Top 6 Ways to Burn Taxpayers' Millions in Afghanistan

Stream of IG docs in 2013 describe projects failed, failing, useless or delayed.

ByABC News
December 31, 2013, 8:57 AM

Dec. 31, 2013 — -- intro: There's the half-billion dollar aircraft fleet that sits unused on the cracked tarmac. There's the $230 million in spare vehicle parts that are unaccounted for. There are the handful of waste incinerators, priced at a few million dollars each, that have never burned much beyond holes in taxpayer pockets.

When the U.S. embarked on its massive war fighting and nation building effort in Afghanistan, there was bound to be waste and fraud, but a look back at the reports and letters compiled in 2013 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows U.S. taxpayer money dumped down the drain, sometimes tens of millions at a time, more than a decade since the first American troops landed in the Southwest Asian nation.

"Over the last year we have uncovered countless instances of waste, fraud, and abuse," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told ABC News. "Time and time again, we have found the reconstruction effort plagued by problems of poor planning and poor oversight… Unfortunately, all too often we are not asking the simple questions before we pump money into a project, such as, do the Afghans want it? Do they need it? Can they sustain it? And can we oversee it? We can get this right, but we need to be diligent with taxpayer funds and individuals need to be held accountable."

What follows in this report are examples of waste SIGAR said it uncovered on the ground in Afghanistan in military construction and general reconstruction projects – examples the Pentagon insists are not emblematic of America's effort in the war-torn nation.

A spokesperson for the Defense Department acknowledged the "challenges" presented by helping to build a country in the midst of a war, but said that while "there have been some instances of underperforming projects, these are vastly outweighed by the positive cumulative impact of the wide array of successful projects."

"Singling out a few underperforming projects-or misrepresenting or misconstruing the reasons why a project's results did not turn out as expected and drawing larger conclusion about the effectiveness of reconstruction efforts-detracts from an accurate understanding of the overall positive impact that reconstruction has had on Afghanistan," the Department told ABC News. The spokesperson also noted that the problems with many of the projects discussed in this report were uncovered well before 2013 and were only referenced again recently in SIGAR reports or letters.

[Portions of the Defense Department's responses to the SIGAR reports on various projects are included in this report. To read the Department's full statement to ABC News, CLICK HERE.]

quicklist: 1title: Afghan Police Locked Out of Own $7.3M Facilitytext: In Afghanistan's Kunduz province is a pristine multi-building facility built for $7.3 million for Afghan border police. Too bad the Afghans are locked out of several of the buildings and couldn't find the keys.

According to a SIGAR report released in January, the complex for the Imam Sahib Border Police was built to house 175 people, but visiting inspectors only found about a dozen Afghan policemen there in the fall of 2012. The Afghans only had the keys to three of the buildings, forcing the SIGAR investigators to conduct their inspection by peeking through windows of the others.

The SIGAR inspectors said that plans to use some of the facilities were also unclear and one building that was meant for administrative work was being used as living space. The barracks, which were designed to house the police officers, were unoccupied. The facility also had no back-up electricity, the report said.

"The site is fairly new, largely unoccupied, and, to date, has had little need for operation and maintenance support," the report says.

In the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan's response to the SIGAR findings, which was included in the report, officials explained that the Afghan staffing requirement had changed from 175 people for a "combined battalion and company headquarters" when the facility was planned to a 59-person company headquarters by the time it was completed. "Due to dispersed daily operations," the report said, "facilities would rarely be at full capacity."

The Pentagon said the building was constructed for Afghan government use and is subject to their operational requirements, "which are subject to change as security conditions change."

"The Department of Defense's focus is on assisting the [Afghan Ministry of Interior] to develop the capacity to prioritize, budget, operate and maintain the facilities provided to them," the Defense spokesperson said.

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quicklist: 2title: $36M Command and Control Center Not Commanding or Controlling Anythingtext: In Camp Leatherneck in the Hemland Province of Afghanistan there is a sprawling 64,000 square foot building, constructed for $36 million so far, that SIGAR said "apparently no one wanted or needed."

The building was originally envisioned as a command headquarters but when it became apparent it wasn't necessary – as early as May 2010 -- the Army once suggested it be turned into a gymnasium or movie theater to keep it from becoming "a total loss," according to a letter written from SIGAR head John Sopko.

"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," Sopko wrote to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. "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."

"I believe there are important lessons we can learn from this potential waste of nearly $36 million in taxpayer funds, to make sure we do not continue to construct buildings that no one will use," Sopko wrote.

