U.S. needs millions more to complete Afghanistan’s ‘Pentagon’

December 8, 2013

The Afghan “Pentagon” being built here is a sprawling symbol of U.S. generosity.

The American government has already spent about $107 million — double the initial estimate — on the five-story Defense Ministry headquarters, which will include state-of-the-art bunkers and the second-largest auditorium in Kabul.

But now, four years after the groundbreaking, construction crews have had to effectively halt their work. The reason: The U.S. government has run out of money for the project.

For years, audits and inspector general’s reports have documented waste and mismanagement in American aid projects in Afghanistan. But the Defense Ministry building is a dramatic example of how poor oversight continues to plague the massive U.S. investment here.

“Nobody was watching it like they should, and it’s just been an open checkbook,” said an American official involved in the management of the project, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. “We failed, big time.”

The Afghan National Army sustained heavy casualties in the recent fighting season. But Post Kabul bureau chief Kevin Sieff says there's cautious optimism about the ANA's performance as the U.S. accelerates its troop reduction. (The Washington Post)

The 516,000-square-foot building is part of a multi-year, $9.3 billion construction spree aimed at providing hundreds of bases, outposts and hospitals for the Afghan military. Nearly all of it is financed by the U.S. government.

But even though most American troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country by late next year, 291 projects remain in the planning stages or under construction; 835 are complete.

The American-led military coalition is appealing to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to authorize an additional $24 million for the Afghan defense headquarters, already one of the costliest U.S-financed buildings in the country.

While awaiting the extra funding, officials have dispatched a skeleton crew to install windows to protect the building from the harsh Kabul winter.

“We have gotten ourselves into a position that we need to get out of, and we definitely need to fix it,” said Brig. Gen. Michael E. Wehr, the deputy chief of staff engineers for the U.S.-led coalition. “It’s an important building. It’s a Ministry of Defense headquarters. It’s in Kabul. We’ve got to get this done right.”

A pattern of setbacks

Since 2005, Congress has allocated about $53 billion to help equip, train, house and feed the 348,000 members of Afghanistan’s army and police force. But as that money has poured into Afghanistan, American military leaders have struggled to contain cost overruns and construction delays and to deal with ill-trained or corrupt contractors.

U.S. military officials say they have no evidence that the Afghan Defense Ministry project has been set back by missing or stolen funds. But military commanders have requested a U.S. Defense Department audit of the project.

They say the project was hampered by unrealistic cost projections, a poorly trained Afghan workforce, heavy snow in Kabul during the 2011-2012 winter and delays in getting materials into Afghanistan.

The project hit a snag before it even broke ground, said U.S. Col. Butch Graham, command engineer for Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, the lead agency for distributing and overseeing coalition funds to the Afghan military.

Contractors had to clear the site by tearing down a dining hall for Afghan troops and rebuilding it elsewhere. But the contractor defaulted and had to be terminated, Graham said.

When construction finally began, security officials decided that work crews could not be housed on the site and had to stay at a camp miles away. That meant they had to spend time daily traveling to and from the construction site, located inside Kabul’s heavily fortified “green zone.”

A larger obstacle, however, was the delay in importing steel and other materials for the building, which is being constructed to withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake and will include space for 2,200 Afghan military officials and commanders.

Wehr said convoys were frequently idled at Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Truckers have to pay hefty customs fees, and border crossings are frequently closed because of security concerns, officials said.

Last year, The Washington Post reported that Afghan commanders were requesting features for the building that Pentagon officials viewed as too costly or unrealistic. Graham says U.S. officials have fended off most such requests but did agree to a 1,000-seat auditorium for large gatherings of military officials.

John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said the project’s woes fit a pattern of “poor planning, poor recordkeeping, poor oversight and poor security” amid a “rush to spend” U.S. tax dollars on the Afghan military.

Of particular concern, Sopko said, is that U.S. military commanders frequently rotate in and out of Afghanistan. U.S. officials familiar with the project say such turnover is partially to blame for the problems. Contractors repeatedly requested additional funds but did not receive a thorough vetting of their bills or performance, the officials said.

“That is a recipe for disaster,” Sopko said.

Projections and predictions

U.S. officials hope that the Defense Ministry headquarters will be completed late next year with the additional funds requested.

But Sopko’s office estimates that 47 planned Afghan military projects worth about $1.1 billion won’t be finished until at least 2015, leaving them vulnerable to rising tensions between the Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai recently stunned U.S. officials by announcing that he would delay signing a long-term bilateral security accord. If the agreement is not signed quickly, the administration has warned, President Obama may not keep up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the formal U.S. combat mission ends late next year.

The pullout could mean that the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is overseeing the Defense Ministry headquarters, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t be around to manage uncompleted projects.

If the accord isn’t completed, the Afghan military could lose $4.1 billion in annual direct assistance that the United States and its coalition partners have pledged through 2018.

During a meeting between Karzai and his national security council on Sunday, military leaders questioned whether the Defense Ministry headquarters and other U.S.-funded projects were being deliberately slowed to exert pressure on the Afghan president to sign the agreement, according to a senior Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Coalition officials strongly deny that assertion, and government documents show that the Defense Ministry project has been troubled for years.

When work began in 2009, the headquarters was scheduled to be completed in October 2010. That deadline was quickly extended, and the cost of the project had risen to $67 million by spring 2012. By earlier this year, it had ballooned to $108 million, with a Dec. 31 completion date.

In September, however, the project hit “funds exhaustion,” Graham said.

A spokesman for the prime contractor, Rhode Island-based Innovative Technical Solutions/Gilbane, declined to comment. But Mohammad Rafi, owner of a Kabul-based construction company, said he and other subcontractors were abruptly sent home in September and are still not clear why.

“We were just told, ‘They have to stop it,’ ” Rafi said, adding that he is still awaiting payment for a few invoices.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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