Since 2002, the U.S. has devoted more than $113 billion dollars to help rebuild Afghanistan. In 2012, President Obama appointed investigator John Sopko to lead the job of policing waste, fraud and abuse in that spending. This is the story of what happened when some generals on the ground at a U.S. military base tipped Sopko off to the strange circumstances surrounding a building project called 64K.
John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR): It was the best building I had seen, and still have seen in Afghanistan.
Inspector General John Sopko is talking about his tour of this building bigger than a football field, shown on satellite photos at the U.S. military's Camp Leatherneck in south central Afghanistan.
Sopko: It's a beautiful building. It was well done. Fully furnished. It was huge: 64,000 approximately square feet.
Nicknamed 64K because of its size, Congress intended it to be headquarters for the 2010 U.S. military surge of 30,000 troops to fight Taliban Islamic extremists.
There was just one problem:
Sopko: The Marine commander, the general on the ground running the surge said 'I don't want it, I don't need it, don't build it.' And two other generals above him said the same thing. 'Don't build it, we don't need it. We already have a headquarters. It's a waste of money.'
Yet the project moved forward. A facility designed to be big enough for a staff of 1,200, complete with a war room and briefing theatre.
But 64K never served as a surge headquarters. In fact, it was still under construction when the surge ended in 2012. Yet U.S. tax dollars continued to pour in for upgrades.
Sharyl: Three million dollars for audio and video electronics, another half-million dollars for a video teleconference suite. Can you explain the mindset on a project that nobody wants anyway, and is probably not going to be used, in which they keep upgrading it?
Sopko: It is indicative of a problem in Afghanistan that we see time and again. You have the money; spend it. And that is the problem, not only in Afghanistan, and not only with the military; it's a problem I think with the entire government. Once money is appropriated, you just spend it.
Sopko puts the total cost of the project, including roads and utilities, at $36 million dollars.
That kind of waste has real meaning to Rick Helsley, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Rick Helsley: It's very frustrating because it's a constant struggle. Active duty, I have friends that are working extra jobs on top of being in the military trying to get, make ends meet. I have veteran friends that are scrounging the bottom of the barrel.
He's now attending college, and struggling to get by with service-related disabilities that he says include back and hearing problems.
Helsley: I read about them trying to cut active duty members' benefits and everything else, but they can go spend 30-some-odd million dollars on a building that nobody even needs.
Sopko, too, wanted to know just why 64K got built. Tipped off by generals on the ground, he sank his teeth into the mystery, only to feel stonewalled.
In emails, Colonel Norman Allen, a senior military lawyer, told fellow officers he "wanted to slow roll" responses to the Inspector General's questions.
When Sopko directed them to preserve documents, Colonel Allen emailed, "I don't know that he has authority to tell us to do that."
Sopko: We found it very discouraging, because it boarded on obstruction of our investigation.
Colonel Allen didn't respond to our interview requests. In writing, he said he "never sought to interfere" with the investigation and took "strong exception to allegations" that he did.
Sopko still managed to get a lot of evidence. Exhibit A came from Commander Larry Nicholson, lead General at Camp Leatherneck when 64K was commissioned.
Nicholson had said in military emails, "I was greatly surprised (as were my Colonels) to see that the 64K project had been initiated, we were very pleased" with the current headquarters. "I am confident that neither I or any of my team asked for, signed for, or formally or informally requested a new future [headquarters] for my successors."
In May of last year, Sopko released his findings and finally identified who reversed the generals on the ground to give 64K the green light.
Sopko: We found out that there was a general who was stationed in Kuwait, General Vangjel, who made a decision that since the money had been appropriated, a supplemental appropriation from Congress, that it would not have been prudent to give the money back, even though you didn't need it. So basically it was his decision.
Vangjel, now retired, declined our interview request but disputed the findings. He said 64K "addressed an operational need" and "the project was in line with [the military's] strategic intent."
The Pentagon defended Vangjel's decision as "prudent," and said Camp Leatherneck "was being considered as a potential enduring location" for the military until the Obama administration decided to pull out of Afghanistan.
Sharyl: If you could tell someone who built that building, the general who said go ahead, what would you say to him?
Helsley: Why exactly did you spend $36 million on a building that nobody wanted or needed when there's so many other things you could have spent that money on?
In October of 2014, the U.S. handed the brand new, vacant, 64K over to the Afghans -- who discovered it was wired for U.S. electricity, not what they use, and found it too expensive to fully occupy.
Sopko: A wasted building, basically a 64,000 square foot white elephant in the desert that's probably going to deteriorate and fall down eventually because the Afghans cannot sustain it.
Today, 64K stands as a monument to wasted military construction dollars. Probably the nicest facility the U.S. ever built but never occupied in all of Afghanistan, courtesy of American taxpayers.
The Pentagon rejected all of Sopko's recommendations for discipline saying the officers involved did nothing wrong.
And, a final note: the millions of tax dollars to build '64K' didn't even benefit a U.S. company, but a British contractor.