Buildings the U.S. Built for Afghan Troops Could Go Up in Flames — Literally

Some 1,600 facilities that the United States built for Afghan soldiers, including barracks, medical clinics, and fire stations, were put together so hastily that they’re now at increased risk of fire, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The response from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw this $1.6 billion program: ...

Photo via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Photo via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Photo via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Some 1,600 facilities that the United States built for Afghan soldiers, including barracks, medical clinics, and fire stations, were put together so hastily that they're now at increased risk of fire, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The response from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw this $1.6 billion program: Don't worry, the Afghan soldiers who will be inside these buildings are young and fit enough to escape if they need to.

Some 1,600 facilities that the United States built for Afghan soldiers, including barracks, medical clinics, and fire stations, were put together so hastily that they’re now at increased risk of fire, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The response from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw this $1.6 billion program: Don’t worry, the Afghan soldiers who will be inside these buildings are young and fit enough to escape if they need to.

Needless to say, John Sopko, the inspector general, is not satisfied with this answer. "I am very troubled by such logic, which seems to argue that fire hazards for a building are somehow remediated by the youthful speed and vigor of the occupants," he wrote in a July 9 letter to Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, head of the Army Corps of Engineers. "This logic pales in light of not only the speed with which these building[s] will be consumed by fire as well as the fact that a number of the buildings in question are infirmaries and sleeping quarters."

In a report that accompanied his letter, Sopko encouraged the Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider its decision to hand over 285 of the buildings to the Afghan National Army knowing they are noncompliant with safety standards. The buildings include 83 barracks facilities, four medical clinics, and two fire stations.

The report reveals the kind of pressure the U.S. military is under to get Afghan security forces ready for battle quickly as the United States withdraws the bulk of its troops. Apparently, if that means cutting some corners, so be it.

In 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers began planning the construction of 2,000 buildings for the Afghan army. It settled on what’s called an "arch-span" design, thinking these "would cost less and could be built faster than other types of buildings," the inspector general’s report says.

But the personnel who had to approve contractors’ construction proposals weren’t sufficiently familiar with this type of design, according to the report. Therefore, proposals that should have been rejected weren’t, and contractors got away with using "substandard spray polyurethane foam insulation" that does not comply with International Building Code standards and puts the buildings at increased risk of fire.

Already, fires have destroyed two of the facilities.

After the incidents, the inspector general’s office conducted an investigation and found that 1,600 of the 2,000 buildings constructed or being constructed as part of the program had noncompliant insulation systems. The Army Corps of Engineers is working to fix some of them at a cost of $50 million to $60 million.

In his letter to Bostick, Sopko says he first warned of the noncompliant insulation systems in April 2013. He got a quick response from the Army Corps of Engineers saying it would fix the problem in the buildings already constructed and that it would also make sure that all future buildings were compliant.

But in January, the Army Corps of Engineers appeared to reverse its decision and decided to hand over 285 buildings that it knew were not compliant.

In the memo that sanctioned the move, Maj. Gen. Michael Eyre, commanding general of the Corps’ Transatlantic Division, said the noncompliant facilities "have an acceptable risk level to support turnover [to the Afghan National Army]" because "the typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan Soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation."

Eyre explained that there is no engineering solution available that would fix the problem in "sufficient time to support the turnover of these facilities required to field [Afghan National Army] forces." He went on to say that these buildings are crucial for the readiness and morale of the Afghan army, so turning them over quickly is critical "during this period of transition."

Sopko called this "unacceptable" and asked Bostick to reverse the January decision to hand over the buildings. "Immediate action is needed to bring the remaining buildings into compliance with safety standards or to show what actions will be taken to remedy the dangerous conditions, beyond providing additional fire extinguishers and exit signs," Sopko said.

The Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t agree with Sopko’s findings and argues that its logic about the fitness of Afghan soldiers and their ability to escape the buildings in the event of a fire meets the intent and purpose of the International Building Code.

In a letter responding to Sopko’s report, the Army Corps of Engineers says that of the 1,600 buildings, 613 were built or are being built with insulation that meets International Building Code standards and do not require remediation.

At hearings on Capitol Hill this week, lawmakers cited the inspector general’s previous work as they questioned Pentagon officials about the strategy in Afghanistan. On Thursday, July 17, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, asked Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, about a June report that said Afghans lack the personnel and expertise to operate and maintain the 48 new aircraft being procured at a cost of $772 million for the Afghan Special Forces.

And on Wednesday, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), an outspoken critic of the war in Afghanistan, railed against what he saw as a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars. "You need to get John Sopko in your office, one-on-one, and get John Sopko in front of the president of the United States and just hear how the American taxpayer is being abused," Jones told a panel of Pentagon officials that included Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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