This past summer, the Army began investigating why the military spent nearly $36 million to construct a well-appointed 64,000-square-foot headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan that commanders in the area did not want and has never been used.
The two-star Army general in Kabul who conducted the inquiry has determined that the decision to commission the building was appropriate — and recommended that U.S. troops move in, after more work is done on the facility.
The finding has left some other senior military officers aghast.
“The Army built us an enormous white elephant, and now, to save face, we're being told to waste more money and time to move into it,” said a senior Marine officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the investigation. “We don't need it. We're packing up there.”
The Marine general in charge of the southwest said earlier this year that he wanted to stay out of the giant facility to “end the money drain.”
Although the building — which contains spacious offices, a briefing theater and an operations center with tiered seating — can accommodate 1,500 people, only about 400 headquarters-level staff members are on the base today.
Still, the investigation by the Army general concluded that a fellow general's decision in 2010 to erect the massive structure at Camp Leatherneck, over the objection of a previous top Marine commander in Afghanistan, was justified. The decision reflected the U.S. Central Command's “strategic vision” for Afghanistan at the time, which anticipated an “enduring base” in southwestern Afghanistan.
That, however, appears to have been an erroneous assumption. The principal long-term force options the White House is considering — assuming Afghan President Hamid Karzai agrees to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States — do not involve keeping Camp Leatherneck open a year from now.
Even if President Barack Obama commits enough troops to staff Leatherneck, the units there would not require such a large and opulent headquarters, senior Marine officers said.
“I'm skeptical that throwing more money at this facility is going to serve our national security interests in any way,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a frequent critic of Afghan reconstruction projects. “At a minimum, we shouldn't spend an additional nickel unless the Army can show us a detailed and compelling cost-benefit analysis of the merits.”
The investigation was conducted by Maj. Gen. James Richardson, the deputy commander of the U.S. troop-support headquarters in Kabul. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has not decided whether to accept the recommendation, said Col. Jane Crichton, a military spokeswoman in Kabul.
An earlier investigation, also conducted this year, found that the building “was neither wanted or needed,” according to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. That inquiry concluded that the edifice — which the military has deemed too large and complex to be given to the Afghan government — be converted into a gymnasium or a movie theater “so that it would not be a total loss.”
The windowless building, which is larger than a football field, has been described by a two-star Marine general as “better appointed than any Marine headquarters anywhere in the world.” A two-star Army general said the operations center is as large as those at the U.S. Central Command or the supreme allied headquarters in Europe.
Conceived in 2009, the lavish facility was the product of the United States' ambitious days in Afghanistan, when service members and dollars were flowing into the war zone and military officers believed they would maintain a troop presence there for decades. Plans for the building sailed through the Pentagon and funding for it was included in a supplemental appropriation to support a troop surge Obama approved.
The following year, however, the top Marine commander in the southwest, then-Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, determined that such a large building “was no longer necessary to execute the mission,” the most recent investigation found. Instead, he asked for a 30,000-square-foot building on the base.
His request to cancel the large building and construct a smaller one was supported by his superiors in Kabul. But when it was forwarded to the Army's Central Command headquarters, the deputy commander at the time, then-Maj. Gen. Peter Vangjel, denied the request, according to the investigation report.
Vangjel, the report stated, “relied upon the CENTCOM strategic vision of Camp Leatherneck and its criticality as an enduring strategic base.”
Army officials also believed it was more efficient to cancel the request for the smaller building than the larger one because Congress already had appropriated money for the large facility. “It would be easier to modify or de-scope a requirement than start over on a new approval process,” the report stated.
But instead of shrinking the plans, Mills' successors sought more amenities, including new furniture and video teleconferencing systems, which were readily provided by those managing the project. Last December, after the facility was fully built, the Marines asked for interior walls to be moved to make room for a larger conference table for the commander.
“Modifications were made to accommodate the requirement as perceived by each new commander,” the report said.
The changes delayed completion of the facility by more than a year and nearly doubled the construction cost, from $13.5 million to more than $25 million. The overall price tag, when roads, security measures and communications equipment are included, is about $36 million, according to a tally conducted by Sopko's office.
Despite rejecting Mills' request, Richardson found “no act of omission, dereliction of duty or any other violation of law” by Vangjel or anyone else involved in the decision to construct the building.
Vangjel has since been promoted to a three-star general. He is now the Army's top inspector general, responsible for identifying waste, fraud and abuse in the service.