- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Defense Department poured hundreds of millions of dollars into boondoggle development programs in Afghanistan without caring how much they would cost, a government watchdog said Wednesday in a damning report that portrays a culture of carelessness at the top levels of the Pentagon.

And after months of stonewalling, the department finally turned over a computer hard drive with records from the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), but John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said there are early indications the Pentagon may still be trying to thwart his investigation into the problems that have plagued the recovery effort.

“The data provided is substantially inadequate. There is obviously a lot of data missing in this hard drive that we got — so much so that we have forensic accountants now reviewing it to determine if the data has been manipulated. We are also concerned that we are missing emails — major email files,” Mr. Sopko said.

Defense officials are trying to dig their way out of a hole dug by Mr. Sopko, who has issued repeated reports questioning some $760 million spent by the TFBSO to try to boost businesses in Afghanistan, as part of the U.S. effort to leave the country more stable upon Americans’ withdrawal.

Mr. Sopko said the money was spent without cost-benefit analyses being done to ensure a return on taxpayers’ investment, and said the task force didn’t appear to have learned from the myriad mistakes made by similar reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Worse yet, the Defense Department has clammed up about the failures, claiming that since the TFBSO was shut down and the people have left the department, they can no longer answer any questions about its wasteful activities.

“DOD has yet to provide any evidence that TFBSO reduced violence or increased stability despite its expenditure of nearly $800 million dollars of taxpayer funds,” Mr. Sopko said in his prepared testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Brian P. McKeon, the principal deputy under secretary for defense policy, said he believes the Pentagon could go back and say how all the money was spent, at least in broad categories. But he acknowledged an “inadequacy” in the task force’s bookkeeping.

Asked by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican and chairwoman of the subcommittee hosting Wednesday’s hearing, whether the spending was worth it, Mr. McKeon demurred.

“It’s a mixed record. I also think it’s a little early to say,” he said.

The task force gained attention late last year after Mr. Sopko reported on a compressed natural gas fueling station it funded in Afghanistan, which was meant to demonstrate the economic viability of the country’s gas resources.

But the task force committed money to the project without having any sense for whether it was viable, and ended up wasting $43 million in taxpayer funds on something that should have cost as little as $200,000, Mr. Sopko said.

The Pentagon this week said it had discovered its own $43 million figure was an error and the total was likely much lower. But Mr. Sopko said the hard drive delivered to his investigators backs up the original $43 million number.

“In the end, whether it’s $43 million or 20 million or 10 million, it’s still a lot more than should have been spent in Afghanistan, and DOD to date still has no real explanation for the expenditure, and what benefit the taxpayer got,” he said.

The TFBSO has been the subject of several reviews, including a new report from the RAND Corporation earlier this month that found the task force model did help get money onto the ground in Afghanistan quickly.

Some of the areas Mr. Sopko found troubling, the RAND report said were actually positives. In an earlier report Mr. Sopko said the task force wasted money on plush private accommodations for task force staff and visitors, when they could have been put up for much cheaper at military bases. But RAND said task force members found the freedom of movement from living in private housing was critical to doing their jobs.

“We built credibility with the outside investment community. Ultimately, we had credibility inside and outside Afghanistan,” one task force employee told RAND analysts.

For his part Mr. McKeon said his office is still trying to “dig into” the decision to live in private villas. But he was unable to say that having visitors stay off-base led to any new or better deals than the task force would have gotten otherwise.

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