The Department of Defense told ABC News it "disagreed" with the idea the command center may have been unnecessary.

"The requirement to build the facility was fully validated at the time it was constructed," the Pentagon spokesperson said, adding all procedures were followed. The U.S. military still has yet to determine "the appropriate use for the building once the U.S. government's post-2014 enduring presence in Afghanistan, which may require use of the facility, is determined."

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quicklist: 3title: $500M Aircraft Fleet, Planes Sitting on Tarmacstext: Back in 2008 the Department of Defense spent $486.1 million to give the Afghan Air Force 20 C-27A aircraft and sustain the medium-sized transport planes. According to a SIGAR letter to the Department of Defense earlier this month, the aircraft are sitting lonely in air fields in Afghanistan and at the U.S. Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.

The Afghan Air Force, SIGAR said, had chosen to use different planes after NATO and the U.S. were accused of improperly managing "the effort to obtain the spare parts needed to keep the aircraft flightworthy." As the Defense Department put it to ABC News, "aircraft and contract performance limitations occurred, making it increasingly difficult to keep any of the aircraft operational."

"Because there were relatively few other G-222s [C-27As] of the same variant in service anywhere in the world, manufacture of parts for the aircraft was in decline, resulting in significant supply chain challenges that became difficult to overcome," the Pentagon said.

The SIGAR letter referenced a Defense report that said the planes only flew 234 of the target 4,500 hours in 2012 before being shelved altogether.

SIGAR notified the military it was launching a review of the debacle "to ensure that the U.S. government does not repeat the mistakes made throughout this nearly half-billion dollar program."


quicklist: 4title: $230M in Vehicle Spare Parts May Be Here, Maybe Nottext: It's not that the $230 million in spare vehicle parts don't exist or have gone missing, it's that no one has any idea where the taxpayer-bought parts might be and, therefore, didn't know when to stop ordering new ones. That was the conclusion SIGAR came to in a report released in October.

The report said that since the Afghan military did not keep accurate inventory records, it was impossible to know what they had or what was needed. So to be safe, the NATO group in charge of orders requested another $138 million in spare parts to add to the mix.

The Department of Defense agreed with SIGAR's conclusions and the SIGAR report noted that in June 2013 the NATO group began implementing safeguards to help correct the problem, including mandating the close involvement of the U.S. until the final "title transfer" for parts had taken place and even taking back some non-critical parts until the Afghan National Army conducts an official inventory and transfer.

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quicklist: 5title: $5.4M Waste Incinerators, Never Used, Torn Down for Scraptext: Earlier this month SIGAR released a report revealing the U.S. contracted a Denver-based company to build waste incinerators for Forward Operating Base Sharana for $5.4 million.

The project was expected to be completed in August 2010, but after a string of unexplained delays, the incinerators weren't turned over to the military in Sharana until December 2012. Even then the SIGAR report found electrical supply problems that "could pose safety hazards" and said the incinerators were set up only to handle 80 percent of their target capacity.

It turned out not to matter as FOB Sharana was closed in October 2013 with the incinerators having never been used once. U.S. officials told SIGAR the equipment has most likely been dismantled for scrap.

MORE: US Spends $5.4M on Afghanistan Incinerators, Never Used

In defense of the waste incinerators – these and another failed incinerator project, which is noted on the next page of this report – the Pentagon said it "takes the concerns associated with burn pit smoke exposure seriously" and said that as of this report, all bases in Afghanistan with more than 100 personnel except for two have closed their burn pits. Those two use the pits under a waiver from the U.S. military. The Defense Department said the incinerator incident in Sharana is under review.

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quicklist: 6title: Again Burning $11.5M in US Money, Not Much Elsetext: Another incinerator project, another waste on waste.

This time the U.S. spent $11.5 million to buy and install four large waste incinerators at Camp Leatherneck. But when SIGAR investigators went to Leatherneck to check them out, they found only two of the smaller incinerators were being used at all, and those only to partial capacity, according to a SIGAR letter written to U.S. Central Command in July.

Instead, the 13,000-plus U.S. military and civilian personnel at Leatherneck were burning their waste in what SIGAR said amounted to a safety hazard from toxic smoke.

The SIGAR letter praised the military for taking "positive steps" to getting the incinerators up fully up and running and taking additional trash off-site, but called on Leatherneck to stop using their burn pits and to make "efficient and effective use" of the costly incinerators.

[See previous Pentagon statement regarding incinerator projects.]

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