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The US Poured Taxpayer Money Into Terrible Construction Projects in Afghanistan

Among the projects detailed at a Congressional hearing today were a $2.8 million storage facility that's been empty since its completion in 2014, and a half-million dollar firing range built for the Afghan Police that "melted" when it rained.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Mar 16 2016, 9:51pm

Photo via EPA

The Department of Defense spent $1.1 billion on construction in Afghanistan, pouring taxpayer money into dozens of projects that are shoddy, half-finished, and over-budget — a full third of completed buildings were never even used.

John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, delivered these damning statistics to the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform on Wednesday.

"Billions have been wasted or stolen in Afghanistan," Sopko told the visibly frustrated committee members. "I feel like the detective who shows up at a crime scene, and the body is not only gone, but the chalk outline has disappeared, and I'm trying to find out who's responsible."

The latest report from SIGAR examined $1.1 billion spent by the Department of Defense in Afghanistan between 2009-2015. The money went toward projects in 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, and included the construction of 16 Afghan National Police bases, 13 Afghan National Army bases, five schools, three medical facilities, among other infrastructure projects. A full two-thirds of projects did not meet the requirements of the contract or technical specifications set out at the outset, one-third were structurally flawed and unsafe to use, and a quarter of the projects were delayed for months.

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SIGAR's report to Congress includes an exhaustive litany of wasted taxpayer money. One project, a $2.89 million storage facility in Gereshk, Helmand province, has been empty since its completion in 2014. A half-million dollar firing range built for the Afghan Police "melted" when it was exposed to rain, because the construction company that the Pentagon contracted with used substandard construction material. A $7.3 million Afghan Border Police housed only 12 police personnel, though it was intended to host 175.

Many of the construction projects are now in areas of Afghanistan that are contested by the Taliban. Sopko told the committee that inspecting construction projects had become so hazardous that his team even struggled to reach buildings that were were within sight of the US embassy in Kabul.

After Sopko laid out the scope of the construction debacle, Christine Abizaid, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, fielded a series of hostile questions from the representatives.

Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the committee turned to Abizaid, and asked: "How much money is enough, how much do we have to pour into Afghanistan?"

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She explained that the Pentagon is no longer in the business of large-scale construction projects, but that the cost of maintaining the Afghan security forces would be $3.4 billion a year going forward. "I don't understand how we pour $100 billion into Afghanistan, when we have people who can't turn on their faucets in Michigan," Chaffetz answered, referring to the ongoing water crisis in Flint.

That frustration was shared by the other committee members. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, said that the hearing was "one of the most depressing" she'd ever sat through, calling the Department of Defense's building protocols "insanity," and a "lesson in mismanagement."

After Abizaid struggled to answer questions about how many total buildings had been funded in Afghanistan, Representative Jody Hice, a Republican from Georgia, said it was "stunning" that the Department of Defense still doesn't have a tally of all the projects its funded.

One complimentary note among the blistering testimony came when SIGAR commended the DoD for implementing 79 of 100 specific recommendations it has made about how to improve facilities in Afghanistan since 2008. "We recognize DOD's efforts to address our recommendations in a timely manner, and in ways that help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction projects," the SIGAR report read.

At the end of Wednesday's' hearing, the assembled representatives asked Abizaid if the Department of Defense could list the 10 most successful construction projects in Afghanistan. She said she couldn't, but would present such a list "within a month."