KABUL — The Afghan “Pentagon” being built here is a sprawling symbol of U.S. generosity.
The American government has already spent about $107 million — double the initial estimate — on the five-story Defense Ministry headquarters, which will include state-of-the-art bunkers and the second-largest auditorium in Kabul.
But now, four years after the groundbreaking, construction crews have had to effectively halt their work. The reason: The U.S. government has run out of money for the project.
For years, audits and inspector general’s reports have documented waste and mismanagement in American aid projects in Afghanistan. But the Defense Ministry building is a dramatic example of how poor oversight continues to plague the massive U.S. investment here.
"Nobody was watching it like they should, and it’s just been an open checkbook," said an American official involved in the management of the project, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. "We failed, big time."
The 516,000-square-foot building is part of a multi-year, $9.3 billion construction spree aimed at providing hundreds of bases, outposts and hospitals for the Afghan military. Nearly all of it is financed by the U.S. government.
But even though most American troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country by late next year, 291 projects remain in the planning stages or under construction; 835 are complete.
The American-led military coalition is appealing to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to authorize an additional $24 million for the Afghan defense headquarters, already one of the costliest U.S-financed buildings in the country.
While awaiting the extra funding, officials have dispatched a skeleton crew to install windows to protect the building from the harsh Kabul winter.
"We have gotten ourselves into a position that we need to get out of, and we definitely need to fix it," said Brig. Gen. Michael Wehr, the deputy chief of staff engineers for the U.S.-led coalition. "It’s an important building. It’s a Ministry of Defense headquarters. It’s in Kabul. We’ve got to get this done right."
Since 2005, Congress has allocated about $53 billion to help equip, train, house and feed the 348,000 members of Afghanistan’s army and police force. But as that money has poured into Afghanistan, American military leaders have struggled to contain cost overruns and construction delays and to deal with ill-trained or corrupt contractors.