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‘The finest poppy storage warehouse ever built for the Afghan army’

U.S. Marines prepare to leave for operations from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in June 2009. (Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. military has just finished construction on a state-of-the-art, $34 million military complex in southern Afghanistan that it will never use because it's winding down operations in the country.

Maybe most amazing is the fact that the facility did not become suddenly useless; it's been a boondoggle pretty much since the beginning. According to Rajiv Chandrasekaran's story on the project at Camp Leatherneck, local commanders objected back when it was first announced in 2009, saying they did not need or want the fancy upgrade.

You might say, well, the Obama administration had just announced its "surge" into southern Afghanistan, so maybe military planners thought they would eventually need it. But that would not explain why, after the surge ended in 2011, and even when the United States began drawing down last year, dramatically reversing Obama's earlier plan for a lengthy engagement, the military continued to go forward with a facility to serve a policy that no longer existed. Even after the United States withdrew many thousands of troops from the region last year, seemingly obviating the need for a complex meant to house 1,500 troops who aren't there and oversee tens of thousands more, construction and development continued.

Just this spring, months after it had become obvious that the facility would serve no purpose, the team working on it spent millions of dollars ordering crates of furniture to fill it. The project has been canceled, and now the Pentagon is trying to decide between bulldozing the complex to the ground or handing it over to Afghan forces, which have been troubled by accusations of corruption, including collusion in the country's vast opium trade. Military officials are currently leaning toward the former option. "It's terribly embarrassing," a two-star Army general said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Many of us outside the military are just now learning about the money-losing debacle so slow-motion it took four years to unfold. But at Camp Leatherneck -- where, recall, the commanders had tried to refuse the facility -- it was well-known enough that people developed jokes about it. A commenter passes one along, a reference to the lucrative plant used to produce opium: "That is the finest poppy storage warehouse ever built for the Afghan army."

If you're American, then I hope you enjoyed that joke, because it cost your country $34 million.

Correction: An earlier version of this post attributed the remark "It's terribly embarrassing" to Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills. The remark was made by a two-star Army general who was speaking on the condition of anonymity.

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