“If you build it, they will come,” is a famous quote from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. But in Afghanistan, the United States is asking itself the opposite question. What if you build it, and nobody shows?
As the U.S. tab for Afghan reconstruction nears $100 billion, America’s top investigator in that country is finding that billions of tax dollars have been wasted on unneeded and underutilized projects, such as the headquarters for the Afghan Border Police in Kunduz province.
Although built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help Afghans maintain their own security, investigators from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, found the $7.3 million facility was sitting largely unused.
“Built with a capacity for 175 persons, only about 12 Afghan personnel were on site during SIGAR’s inspection,” said a report released by the office.
In fact the compound was so deserted that inspectors were unable to complete their evaluation.
“SIGAR’s inspection was limited to two buildings and a portion of a third of the total 12 buildings at the facility because most buildings were locked and on-site personnel did not have keys,” investigators said.
Investigators found strong evidence that Afghans may have already decided to abandon the facility. "Most buildings appeared unused and some equipment —specifically, wood-burning stoves near the site’s dining facility—had been dismantled," the reported.
For failng to manage a construction project to ensure taxpayers got their best investment in the Afghan reconstruction, the Army Corps of Engineers earns this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to the worst examples of waste, fraud and abuse in government.
The Special Inspector General himself, John Sopko, told the Washington Guardian he doubts the needs of the Afghan police were closely examined before the project was undertaken.
“We don’t think the Afghans were really consulted with before this was built,” he said. “The people there didn’t have keys, and they didn’t know where the keys were. So how well is this being used?”
The Army Corps of Engineers agreed with the inspector general’s report that all projects be well planned and completed with a specific goal in mind, but disagreed it had any responsibility for the current lack of use of the police site.
“USACE has no control or authority over how the end-user, [Afghan National Police], uses a facility once completed and accepted,” said Col. John Hurley.
If SIGAR had concerns about the facility’s use, they should be addressed to the Afghan government, he added.
Meanwhile, the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan noted that during planning, the facility was upgraded to serve as a headquarters for police companies, enlarging its capacity from roughly 60 people to the now 175. But NATO couldn’t find exactly why the expansion had taken place.
“There are few historical records in the project’s files, none relating to a change in requirements,” U.S. and NATO Col. Andrew Backus said.
Investigators are worried about the future of the facility. SIGAR expressed concerns that the Afghans might not have the capability to maintain the police headquarters.
“Sustaining the facility will require personnel with appropriate skills to keep the electrical generator; fueling station; water treatment system; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in working order,” SIGAR said. “However, there is neither an operation and maintenance contract nor a plan to train Afghan personnel to operate and maintain equipment.”
Sopko said it’s becoming a common problem across the country.
“Sometimes we’re turning over bases, or we’re turning over hospitals, or clinics or whatever, and the cost of maintaining them is going to drive the Afghan government bankrupt,” he said.