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EDITORIAL: The white Afghan elephant

A palatial headquarters consigned to rubble

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Many people treat themselves now and then to things they don't need. It might be a marginally useful high-tech gadget, a set of steak knives with handles of genuine plastic or a useless lawn flamingo in shocking pink with rhinestone toes. Such shopping won't break the budget, so it's no big deal.

The Pentagon does things differently. When bureaucrats splurge, they do it in grand style. A palatial command center just completed in Afghanistan's Helmand province at a cost of $34 million sits empty, with no future. The army that expected to be deployed there has never been assigned to go there, and probably won't be.

John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, says the Army requested the building in February 2011. Three months later, the Marines said the building wasn't needed, and they wanted no part of it. Mr. Sopko sought to determine why it was built anyway.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday, Mr. Sopko described the grand facility as accommodating 1,500 staffers with various briefing rooms and offices suitable for high-ranking commanders. "Military officials explained this is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general," wrote the inspector general. "Once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop." Besides, it's only money, and it's free.

The building itself is useless unless the military finds a way to fill it with $2 million worth of communications equipment. Even then, the cavernous building would be occupied at a third of capacity, burning cash by cooling empty rooms against summer heat typically measured in triple digits.

Giving "the best constructed" building in the region to the Afghan government might seem like one worthy option, but the locals might not want it. Contractors built it to meet U.S. electrical standards, which creates another renovation headache. The Afghans have few technicians experienced in maintaining an American air-conditioning system. Giving it away, says Mr. Sopko, is not much more attractive than tearing it down.

Such waste is of a piece with America's experience in Afghanistan. As troop numbers wind down, billions of dollars worth of equipment and supplies will either be left behind or destroyed, since it would be enormously expensive to bring 30,000 second-hand Humvees the 7,000 miles between Afghanistan and home. Destroying the machinery of war makes a certain extravagant sense, since leaving such expensive gear for the Taliban to use is not a good idea, either. But the prospect of powerful weapons falling through the cracks has our allies in India on edge.

President Obama, in the Senate and the Oval Office, considered the conflict in Afghanistan the "good war," worth undertaking in the aftermath of Sept. 11 attacks that originated in the country that gave Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda sanctuary. It's a pity there was no oversight to avoid this lesson in disaster in the desert.

The Washington Times

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