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U.S. nixes larger office for Afghan defense minister

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KABUL — The United States is spending $92 million to build Afghanistan a new “Pentagon,” a massive five-story military headquarters with domed roofs and a high-tech basement command center that will link Afghan generals with their troops fighting the Taliban across the country.

But when Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak asked for a bigger office in the building — a change that would cost about $300,000 — he got a firm “no” in response. These types of changes cost time and money, U.S. military officials said, and in Afghanistan both are in ever-shorter supply.

“We could do them, but we’re not going to do them,” Col. Andrew Backus, director of engineering for the NATO command in charge of training and equipping Afghanistan’s security forces, said of the Afghans’ proposed revisions. “What we’re going to do is finish the project with strict change control and turn it over to the Afghans. And if they want to change it, then they can change it.”

The military headquarters building is one of the most prominent public symbols of the United States’ financial commitment to Afghanistan. Even at this late stage in the war, with American troops beginning their withdrawal, the U.S. government is working its way through a $10 billion menu of construction projects aimed at bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces. Of the 1,150 buildings planned, more than 600 have been completed, at a cost of $4 billion.

In addition to the Defense Ministry headquarters, the United States is building a $54 million Kabul headquarters for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Afghan police, as well as a $102 million base for the Afghan military’s 201st Corps in the east.

But with strict timelines and eroding domestic support for the war, U.S. military officials say there’s little room for revising what remains to be done.

“We are taking a firm stance with a set of disciplined business rules on change control,” Backus said. “That’s our approach.”

That policy has been tested at a high level with Afghanistan’s new military headquarters. Rising amid Kabul’s dusty streets, the 516,000-square-foot edifice, still cloaked in scaffolds and cranes, dwarfs other buildings in town.

“Once it’s finished, it will be a permanent and a very significant illustration of the U.S. support for Afghanistan,” Wardak, the defense minister, said in an interview. “And we needed it.”

But Wardak said he asked for two changes to the plan, one involving a conference room and the other his office. The current configuration, with his staff members situated in an adjacent room, would require dignitaries to wade through a crowd of people to get to him, the defense minister said. “I have 100 or something staff. They wanted all of them to be crowded near my office. I didn’t want them close,” he said. “That was one objection.”

U.S. military officials said that the office planned for the minister — which had been agreed to by the Afghans — is about 1,400 square feet and that the proposed changes would have doubled its size, as well as given the minister direct access to an elevator. A more expensive proposal, to expand the basement command center from 4,000 to 6,000 square feet, would have cost $4 million and delayed the completion of the project, which is expected early next year, Backus said. “We’re resisting that change as well,” he said.

Wardak said he is not interested in a lavish setting. And after eight years in his job, and more than 30 years as a soldier — fighting the Soviets as an insurgent and the Taliban as a counterinsurgent — he doesn’t envision spending much time in the new building before he retires.

“I’m not somebody to be very luxurious or something like that. I have never sat on that chair,” he said, motioning to a thronelike leather chair behind his desk.

He has had some harrowing moments working here. In the adjacent room, bullet holes are still visible in the walls, a reminder of when a Taliban gunman sneaked inside and shot up the ministry last year.

“I think that is not such a major issue, bigger or smaller,” Wardak said. “I would be very happy with a room this size.”

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