Pentagon spent $150 million housing 'handful' of employees in private villas in Afghanistan

A small number of personnel from the US Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations lived in this villa in Kabul, Afghanistan while the agency was operating there between 2010 and 2014.

Forty-three million dollars for a gas station. An incalculable sum — hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps — wasted on "ghost schools." And now, $150 million spent on private villas for a handful of government workers.

These are America's tax dollars at work in Afghanistan.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a press release Wednesday that the US Department of Defense spent $150 million on private housing in Kabul for a small number of employees (between five and 10) working for the Pentagon's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) between 2010 and 2014. That was nearly 20 percent of the TFBSO's total budget. 

So what does that kind of dough get you and a few friends in the Afghan capital? Apparently: "specially furnished, privately owned 'villas'" and "24-hour building security, food services, and bodyguards," according to a letter sent by Special Inspector General John F. Sopko to US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. 

Security, food, travel — sounds reasonable, right?

Well, maybe not, when you consider the other accommodations that were available to this handful of government employees. According to Sopko, the TFBSO team could have stayed at DOD facilities or at the US Embassy. Both options would have provided housing, food, security, and travel for a tiny fraction of the cost the TFBSO ended up spending. SIGAR estimates that the US Embassy could have housed 10 TFBSO staffers for around $1.8 million. 

But life at the embassy or at a DOD facility might not have included some of the perks that came with a $150-million bill.

One contractor, Triple Canopy, provided TFBSO personnel with "queen size beds in certain rooms, a flat screen TV in each room that was 27 inches or larger, a DVD player in each room, a mini refrigerator in each room, and an 'investor villa' that had 'upgraded furniture' and 'western-style hotel accommodations.' In terms of food, Triple Canopy was required to provide service that was 'at least 3 stars,' with each meal containing at least two entrée choices and three side order choices, as well as three course meals for 'Special Events.'" Another contractor made sure that TFBSO workers had 24-hour access to "light snacks and water/tea/coffee/sodas."

Sounds nice.

One justification for the expense comes from the person SIGAR thinks made the call: Paul A. Brinkley, the first director of the TFBSO and the former deputy under secretary of defense. Brinkley didn't cooperate with SIGAR's investigation, but he did write the following in a 2014 book about his time in Afghanistan:

"Our goal was to get businesses running and to encourage private investors and corporations from outside of Afghanistan to engage in the country either as trading partners or as investors. Wherever possible, we avoided depending on the military. We were part of their mission ... but we avoided living on military bases whenever possible. The goal was to show private companies that they could set up operations in Afghanistan themselves without needing military support.”

SIGAR isn't satisfied with that explanation, and Sopko's letter to Carter asks for answers.

When you consider $150 million in the context of US spending in Afghanistan, you could dismiss it as a drop in the bucket. You could also ask how we got to a place in our post-9/11 wars where $43-million gas stations and $150-million villas barely register on a budget sheet. 

The United States has spent nearly $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, including $110 billion on reconstruction efforts. US President Barack Obama announced in October that he'd maintain current troop levels in Afghanistan through most of 2016, so there will be plenty more bills to pay.

Hopefully the DOD keeps its receipts. SIGAR will be asking for them.