Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan was not a particularly hospitable base for the tens of thousands of U.S. Marines and other troops who surged there towards the end of the last decade. Sandstorms regularly swept through the treeless landscape, and attacks on the base by Taliban forces claimed lives. The base's initial name was "Tombstone."
So it was perhaps understandable when the Marines declared an “operational need” in 2010 for a huge headquarters building at the site, to be outfitted with air conditioning, plush seating and comfortable offices.
But the decision to construct a 64,000-foot command and control facility has since come to exemplify the U.S. military’s careless waste in Afghanistan. After $34 million was spent on its construction, the tall, windowless building was never, ever used, except perhaps for target practice by the Taliban, according to U.S. officials. The facility was officially turned over to the Afghan Army last fall, but it remains empty and lies in a part of Afghanistan where U.S. personnel rarely if ever travel now.
The question posed by the initial exposure of this costly debacle in July 2013 is, who was responsible? And will anyone in the military be held accountable?
After two internal investigations, and considerable hemming and hawing, the Pentagon’s definitive answer is finally available in a newly released federal report: No one in particular made a bad call, and if the question arose again under similar circumstances today, the same cavernous facility would be still be ordered up. Therefore, no one in the chain of command can or should be held responsible.
This reply has outraged several key lawmakers. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Sen. Armed Services committee, told the Center for Public Integrity in a written statement that the project was a “boondoggle” and that the Pentagon’s claim that its construction was prudent is “patently false.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a ranking member of the governmental affairs permanent investigations subcommittee, similarly called the facility’s construction “one of the most outrageous, deliberate, and wasteful misuses of taxpayer dollars.” She expressed shock that the Pentagon “completely failed to hold any officials accountable after all the facts came to light.”
Their criticisms were shared by the author of the new federal report, John F. Sopko, the presidentially-appointed Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In it, he accused a senior Army general of insisting in August 2010 that the facility be completed merely because Congress had already agreed to fund it.
This decision was made over the objections of three generals who were arguably closer to the actual U.S. military deployments in Helmand province, where Camp Leatherneck was located, and who were aware that the surge of forces there was unlikely to be long-lasting. One of them sponsored a May 2010 review that declared the command center was “not necessary to execute our mission.” Another general agreed in a memorandum the following month that “this project is no longer required.” And a third said that month that the requirement for a facility “has already been met and thus this project is no longer required.”
These recommendations were rejected by then-Major General Peter M. Vangjel, the deputy commander of the Army’s forces attached to Central Command. He said in a note at the time that because Congress had already approved the construction, shifting those funds to another project was “not prudent” — an apparent reflection of the infamous “use it or lose it” ethos that federal bureaucracies use to keep their spending levels intact.