'A $34 Million Waste Of The Taxpayers' Money' In Afghanistan
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Here's some news out of Afghanistan that is not about American clashes with the Karzai government or the Taliban. This is about the ledger book. Reports from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction show mind-numbing spending decisions on military facilities that will never be used. In addition, there are details about multimillion-dollar waste incinerators that are sitting idle while troops continue to inhale unhealthy air from open burn pits.
The special inspector general behind these reports is John Sopko, a former Capitol Hill counsel and organized crime prosecutor, and he joins me now. Thank you for coming in.
JOHN SOPKO: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: Let's start with this massive headquarters that's just wrapped up construction at Camp Leatherneck. That's the Marine base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It cost $34 million, and according to you - and I quote from the report - "It is unused, unoccupied and presumably will never be used for its intended purposes." How is that?
SOPKO: Well, because it was originally built for the surge, for an Army headquarters, and before it was constructed, the Army decided not to move in to there. So the Marine Corps was supposed to take it over. The Marine Corps general - and this is back in 2010 - said, I don't want it. Don't build it. I won't use it. So stop construction. A year later, construction began. And so it was constructed over the last two years and nobody wants it, and it is a beautiful building that's not being used currently.
SIEGEL: Does it have any potential use for the Afghans for some other activity?
SOPKO: Well, I don't believe the Afghans have been spoken to about this. They probably can't use it themselves because it would cost so much money to maintain it and to retrofit it. It was built to U.S. standards for electric and everything else, and they just don't have the capability or the money to sustain it.
SIEGEL: Do we know who the contractor is? Who - at the time?
SOPKO: Oh, we do know who the contractor was, and I have no criticism against the contractor. The contractor did what they were told. It's actually the best building I have ever seen in Afghanistan. It's better than my current headquarters. It's better than the Pentagon. But...
SIEGEL: It's just useless is what you're saying.
SOPKO: It's just useless. It's a $34 million waste of the taxpayers' money.
SIEGEL: NPR's Tom Bowman reported about that, as did The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who also pointed out a $45 million facility for repairing armored vehicles and an $80 million consulate building in Northern Afghanistan, neither of which will be used as intended.
SOPKO: That's correct. I have seen both. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of buildings and plenty of equipment that is not needed. We've seen this time and time again.
SIEGEL: These are projects that were really - that people broke ground for as we were clearly on the way out of Afghanistan?
SOPKO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the joke in my office is we will eventually see a base where on one side of the base they are destroying it while on the other side they're building it, and they will probably meet in the middle. It epitomizes what we have seen, and that is if you appropriate it, they will spend it.
SIEGEL: Today, you have a new report about open-air burn pits at Camp Leatherneck while huge incinerators sit idle. And these incinerators are there in part because people had detected this problem in Iraq already.
SOPKO: You're absolutely correct. And this is a real tragedy. This was a lesson we learned in Iraq. Congress responded, put money into various appropriations bills to build incinerators. The problem is the incinerators are either poorly constructed, too small or unusable. So we continue to build incinerators. In this case in Leatherneck, it was over $12 million incinerators. And they're not sufficient, so we're still continuing the burn pits and still creating that health hazard for our soldiers and civilians.
SIEGEL: You - in that report, you say - you were told, well, the incinerator is going to be working within two weeks, then you made a couple of return visits and the incinerators still weren't working.
SOPKO: That's correct. That's usually the standard line we get. You wait a few weeks or wait a month and come back and it'll be working with the assumption that we'll never come back. In this case, we actually have people on the ground who can visit on a daily basis.
SIEGEL: Eighty billion dollars has been spent on the reconstruction. Even 80 million is a very small fraction of that. Do you think you've scratched the surface of what's been misspent in the reconstruction of Afghanistan?
SOPKO: We've started to scratch the surface. I think what we have identified are some of the key problems that cause the wasting of money. But I can't say we've looked at all $90-some billion that actually have been appropriated. But we're - we have a target-rich environment over in Afghanistan to say the least.
SIEGEL: As a...
SOPKO: As a former prosecutor and as an investigator, it is target-rich.
SIEGEL: Well, John Sopko, thank you very much for talking with us.
SOPKO: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: John Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.