The Pentagon spent $150 million in Afghanistan renting "villas" and private security contractors for Department of Defense employees there - officials from a now-defunct economic development arm called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO).
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said "it is unclear what benefit the US received" from the outlays, and that the expenditures appear to have been made without a prior cost-benefit analysis.
SIGAR John Sopko said that TFBSO could have saved taxpayers "tens of millions of dollars" if it had chosen to house personnel "at DOD facilities in Afghanistan." He made the statements in a Nov. 25 letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The correspondence was published this week by SIGAR.
Included among the lavish services Sopko inquired about were luxury commodities provided by private military contractors.
"Triple Canopy provided TFBSO personnel with queen size beds in certain rooms, a flat screen TV in each room that was 27 inches or larger, a DVD player in each room, a mini refrigerator in each room, and an 'investor villa' that had 'upgraded furniture' and 'western-style hotel accommodations,'" the comptroller noted.
"In terms of food, Triple Canopy was required to provide service that was ';at least 3 stars,' with each meal containing at least two entrée choices and three side order choices, as well as three course meals for 'Special Events," Sopko added.
The first director of TFBSO, Paul Brinkley, may have made the decision to locate staff outside of US military bases, but the former federal employee "has not cooperated with our requests for information," SIGAR noted.
"Wherever possible, we avoided depending on the military," Brinkley said in the passage a 2014 book highlighted by SIGAR in the Nov. 25 letter. "The goal was to show private companies that they could set up operations in Afghanistan themselves without needing military support."
The watchdog found that assessments of the TFBSO did exist, but mostly in the form of laudatory, narrow analyses provided by "outside consultants." It pointed out that the Boston Consulting Group, for example, praised TFBSO's emphasis on "freedom of movement" and said the development organ had "no excessive red tape internally in securing travel arrangements."
"None of the foregoing consultant studies discuss the $150 million cost," Sopko noted. Nor did they consider the decisions that led to the establishment of a villa-based command.
Sopko asked Carter to provide his office with information on the set-up one week from this Friday.
TFBSO has been at the center of other recent boondoggles documented by Sopko. In November, his office revealed it was behind the construction of a $43 million natural gas filling station that should have cost about $500,000 to build. In December 2014, SIGAR reported that TFBSO left a pipeline construction project about four-fifths complete before winding up all of its operations in Afghanistan the previous month.
Afghanistan's struggling economy has contributed significantly to the country's mounting woes in the past few years. Late last year, a Gallup poll showed 63 percent of Afghans described themselves as "suffering" - a record high for any country since the survey was launched in 2005. In 2010, only 23 percent of Afghans said they were "suffering."
Bread-and-butter issues appeared to be behind the trend. The percentage of Afghans "dissatisfied with efforts to deal with the poor" was at 86 percent in 2014, according to Gallup - up 9 percentage points on a year-over-year basis. Forty-four percent of rural Afghans and nearly one-third of urban respondents reported not having enough money for food at certain times throughout 2014.
Poverty has compounded Afghans' anxieties about their country's security situation, and both have contributed to a growing exodus in recent years. In 2013, according to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, more than 36,000 Afghans sought sanctuary in over 44 industrialized countries. That number in 2014 almost doubled ballooned to more than 59,000. This year alone, as of publication, UNHCR said that almost 178,000 Afghans have sought sanctuary in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.
Afghanistan's exchange rate-adjusted Gross Domestic Product in 2014, according to the CIA, was $20.44 billion. The $150 million TFBSO spent on villas and private security is equivalent to 0.75 percent of that sum.