On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) chaired a Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee hearing on a Department of Defense (DoD) task force alleged to have wasted millions on economic development projects in Afghanistan.
The hearing on the DoD’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan featured testimony from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko and Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon. The Senate convened the hearing in response to recent SIGAR reports finding wasteful spending by the Task Force, which shut down at the end of March of last year.
The Task Force spent $638 million rebuilding Afghanistan’s war-torn economy. Sopko testified that the Task Force employed a “scattershot” approach, funding everything from the importation of Italian goats to bolster the cashmere industry, to projects supporting the development of extractives industries. SIGAR determined that this unfocused approach did little to spur economic growth in Afghanistan. On the contrary, SIGAR found that the Task Force’s legacy is one of ill-conceived, poorly planned, and unfinished projects. SIGAR has received more complaints of waste, fraud, and abuse relating to the Task Force than for any other program in Afghanistan.
Much of the two-hour hearing centered on the most notorious Task Force project: a compressed natural gas filling station in the city of Sheberghan that allegedly cost $43 million. Although it is now believed that the gas station actually cost much less—under $10 million (which would still be about 20 times more than it should have cost)—McKeon and the DoD are unable to document the cost or whether the project achieved its goals.
The Senators directed most of their outrage at McKeon, who could only say that “time will tell” if the Task Force was a success. Ayotte and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) had a particularly testy exchange with McKeon over the decision of the Task Force to spend $150 million on private luxury villas in Afghanistan instead saving taxpayers millions of dollars by living on U.S. military bases. The Senators were also concerned that McKeon has been stonewalling SIGAR’s investigations. For months, the DoD and SIGAR have fought over access to Task Force records. McKeon denied that his office has not been cooperating with SIGAR. Days before the hearing, McKeon provided SIGAR a hard drive containing Task Force information, which Sopko deemed inadequate.
Sopko vows to continue looking into “the successes and stumbles” of the Task Force. A full financial audit by SIGAR of all Task Force activities in Afghanistan is forthcoming.