Camp Leatherneck is a large military base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The U.S. military built the base back in 2008 and it’s long been an important strategic location in the country’s south.
In 2010, Pres. Barack Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan to deal with increasing violence and the Pentagon thought it might need more space at Camp Leatherneck. To handle the coming surge, it asked Congress for cash to build more buildings capable of housing 64,000 people.
While the request was still pending, then Maj. Gen. Richard Mills — the American officer in charge of the surge in Helmand — requested the cancellation of the project. The U.S. Marine officer had been to Camp Leatherneck, didn’t think the base needed the extra buildings and thought the surge would be long over before construction ended.
Two other generals agreed with Mills. But Congress approved the project and sent the cash anyway, which meant that the military would have to find something else to spend the money on.
What $36 million buys. SIGAR photo
Or, it should have, but that’s not what actually happened. A different general — then Maj. Gen. Peter Vangjel, a U.S. Army officer and deputy commander of American forces in Afghanistan — shot down the cancellation request.
“Currently, this facility is also listed in the [budget,]” he wrote in a memo back in 2010. “Therefore, cancelling the … project, which has appropriated funds, and reprogramming it for a later year is not prudent.”
The military already had the money and might as well spend it, Vangjel argued. As a result, American taxpayers spent $36 million on buildings that no one has ever used. Months later, rows of auditorium seats were still wrapped in the plastic they came in.
How did this happen? That was John Sopko’s question. He’s the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a congressionally-mandated watchdog who tracks spending in the country.
Sopko spent years investigating the facility and uncovered a trail of paperwork, collusion and incompetence. It’s a testament to America’s habit of wasting monumental amounts of taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan.
Long before SIGAR ever looked into the base, the Pentagon wanted to know what the Hell had happened. The military investigated the facility twice.
The military started the first investigation when a visiting major general learned that no one had ever moved into the $36-million building. He couldn’t believe that and asked someone to look into the matter.
The rumors were true — no one lived there and no one had ever lived there. Stranger still, befuddled personnel at Camp Leatherneck had started asking for volunteers to move in.
“We sought volunteers from all but the Marine units as they have been adamant that they are not willing to move into the building,” Camp Leatherneck’s director of public works told the first military investigator.
“We had a number of units that volunteered but it was nowhere near enough to cost justify occupying the building.”
The investigation concluded by confirming the general’s fears. He recommended the military do something with the buildings, such as possibly turning them into movie theaters or fitness centers. It never happened.
A month after that investigation, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford requested a second investigation. He heard that contractors had built the facility after Mills recommended reallocating the money.
“This construction has potential to draw significant attention from auditors and Congress, and raises questions as to its approval and construction,” he wrote in memo asking for the investigation.
Dunford appointed another general — U.S. Army James Richardson — to investigate the $36-million boondoggle. Dunford wanted Richardson to call witnesses, get sworn statements from everyone involved and look at every scrap of documentation surrounding the empty buildings.
Richardson didn’t do any of that. He shot off emails with questions to the people involved. But he never questioned Vangjel about why he denied the request to reallocate the funds.
Despite never talking to Vangjel during the investigation, Richardson came to several conclusions about his motivations and put them in his report. According to Richardson, Vangjel knew that American troops needed the base because he was privy to the military’s grand strategic plans in Afghanistan.
When SIGAR asked Richardson why he never interviewed Vangjel, he told them he didn’t need to, and that he’d seen enough internal documents to understand the general’s reasoning. Those documents supposedly reinforced the theory that Vangjel knew the buildings would support the Pentagon’s strategic vision in Afghanistan.
Richardson backed Vangjel, despite uncovering contradictory evidence about the facility during the course of his investigation.
“We certainly needed many things in those early days at Camp Leatherneck,” another Marine Corps general named Larry Nicholson told Richardson during his investigation.
“But we were very pleased with the [building], and frankly we had many far more pressing facilities issues … I am confident that neither I nor any of my team asked for, signed for, or formally or informally requested a new future [headquarters] for my successors.”
In the end, Richardson’s report concluded that “no act or omission, dereliction of duty, or any other violation of law or regulation” occurred regarding the facility. He then recommended the military finish construction and occupy the facility.
It’s unclear how he came to his conclusion after shooting out a few emails and avoiding Vangjel, but SIGAR has a pretty good idea.
Richardson finished his report and sent it his boss — Dunford — in early August 2013. Dunford sat on the report until October.
What happened to the report during those months? It changed. Why? Because Dunford had his legal adviser — U.S. Army Col. Norman Allen — reach out to Mills and Vangjel to help him make adjustments to the report.
In the emails, Allen shared portions of the upcoming report with Vangjel, and Mills then asked for clarifications. He didn’t just ask Vangjel why he approved the facility’s construction after Mills had requested its cancellation. Instead, he copy and pasted damning sentences from the report and shared them so Vangjel could get in front of the whole mess.
Faced with his mistakes, Vangjel fell back on his old standby — the base was important to the surge. He even wrote that he’d double checked with everyone and would never approve such a base if it wasn’t in keeping with his field commander’s wishes.
“Best I can do on the fly, Norm,” Vangjel wrote at the end of his response. That’s pretty chummy for an email to someone who’s investigating you.
“Thanks, sir,” Allen replied. “Apologize for taking too much of your time, but I’ll dig into the material and provide you some additional background tomorrow and see if we can clarify, just to do so now before DoD or someone asks us to.”
“Thanks, sir,” he wrote a second time. “Before I came to Afghanistan in February this year, I was the FORSCOM SJA for 2–1/2 years, and we worked several actions, getting your assistance on release of records and such. Always appreciate the support, and will try and reciprocate on this one.”Those emails are pretty buddy-buddy. Especially that last time about reciprocation. Mills responded to the email by restating his position — he’d never wanted the facility.
When SIGAR started sniffing around, Allen coordinated an attempt to hamper its investigation. In an email, he asked several of the addresses — including Richardson’s legal adviser — to wait on answering SIGAR’s questions about the facility.
“I wanted to slow roll these [responses] a bit more,” he wrote.
It turns out that Allen isn’t a fan of anyone asking questions of the military, a position he clarified in another email he sent to several officers. “I don’t think people in this command should be subject to interviews that make them go behind official decisions,” he wrote.
“For instance, I would consider it inappropriate for members of the command to address with SIGAR what they think of [Richardson’s report.] I have a good deal of knowledge about that investigation, but I would not answer questions to SIGAR.”
Many — though not all — military officials took Allen’s words to heart. SIGAR had a tough time tracking down information about Camper Leatherneck’s boondoggle. SIGAR got what it needed in the end, though.
“Vangjel’s decision to reject the request to cancel the project seems to have been based on a reluctance to reprogram funds already appropriated by Congress,” SIGAR wrote in its final report on the matter.
But that’s different from what Richardson told SIGAR.
“Vangjel told SIGAR investigators that the 64K building was part of ‘a larger strategic plan’ for Camp Leatherneck to serve as an enduring base,” the report said.
The base will indeed endure, as a monument to the bureaucratic bungling of the American military’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
So would most of the officers involved in the mess. In October 2014, Vangjel retired after a promotion to lieutenant general.