In May 2010, military commanders decided that a proposed command center in Afghanistan's Helmand province wasn't necessary. So, naturally, it is now complete and partially furnished, just in time for the U.S. withdrawal from the country. The facility will likely be torn down. It cost $34 million.
There's a sense in which this isn't that wasteful. In our rush to exit, the military will be abandoning or destroying $7 billion in equipment—in part because that's the cheaper option. In that context, $34 million is barely a drop in the bucket. It is to $7 billion what four cents is to 10 bucks—just a tiny amount.
But as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction notes in a letter outlining the waste, this almost certainly was an avoidable cost.
One senior U.S. military official told me that this facility was designed for a military division that was never deployed and, subsequently, a decision was made not to construct the facility, but inexplicably the building construction started and is now complete. Military officials explained this is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general—once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop.
The IG toured the facility, taking photos of the amenities already in place. From left to right below: never-used cubicles, a large conference table, the facility's electrical system.
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That electrical system is one reason the building might end up being torn down. As the IG letter notes, the system uses U.S.-based voltage, instead of the standard for the country. In other words, turning it over to the Afghan government would require a heavy investment to retrofit a number of its internal systems. And keeping it isn't a good option, since it will soon fall outside the surrounding camp's security perimeter. Not to mention that it still needs millions in investment for even our military to use it.
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The Washington Post reports that senior military officials "see the giant headquarters as the whitest elephant in a war littered with wasteful, dysfunctional and unnecessary projects funded by American taxpayers."
A two-star Marine general who has toured the facility called it “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.
“What the hell were they thinking?” the Army general said. “There was never any justification to build something this fancy.”
Or, as he said later: "It's terribly embarrassing."
If you're curious, here's how much the military is losing in funding due to the sequester. That $34 million could have come in handy.