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Planning for the future?

December 4, 2013

Summary: SIGAR has highlighted $36Bn spent on a US military headquarters in southern Afghanistan which is apparently not needed.  This issue perhaps highlights the problems of long term planning for a future international military presence.  Even if a mistake was made, with so many uncertainties (BSA, ANSF capabillities, elections, fighting seasons) it might be better to mothball it “just in case” rather than convert it into a cinema.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) – essentially a US government “watchdog” focusing on  the effectiveness (or otherwise) of expenditure of US money in Afghanistan – have come up with another interesting case study:

Washington Post, 4th Dec 2013: Army general’s report defends decision to build $36 million headquarters in Afghanistan

US base in SW Afg, $36BnThis past summer, the Army began investigating why the military spent nearly $36 million to construct a well-appointed 64,000 square foot headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan that commanders in the area did not want and has never been used.

The two-star Army general in Kabul who conducted the inquiry has determined that the decision to commission the building was appropriate — and recommended that U.S. troops move in, after more work is done on the facility.

“The Army built us an enormous white elephant, and now, to save face, we’re being told to waste more money and time to move into it,” said a senior Marine officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the investigation. “We don’t need it. We’re packing up there.”

The Marine general in charge of the southwest said earlier this year that he wanted to stay out of the giant facility to “end the money drain.”…

…The decision reflected the U.S. Central Command’s “strategic vision” for Afghanistan at the time, which anticipated an “enduring base” in southwestern Afghanistan.

That, however, appears to have been an erroneous assumption. The principal long-term force options the White House is considering — assuming Afghan President Hamid Karzai agrees to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States — do not involve keeping Camp Leatherneck open a year from now.

SIGAR are good at putting a spotlight on inefficient use of money in Aghanistan.  The base certainly seems quite a waste if no one is prepared to use it, and I can certainly buy into the notion of administrative failure.  But I can’t help thinking – as hinted at in the last paragraph – that this sort of problem might be a symptom of the wider cause.  There are inherent difficulties in strategic planning for a foreign military presence in Afghanistan in this 2013 – 2015 period.  Even now, the “Zero Option” is still being floated, the US Bilateral Security Agreement remains unresolved and the number and locations of international troops beyond 2014 unclear.  We have a potentially volatile and destabilising insurgency.  Ditto with the  fast approaching electoral process (judging by the 2009 process at any rate).  The Afghan Army may have had a “reasonable” fighting season this year (well, no obvious ANSF failures or Taliban successes, anyway) but they will be tested again and again in the coming months and years with less international support.  What if they did suffer a reverse or two in the south next year and required the insertion of an ISAF expeditionary force of some sort to stiffen their capabilities?

With so many things up in the air it remains difficult to get the best sense of what is or is not needed now, let alone in 2014 and beyond.  If a large international military presence was going to be needed in the south and many other bases being closed down, it is plausible that a large headquarters, consolidating assets and capabilities in one area and minimising the ISAF/foreigners “footprint” was logical at one point.  It takes a while to plan, fund and build these sort of military capabilities.  An earlier Washington Post report suggested that the HQ was initiated over three years ago.  Once you have started, it can often be too costly to halt or reverse.  Presumably the condemnations would have been even more damning – and rightly so – if troops were committed to the area after 2014 and facilities were not in place.

Perhaps best not to turn it into a cinema just yet…?

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