation consisted of four government contractors: Ideal Innovation, Leonie Industries, MEBS Global Reach, and Versar Inc.
All but MEBS were awarded multi-million dollars contracts with the US government well before their trips to Afghanistan last fall. It's also unclear if these corporations invested independently in the Afghan economy, and whether their commitments extended beyond supporting the US military presence there. Leonie Industries, for example, was already the the primary contractor providing "information operations" to the US government in Afghanistan. By the time it was flown to Kabul by the Task Force, it had already won over $100 million in federal contracts to help develop and disseminate US military propaganda. A year before taking the Task Force flew Ideal innovation to Afghanistan, it had already procured a $1.3 million contract to help Afghanistan develop its forensic investigations capabilities.
VICE News reached out to all four companies to ask if their visits to Afghanistan through the TFBSO in 2014 motivated further business venture, or helped establish ties with Afghan companies, and if the luxury accommodations in the villas encouraged them to invest. None have yet responded.
Follow Avi Asher-Shapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro