How U.S. government employees blew $150 million renting little palaces for themselves in Afghanistan
The government agency responsible for nurturing capitalism in Afghanistan is under investigation for spending $150 million on posh private housing when good alternatives existed that would have cost taxpayers $0.
Rather than live on military installations free of charge, the now-disbanded Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) rented private villas for a handful of employees. "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 to DOD organizations, it appears the taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars," wrote John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Sopko is the chief oversight authority for rebuilding the war-torn country.
The inspector general singled out three defense contractors as beneficiaries of the profligate spending. Triple Canopy provided "armed support" for the villas, earning $57 million over four years. Defense Group Incorporated received $51 million between 2009 and 2011 for services that included closed circuit television monitoring and a rapid reaction force in the event of a security breach. Muscogee Nation Business Enterprise ran villa entry control points for five years, in addition to providing armed transport for task force workers. These efforts netted the company $40 million.
Additionally, Triple Canopy and Muscogee lavished task force personnel with flat-screen televisions in each room, "Western-style hotel accommodations," and queen-size beds. With respect to catering, task force workers were treated to a veritable Disney Dining Plan of options, with Triple Canopy contracted to provide service that was "at least 3 stars," with each meal containing "at least two entrée choices and three side order choices, as well as three course meals for 'Special Events.'" Muscogee also provided "light snacks and water/tea/coffee/sodas available 24 hrs."
The central question in Sopko's letter is: Why? Why choose to go to such ridiculous lengths for a handful of task force employees? Moreover, what did the United States gain from such an apparently colossal waste of taxpayer money? Were any cost-benefit analyses conducted in advance, or was this simply a case of American bureaucrats wanting their own private views of the Hindu Kush?
And who, you might ask, were these task force workers living the high life on your dime?
The Task Force for Business and Stability Operations was first established in Iraq to help rebuild its economy. It then moved to Afghanistan to do the same. Its mission, according to Paul Brinkley, former deputy undersecretary of Defense: "We do capitalism." The office closed earlier this year following years of controversy and criticism related to its bidding practices, wasteful spending, and questionable business dealings.
Only last month, the task force was called out for spending $43 million on a gas station that should have cost taxpayers $500,000. When Sopko asked about that astounding waste of American dollars, the Defense Department refused to give answers, asserting that it "no longer has any knowledge" of the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. The reason given for this targeted amnesia was that the task force had been disbanded six months earlier. (And, apparently, who could possibly remember back that far?) With its collapse, the actions, motivations, and rationales of the $800 million task force seemingly disappeared into the memory hole — a hole not to be confused with the giant fire pit where American tax dollars are piled high and set ablaze.
Even that analogy is too generous in this instance. At least burning American money would produce something useful: light and heat for use in the cold Afghan winter. The Task Force for Business and Stability Operations has apparently produced nothing with such tangible benefits, leading the inspector general to ask, pointedly: "Did TFBSO persuade any Afghan investors to invest in businesses in Afghanistan?" If so, he pressed, "please identify and describe all such investors, the amounts invested, and the businesses in which the investments were made."
As for the $43 million gas station: It was designed for "compressed natural gas" vehicles, which aren't exactly crowding Afghan roadways. Not only was the task force unable to explain where the missing $42.5 million went, but it also couldn't explain why it would build such a facility in a place lacking natural gas transmission and distribution capabilities. Even were such an infrastructure to appear by magic, the average annual income in Afghanistan is $690. It costs $700 to upgrade a car to run compressed natural gas — a tall order indeed, and one predicated on the fantasy that the average Afghan citizen owns a car. (As of 2010, there were only 28 cars per 1,000 people in Afghanistan.)
If you've read the news since 2001, you've read this same story an untold number of times. Before the villas, there was the gas station. Before that, a different office — the Combined Security Transition Command — couldn't account for $230 million in spare parts, causing taxpayers to foot the bill for an additional $138 million in order to replace those missing parts. There was the $500/gallon diesel fuel that should only have cost $5 per gallon. The $220,000 thermostat. The $335 million power plant in Kabul that's eking out a meager .34 percent of power on the electric grid. (It's so underused, in fact, that it is now in danger of catastrophic failure.) There's the $14.7 million, 170,000-square-foot facility that was requested by the Defense Logistics Agency. They called it "critical" for their mission. You know where this is going: Upon being built, the facility was never actually used.
When reached for comment about the villas, Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Department of Defense spokesman, acknowledged that the letter from John Sopko was received, and stated that a response was forthcoming.