WASHINGTON— A U.S. congressional body overseeing government-funded projects in Afghanistan says the U.S. military has spent $34 million to build a new complex in the country's south, but is not likely to ever use it.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said Wednesday it believes the U.S. facility in the southern Afghan province of Helmand is a "potentially troubling example of waste."
The body created by Congress to detect waste in Afghanistan raised that concern in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and senior military leaders on Monday. It released the letter to the media on Wednesday.
The U.S. military hired British firm AMEC Earth and Environment to start building the facility in 2011, and intended to use it as a regional command headquarters. But Special Inspector General John Sopko said military officials recently told him it will not be occupied. He also said some U.S. commanders in Helmand objected to plans for the building in 2010, saying there was no need for it.
Sopko said he is "deeply troubled" that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a project that "should have been stopped." He asked Defense Secretary Hagel to respond to several questions about it by July 25. Defense Department spokesman George Little said Wednesday that Sopko's letter is under review.
"I don't know if [Secretary Hagel] will provide a formal response. I do not have one at this stage," Little said. "I think it is going to take us a little bit of time to review the findings and to coordinate with the SIGAR."
The 6,000-square-meter complex is located at Camp Leatherneck, a major U.S. military base in Afghanistan's desolate south. It consists mostly of a large windowless building with spacious offices and expensive heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for up to 1,500 staff.
Construction mostly finished in 2012, but various improvements were made early this year.
The Special Inspector General cited a senior military official as saying the site may become unprotected as Camp Leatherneck's perimeter shrinks with the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in the coming year.
Sopko said that leaves the U.S. military with two main options - demolishing the building or handing it over to the Afghan government.
Washington-based senior writer for the Marine Corps Times Dan Lamothe said he saw the building last October, while spending 10 weeks on assignment in Helmand. He said he doubts the Afghan government has the capacity to manage the costly facility, whose electricity system runs on U.S. rather than Afghan voltage.
"Helmand province and [the Afghan capital] Kabul may as well be two different countries in a lot of practical ways," Lamothe said. "The government is so far removed from the everyday lives of the people in Helmand that I do not see how Kabul would keep track of something like that."
Lamothe said he witnessed another example of U.S. government "waste" while embedded with an Afghan border police unit in the Taghaz region of southern Helmand. He said the United States built a $1 million police building for the Afghans with a kitchen and modern toilets, but its septic tank filled up because no one emptied it.
"There was major concern about how are we going to get the septic tanks emptied, and if the Afghans are going to do it, or should the United States foot the bill," he said. "For me, that's going to be a running problem - is it even feasible for them to continue using indoor plumbing in a place that is that remote, if the Afghan government is not going to take care of it?"
Sopko said the U.S. military officials who spoke to his team believe the Camp Leatherneck building probably will be demolished.
Luis Ramirez contributed to this report from the Pentagon.