February 01. 2016 9:49PM

Another View -- Kelly Ayotte: Pentagon must answer to taxpayers for wasteful spending

By KELLY AYOTTE


 

Luxury villas. An ice cream business. Imported rare Italian goats. No, these aren’t features of an exotic vacation destination. They’re actual or suspected activities and projects of a Pentagon task force in Afghanistan, and the Department of Defense paid for them with your tax dollars.

The Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) in Afghanistan was charged with helping stabilize that nation’s economy, but recent reports have shown that the task force is responsible for these and many other examples of waste. In just five years, TFBSO spent almost $640 million in taxpayer dollars, and serious questions have been raised by government watchdogs about the Pentagon’s inability to account for how that money was spent.

The American public and New Hampshire taxpayers deserve to know how and why our money was spent and what results we received for our investments. As chair of the Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Committee, I recently convened a hearing on the task force’s activities and operations in Afghanistan, and recent reports and audits by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko.

The hearing shed additional light on some very disturbing details. Here are just a few examples:

SIGAR found that TFBSO spent nearly $3 million on a storage facility that was never used.

The inspector general also found that the task force spent millions on a compressed natural gas station, despite the fact there were no vehicles in the area that could use it. An Afghan citizen would have to pay roughly the equivalent of their entire average annual salary to convert their car to use this gas station. Perhaps that’s why TFBSO then used your tax dollars to convert about 120 Afghan vehicles, to ensure the ill-conceived and poorly planned station actually had a few customers. In other words, some Afghan cab drivers got a very big gift from TFBSO at your expense.

TFBSO also paid $150 million for several “villas” and armed security for no more than five to 10 TFBSO employees a majority of the time. The task force could have saved tens of millions of taxpayer dollars if its staff had lived on military bases instead.

TFBSO also spent $55 million of our tax dollars to facilitate an oil tender process that ended with a Chinese state-owned company winning the contract.

The Pentagon task force also apparently spent funds to develop carpet, jewelry and ice cream businesses in Afghanistan — not exactly what our Department of Defense should be doing.

The list goes on and on, and each program raises additional questions. Were feasibility studies conducted? Who authorized these expenditures? What happened to this money? What did we get in return?

Yet despite the obvious need for answers, Sopko’s efforts to get answers have encountered a remarkable lack of Pentagon responsiveness. After months of foot-dragging, the Pentagon finally sent a hard drive of TFBSO documents to SIGAR, coincidentally on the eve of my hearing.

Every dollar the Pentagon wastes is a dollar that we don’t have to restore military readiness and provide our troops what they need to protect themselves, accomplish their missions and defend our country.

For example, when I recently questioned the nominee to be the next Army Secretary about how the Army was handling budget cuts, he confirmed for me that only a third of our Army Brigade Combat Teams are combat-ready because of insufficient training. He also testified that the Pentagon will be giving 14,000 soldiers pink slips in order to meet those budget cuts.

In other words, the federal government will welcome home thousands of well-performing troops who have had multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan by essentially firing them. I find that appalling.

Ultimately, in addition to neglecting its obligation to the taxpayers, the Pentagon poured money down the drain that could have been used, for example, to help mitigate serious concerns about the size and readiness of the Army.

We need the Department of Defense to keep our country safe, not build useless gas stations, facilitate Chinese investment in foreign countries or help start carpet businesses.

That is why my subcommittee convened this hearing and why I am requesting that Mr. Sopko conduct a full financial audit of the task force. I’m committed to uncovering the truth behind this waste, mismanagement and potentially criminal activity at TFBSO, and will be pursuing aggressive oversight so we can hold the Pentagon accountable and avoid this kind of wasteful spending in the future. Taxpayers, and our military men and women, deserve better.

Kelly Ayotte, a Nashua Republican, represents New Hampshire in the United States Senate.