Watchdog Sheds New Light on Afghanistan Luxury Villas

One year ago, we learned that the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations—the Pentagon’s Afghanistan economic development coordination office, which shut down in 2015—had spent nearly $150 million on private housing in Afghanistan for its staff, security personnel, and corporate visitors the United States hoped would pump capital into the country. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) claimed the Task Force could have saved tens of millions of dollars by using existing US military or diplomatic facilities for lodging; instead, the Task Force blew nearly 20 percent of its budget renting and furnishing private villas that resembled five-star hotels.

The Project On Government Oversight has learned new details about the villas. Special Inspector General John Sopko disclosed the new information last week in his response to questions from Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) about the cost and operation of the villas, although SIGAR was unable to answer all of Representative Jones’ questions because of lost or destroyed documents.

SIGAR found that $183.2 million had been obligated through 13 contracts and delivery orders that partially or fully supported villa operations. Nearly all of the money was awarded, sometimes without full and open competition, to three contractors: Triple Canopy, Defense Group Incorporated, and Muscogee Nation Business Enterprise. However, due to gaping holes in the paper trail, SIGAR is unable to definitively state the total cost of the villas, which could fall anywhere between $150 million and $183.2 million.

The villas were used between September 2010 and December 2014, but SIGAR was only able to recover occupancy records through July 2012. Even then, incomplete or missing documentation often prevented SIGAR from determining the purpose of the visit or who the visitor worked for. A 17-page summary of visitor logs attached to Sopko’s letter shows visitors from several well-known companies, particularly IBM. Employees of prominent federal contractor CACI International and clothing retailer Kate Spade New York also stayed at the villas, where taxpayers provided guests “executive furnishings and amenities.”

Sopko springs a distressing bit of news at the end of the letter when he explains that a comprehensive audit or investigation of the Task Force may never happen:

As I said to you in a letter dated June 3, 2016, DOD’s records for TFBSO [Task Force for Business and Stability Operations] are incomplete. In fact, in response to a separate congressional request, we attempted to perform a full financial audit of TFBSO’s activities in Afghanistan. Because DOD could not produce the basic contract files and other financial information related to TFBSO’s expenditure of the $640 million in appropriations it received, we determined that it would be impossible to conduct a full financial audit that would allow us to express a meaningful opinion on TFBSO’s financial records. [Emphasis added]

This is especially troubling given SIGAR’s claim that it has received more complaints of waste, fraud, and abuse relating to the Task Force than for any other program in Afghanistan. Barring a whistleblower who steps forward to expose the Task Force’s dirty secrets, it seems the book may be closing on yet another wasteful episode in the US reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.