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IG: Pentagon task force spent $150M on villas, security guards in Afghanistan

IG: Pentagon task force spent $150M on villas, security guards in Afghanistan
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A special inspector general wants to know why a Pentagon task force meant to help rebuild the economies in Iraq and Afghanistan spent about $150 million of taxpayer money on private housing and security guards so its employees in Afghanistan could live off U.S. military bases.

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“Based on allegations we have received from former [task force] employees and others, today I am writing to request information concerning [the task force’s] decision to spend nearly $150 million, amounting to nearly 20 percent of its budget, on private housing and private security guards for its U.S. government employees in Afghanistan, rather than live on U.S military bases,” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter released publicly Thursday.

The task force, known as the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), is the same one that has come under increasing fire from lawmakers after another SIGAR report found it spent $43 million to build a compressed natural gas station in Afghanistan.

In total, the task force spent about $800 million before disbanding in March.

After a preliminary review of the latest allegations, SIGAR found task force leadership rented specially furnished, privately owned villas for about five to 10 employees, according to the letter. They also hired contractors for 24-hour building security, food services and bodyguards for staff and visitors.

“If TFBSO employees had instead lived at DOD facilities in Afghanistan, where housing, security and food service are routinely provided at little or no extra charge to DOD organizations, it appears the taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars,” Sopko wrote, referring to the Department of Defense.

One example of the contract work was $57 million paid to private security company Triple Canopy from 2010 to 2014. The contract provided for armed support, as well as queen-size beds in certain rooms, a 27-inch or bigger flat screen TV in each room, 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,” according to the letter.

The contract also stipulated Triple Canopy needed to provide food service that was “at least 3 stars,” with each meal containing at least two entree choices and three side order choices, Sopko wrote. For special events, there needed to be three-course meals.

Based on quotes from former officials and studies commissioned by the task force, Sopko wrote, the goal of living off military bases appears to have been to have been freedom of movement, as well as showing private companies it was possible to operate in Afghanistan outside of military facilities. 

For example, Sopko cited former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley, the task force’s first director, who wrote in his book, “Our goal was to get businesses running and to encourage private investors and corporations from outside of Afghanistan to engage in the country either as trading partners or as investors. Wherever possible, we avoided depending on the military.

“We were part of their mission ... but we avoided living on military bases whenever possible. The goal was to show private companies that they could set up operations in Afghanistan themselves without needing military support.”

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate sets date for hearings on Sessions's attorney general nomination Mnuchin, Price meet with GOP senators Business groups express support for Branstad nomination MORE (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has been conducting his own investigation into the task force, called Brinkley’s reasoning “Grade A baloney.”

“The concerns raised in SIGAR’s letter don’t inspire confidence that the task force took care with spending,” he said in a statement. “For example, the assertion that task force employees had to have outside housing and security to set an example for private companies sounds like U.S. Grade A baloney. I look forward to learning more about how the task force operated and what, if any, results it achieved in exchange for spending $800 million.”

To further his investigation, Sopko asked Carter whether the Pentagon or the task force did a cost-benefit analysis of having the private housing and security. He also wants to know whether the Pentagon specifically authorized the private residences and whether the Pentagon would have charged for living on military facilities.

Other questions in Sopko’s investigation include how villas were chosen, what the difference between “leadership villas” and other villas were, what private investors were brought to Afghanistan by the task force and whether those investors actually invested in the country.