Pentagon defends Afghan task force against charges of waste

Pentagon defends Afghan task force against charges of waste
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Inspector general reports that cast a task force meant to rebuild Afghanistan’s economy as a waste of taxpayer money are flawed, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.

At the same time, the official acknowledged the Defense Department has struggled with economic development missions, questioning whether it should continue to do so.

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“I personally am skeptical that the Department of Defense is the natural home for that mission,” Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee on Wednesday. “We have struggled with this challenge over the last decade or more, and as a government we need to develop a functioning mechanism so that we are prepared for future contingencies.”

Senators and a special inspector general have blasted the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), saying it has little to show after being given $800 million for projects in Afghanistan.

“No one can say with any credibility that the programs were effective,” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said.

The task force was formed in 2006 to help stabilize the economy in Iraq and later shifted gears to Afghanistan. It disbanded in March.

Senators convened the hearing after a series of inspector general reports alleged the task force spent $43 million on a compressed natural gas station and $150 million on private villas and security guards, among other costs.

McKeon disputed those findings Wednesday.

For the gas station report, he said, investigators relied on flawed data from a consultant hired by the task force.

The Pentagon estimates the entire gas station project cost $5.1 million. That includes the station, two dispensers, one trailer filling point, a car conversion center, an office building, gas compression and processing equipment, and the conversion of two generators.

The station itself cost $2.9 million, according to Pentagon estimates.

The $30 million overhead costs cited in the report, McKeon said, appear to be for all natural gas or energy projects, not just the gas station.

Also contrary to the report, McKeon said, the gas station is still in operation and fills about 160 cars a day.

But a 100-gigabyte hard drive the inspector general received last week from the Pentagon with documents on the task force corroborates the $43 million figure, Sopko said Wednesday.

“The gas station number’s really not that important,” he said. “It goes back to the underlying problems that I think the senators have hit on, and that is poor planning, poor management and poor coordination.”

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteJuan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama Battle brews over Trump’s foreign policy Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates MORE (R-N.H.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, said the dispute over the dollar figure doesn’t inspire confidence that the Pentagon knows how task force money was spent.

She also questioned why the Pentagon didn’t dispute the figure earlier.

“I’m just curious why it took the night before this hearing or the day before this hearing for you to come forward and dispute this number,” she said.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillOvernight Defense: Funding bill would ease Trump Defense pick's confirmation | Obama delivers final security speech Congress wants hearing on Pentagon wasteful spending charges A Cabinet position for Petraeus; disciplinary actions for Broadwell after affair MORE (D-Mo.) fumed over the gas station project, saying it never would have been successful. It costs $800 to convert a car to natural gas, while the average Afghan makes $690 annually, she said.

“I don’t care if it was $2.9 million or $200 million,” she said. "Who made the brilliant decision that this was a good idea?”

“I want to talk to that person and find out what they were on that day,” she added.

Over the last two years, Sopko said, his office has gotten more complaints of waste, fraud and abuse related to the task force than any other organization operating in Afghanistan.

In addition to the published reports, Sopko’s written testimony detailed other projects from the task force that his office is in the process of investigating or plans to investigate.

For example, the Herat Incubator Project spent $46.8 million to create a Silicon Valley-style startup incubator.

“According to Paul Brinkley, he had the idea for the incubator following the revelation that there were ‘long-haired’ Silicon Valley-type Afghans already operating businesses in the city that could benefit from TFBSO assistance,” Sopko wrote, referring to the founding director of the task force. “Additionally, Herat was appealing because the city was generally stable with a relatively high quality of human capital, stable electricity and airport access.”

But the incubator model was unsustainable, Sopko said. Also, the contractors in charge of implementing the project “did nothing,” Sopko quoted former task force director James Bullion as telling him.

Another project listed in the written testimony is the Cashmere Support Program, which spent $6.1 million.

The program imported nine rare blond goats from Italy, constructed a farming facility, and built, staffed and funded a lab to certify Afghan cashmere in accordance with international standards. The inspector general hasn’t done an independent analysis of the program, which claimed to create 250 to 350 jobs.

“Is it true that the TFBSO actually imported a large number of Italian goats via air shipment?” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) asked McKeon, who did not know. “I was going to ask whether the goat initiative was a success or failure, but apparently you’re not able to answer that.”