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Investigation: $3 million Helmand food storage facility never used

Jul. 23, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
USACE completes Gereshk Storage and Distribution C
The Gereshk Storage and Distribution Center in Helmand province is a cold and dry storage facility designed to store, process and transport produce. The facility has stayed empty since it was completed in May 2013. (Army)
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The inside of the Gereshk Storage and Distribution Center. (Army)
The inside of the Gereshk Storage and Distribution Center. (Army)

The independent agency responsible for oversight of U.S. aid projects in Afghanistan has located another potential boondoggle: a $3 million food storage facility in a violent district of Helmand province that has sat unused and unmaintained since it was completed 14 months ago.

The facility is located in the Gereshk valley, south of Sangin district, where Marines saw some of the most intense battles over the course of the war. In 2011, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines out of 29 Palms, Calif., spent time in Gereshk, working to quell “pockets of resistance” and provide security for Route 611, the Afghan highway that supplies the district.

According to a report released July 16 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Gereshk Cold and Dry Storage Facility was designed to be a “hub for agricultural development within the province.” The project was funded by the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in 2011, and contracted through the Army Corps of Engineers to an Afghan company to design, build, and equip the facility.

The construction process had typical speed bumps, according to the report: building delays got so bad that by 2012 the Army Corps of Engineers considered ending the contract. Ultimately, the Army corps put pressure on the building company to finish the project by assessing over $200,000 in fines for the delays.

Contractors completed the facility in May 2013, 243 days behind schedule, and transferred it to the Afghan government four months later. Inspectors found the 10,000-foot cold storage building and 13,000-foot dry storage building were well built, but had stayed empty and unmaintained since the project was finished.

While a number of Afghan investors had expressed interest in the facility, according to the report, to date all potential deals to use the space had fallen through. The report recommended that U.S. planners ensure all future investment projects had willing investors lined up to take the project on before they were approved.

“The Gereshk Cold and Dry Storage Facility could have been a success story ... such a facility would likely improve the ability of local Afghan farmers to preserve fruits and vegetables for sale to national and international markets, which could generate revenues far greater than selling their produce locally,” investigators wrote in the SIGAR report. But, they said, because the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations failed to find an Afghan business to control the facility, and because of the threat of persistent insurgent activity, those goals had not been met.

Unless concerns surrounding insurgent violence could be overcome, inspectors said, “the United States may face yet another situation where taxpayers’ money may have been wasted.”

The Gereshk facility is the latest in a number of U.S. building projects in Helmand province, the regional center of operations for the Marines, to face scrutiny.

North of Gereshk, the Kajaki Dam — a project the U.S. started in the 1950s — has become a symbol of ill-fated American spending efforts in Afghanistan. The U.S. began contracting to rehabilitate the existing two turbines and build a third in the hydroelectric dam in 2004, spending $75 million on the first phase of the project. Last year, Congress promised another $75 million to complete the work, which has been thwarted so far by violence in the region and other logistical challenges. SIGAR inspectors published a 2013 report suggesting the cost to finish the project was greater than the potential benefits of the dam.

"As some wryly note, the ancient Egyptians took less time — about 20–25 years — to complete the Great Pyramid at Giza," SIGAR inspector general John Sopko wrote in a report on the project.

On the military side, an unused $36 million headquarters building on Camp Leatherneck, the primary Marine base in Helmand, has drawn scrutiny. SIGAR found the 64,000 square foot space was unwanted by Marine officials at Leatherneck and was too complex to hand off to Afghan troops as the war draws to a close.

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