The U.S. military has erected a 64,000-square-foot headquarters building on the dusty moonscape of southwestern Afghanistan that comes with all the tools to wage a modern war. A vast operations center with tiered seating. A briefing theater. Spacious offices. Fancy chairs. Powerful air conditioning.
Everything, that is, except troops.
The windowless, two-story structure, which is larger than a football field, was completed this year at a cost of $34 million. But the military has no plans to ever use it. Commanders in the area, who insisted three years ago that they did not need the building, now are in the process of withdrawing forces and see no reason to move into the new facility.
For many senior officers, the unused headquarters has come to symbolize the staggering cost of Pentagon mismanagement: As American troops pack up to return home, U.S.-funded contractors are placing the finishing touches on projects that are no longer required or pulling the plug after investing millions of dollars.
In Kandahar province, the U.S. military recently completed a $45 million facility to repair armored vehicles and other complex pieces of equipment. The space is now being used as a staging ground to sort through equipment that is being shipped out of the country.
In northern Afghanistan, the State Department last year abandoned plans to occupy a large building it had intended to use as a consulate. After spending more than $80 million and signing a 10-year lease, officials determined the facility was too vulnerable to attacks.
But some senior officers see the giant headquarters as the whitest elephant in a war littered with wasteful, dysfunctional and unnecessary projects funded by American taxpayers. A hulking presence at the center of Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, it has become the butt of jokes among Marines stationed there and an object lesson for senior officers in Kabul and Washington.
The top Marine commander in Helmand sent a memo to the U.S. headquarters in Kabul three years ago stating that the new structure was unnecessary. But his assessment was ignored or disregarded by officers issuing contracts for construction projects, according to senior military officials familiar with the issue.
The building’s amenities also have prompted alarm among senior officers. 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.”
Both generals spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In a letter sent Monday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the special inspector general for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, John F. Sopko, called it “the best constructed building I have seen in my travels to Afghanistan.”
“Unfortunately, it is unused, unoccupied, and presumably will never be used for its intended purpose,” Sopko wrote. “This is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general — once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop.”
A Pentagon spokesman said Hagel’s office intends to provide a formal response to Sopko before commenting further on the project.
The headquarters has its origin in 2009, when President Obama decided to surge more troops to southern Afghanistan to beat back Taliban insurgents. Army planners in South Carolina and at the Pentagon determined that Camp Leatherneck, which had been selected as the headquarters for Marine forces in the south, required a sophisticated command-and-control facility.
When Marine officers in Helmand heard of the plans, they objected. The commander at the time, then-Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills, believed his plywood-walled headquarters was sufficient and made that clear to his superiors in Kabul.
His assessment went unheeded. Staff officers in Kabul drafted specifications for the building and asked Air Force contracting officers to find a private company to construct it. The construction order went to a British firm, AMEC Earth and Environment, which began work in November 2011, according to military documents. By then, Obama had announced the end of the surge. The bulk of the withdrawal would occur in Helmand.
As the Marine presence in the southwest went from 20,000 to about 7,000 in 2012, workers laid the foundation, placed the beams and strung electrical wire. The building was designed to accommodate about 1,500 personnel. There are now fewer than 400 headquarters-level staff on the base.
Even after Obama decided to remove an additional 34,000 troops this year, the project continued apace. Cubicles filled the floor. Theater seats arrived. The contractor made modifications to address problems with emergency exits.
It was not until this spring that U.S. generals in Kabul decided to call a halt to the project. The decision was made before additional millions were spent on computer gear for the building but not soon enough to cancel crates of furniture.
“It’s terribly embarrassing,” the two-star Army general said.
The Pentagon, Sopko wrote to Hagel, needs to determine “all of the facts on how we reached this $34 million dilemma and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.”
The military, which has opened a formal investigation into the decisions that led to the contract, is considering two options for the building: demolishing it or giving it to the Afghan army. Although the handoff sounds appealing, U.S. officials doubt the Afghans will be able to sustain the structure. It has complex heating and air-conditioning systems that demand significant amounts of electricity, which, in turn, require costly fuel purchases for generators. The building is wired for 110-volt appliances, not the 220-volt equipment used by Afghans. And, the officials note, the U.S. military recently built a new headquarters building on the Afghan base that adjoins Leatherneck.
“Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling,” Sopko said.
Based on his conversations with military officials, he said one of the options now seems to be gaining traction: “The building will probably be demolished.”