A short walk from the main U.S. headquarters facility at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, sits a hulking two-story building behind chain link fences and cement walls. It cost $34 million to build, and it will likely never serve any purpose for U.S. forces.
That’s the groan-worthy findings of John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. The 64,000 square-foot building has been roundly panned in the media today, after it was highlighted in a Washington Post story this morning.
SIGAR, as Sopko’s organization is known, sent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter this week asking about the decision-making process that led to construction of the building. Available here, it says Marine commanders at Camp Leatherneck asked for the project to be stopped as early as May 2010, but the U.S. military went ahead with building it anyway.
The timing means the request was issued shortly after Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, then a two-star general, took over as the ranking U.S. commander in Helmand province. Nevertheless, the Air Force’s 772nd Enterprise Sourcing Squadron issued a task order for construction the February to AMEC Earth and Environment Inc., a British company, SIGAR found.
“According to an official at Camp Leatherneck, the building can accommodate approximately 1,200 to 1,500 staff, and includes a war room, briefing theater, and offices for senior military officials, including a three star general,” Sopko’s letter said. “However, even under the best case scenario, only 450 people may be able to use the building today, which would result in excessive operation and maintenance costs because the cooling systems would be underutilized.”
I’ve made three reporting trips to Afghanistan since May 2010, including two last year. The building popped up in between the first two assignments, a monstrosity that is a short walk from the current plywood headquarters buildings used by Marine commanders at Leatherneck, currently led by Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller. I asked about the plan for the building several times last year while on base, and was told it would serve as home to a regimental headquarters and other organizations. It seemed to be overkill, but giving the building boom at Camp Leatherneck over the last couple years, not out of the realm of possibilities.
The scope of the building, laid out by SIGAR, seems overly ambitious even for when U.S. operations in Afghanistan were at their peak in 2011, however. For example, there may be a home for a three-star general in the facility, but the Marine operations in the region have never been led by anyone with more than two stars.
The building’s existence stands as a concrete example of what happens when not enough questions are raised up the chain of command, especially at the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. While workers built a headquarters building that would stand out virtually anywhere, President Obama and others signed off on a decision that now has a fraction of the troops in Helmand province than there were in 2010 and 2011.
As SIGAR put it, the new headquarters is a “White Elephant” without a home. Investigations are now underway to determine what happened behind the scenes.