By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States wasted $36 million in taxpayer funds building a military base in Afghanistan that was "unwanted, unneeded, and unused", a U.S. government watchdog said on Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) built the facility despite objections from several generals who said the project should be cancelled because the existing base was sufficient, according to John Sopko, head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Their objections were overruled by another general who believed it would be imprudent not to spend funds that had already been allocated by the U.S. Congress, Sopko said in a report.
The 64,000 square foot base at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, was intended to support a military surge of 30,000 extra troops sent to Afghanistan in 2010, he said.
Yet construction did not begin until May 2011 and the building was not completed until April 2013, seven months after the extra troops were withdrawn from the country, Sopko said.
The building was never occupied and in October last year, Camp Leatherneck was closed by the United States and transferred to the Afghan government, Sopko wrote in his report.
"The failure to cancel the building led to approximately $36 million being wasted on a facility that was unwanted, unneeded, and unused," he said.
International donors have spent billions of dollars on reconstruction in Afghanistan, but it is ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and major donors are concerned about its lack of progress in fighting graft.
Sopko, a former prosecutor who took on the mafia in the United States, has earned notoriety in Kabul and Washington for denouncing the way much of the $107 billion the United States has spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001 has been frittered away.
The U.S. Congress set up SIGAR in 2008 to provide independent oversight of U.S. funds in Afghanistan.
After completing the base, the U.S. military conducted two separate investigations into its construction, but they offered contradictory conclusions and lacked certain details, Sopko said in his report.
While most of the offices and individuals SIGAR contacted were cooperative, some military officials tried to "slow roll" and frustrate the investigation, he said.
"These actions discouraged full and candid cooperation with SIGAR's investigation and seemed intended to obscure the fact that $36 million was wasted," he wrote.
The DoD did not dispute any of the facts in the SIGAR report, Sopko said.
But it stated that the general who denied the requests to cancel the project acted reasonably because Camp Leatherneck was being considered as a "potential enduring location for the U.S. military".
Sopko has previously said the U.S. government needs to change the way it operates and must set stricter conditions on its help and keep a much closer eye on the money.
The United States ended combat operations in Afghanistan last year but said in March it would keep its current 9,800 troops there until the end of 2015.
U.S. officials also said in March that the United States would keep funding Afghan security forces at a peak level of 352,000 personnel at least until 2017, at a cost of about $4 billion annually. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tim Pearce)