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International affairs > 11. U.S. Embassy Kabul Construction

A strategic facilities plan for construction projects in Kabul, Afghanistan, could enhance the planning and coordination among Department of State bureaus and reduce the likelihood of fragmented construction efforts and duplicative facilities.

Why This Area Is Important

Since the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2002, the Department of State (State) has invested or plans to invest a total of $2.17 billion in its facilities in Kabul to address current and projected space needs in a difficult environment that has experienced constantly evolving security threats.[1]

State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) is responsible for the acquisition, design, construction, maintenance, and sale of U.S. government diplomatic property abroad. State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is responsible for, among other things, establishing and operating security and protective procedures at posts, developing and implementing posts’ physical security programs, and chairing the interagency process that sets security standards. Accordingly, DS is responsible for ensuring that new diplomatic construction meets security standards. State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) is responsible for coordinating foreign policy related to countries in the region, including Afghanistan. In that capacity, SCA guides the operation of U.S. diplomatic missions—embassies and consulates, including Kabul—within those countries.

From 2002 through 2009, State took several actions to expand the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul—a challenging location with a dynamic, unpredictable, and dangerous operating environment. Moreover, this construction occurred on an already fully operational embassy compound. Initially, OBO refurbished an existing office building, built in the 1960s.[2] OBO also constructed a new chancery office building, staff apartments, and support facilities. Additionally, OBO constructed temporary offices and housing. In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, State awarded two contracts originally worth $625.4 million in total to meet growing facility requirements at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. This project, which is ongoing, includes temporary and permanent housing and office buildings. Once the current construction is completed, the Kabul embassy’s permanent facilities— both older structures and the newly constructed office and apartment buildings—will contain 1,487 desks and 819 beds. In addition, the post has used a variety of off-compound facilities to meet some needs that could not be met on-compound. Key off-compound facilities include Camps Alvarado, Eggers, Seitz, and Sullivan, which represent a total State construction investment of almost $731.4 million.



[1] State’s past and planned capital construction investments in Kabul from 2002 through March 2015 total $2.17 billion in project funding, which includes awarded construction contracts and other costs State incurs that are not part of those contracts.

[2] The U.S. government vacated the existing office building in 1989, reoccupying it in 2002.

What GAO Found

GAO reported in May 2015 that State’s lack of a strategic facilities plan led to coordination challenges in addressing the Kabul embassy’s future facility needs. State officials indicate that additional capital construction investments are needed to address interim and future facility needs of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, both on and off compound. State stakeholders in Washington, D.C., and at the post are working to identify, prioritize, and address the post’s facility needs through various coordination meetings and working groups. However, State does not have a strategic facilities plan for Kabul that documents current and future embassy needs, comprehensively outlines existing facilities, analyzes gaps, provides projected costs, and documents decisions made. Lack of such a plan has inhibited coordination and undermined the continuity necessary to address emergent needs at the Kabul embassy.

Guidance issued by the International Facility Management Association, GAO, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recommend that an organization view all real property asset investments as a single portfolio with strategic linkages when determining the right mix of projects to undertake.[1] The International Facility Management Association describes a strategic facility plan as a 2- to 5-year facilities plan encompassing an entire portfolio of owned and/or leased properties that sets strategic facility goals based on the organization’s strategic objectives. It contains a needs statement (i.e., mission need), analysis of all real property assets and their condition (owned and leased), analysis of gaps between needs and current asset capabilities, recommendations for new spaces or buildings, and facility cost projections. The International Facility Management Association also indicates that the plan should document findings to include expected timelines for implementation but allow flexibility for updates, as appropriate. Similarly, GAO and OMB capital planning guidance emphasize the importance of identifying current capabilities of real property assets, determining gaps between current assets and needed capabilities, deciding how best to meet the gap by identifying and evaluating alternative approaches, documenting decisions, and making updates as needed.[2]

State officials responsible for embassy management, facilities, security, and construction all cited the lack of an overarching plan as an obstacle to project coordination intended to address the embassy’s emergent facility needs. According to State officials in Kabul and Washington, coordination to address the Kabul embassy’s future needs is particularly difficult due to the large number of stakeholders in Kabul and in Washington. Additionally, the constant personnel turnover caused by the 1-year tours served by most management, facilities, and security staff in Kabul results in lack of continuity in decision making. As far back as January 2006, the State Office of Inspector General also identified “the near total lack of institutional memory” stemming from the lack of staff continuity and a “never-ending” learning curve as the most serious impediments to good executive direction at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

State officials in Kabul noted the growing number and frequency of coordination meetings and teleconferences intended to address the embassy’s future facility needs. However, they also reported that communication at such meetings can be difficult as parties seek to reconcile planning differences on proposed projects. Without a comprehensive plan that provides a strategic framework to document mission needs, catalog existing facilities, analyze gaps, provide projected costs, and document recommendations, the competing proposals of the post’s many stakeholders are difficult to manage, prioritize, and reconcile. As a result, State officials in Kabul said that these meetings suffer from no common vision and a lack of decision making.

Consequently, State has been challenged to efficiently address changing embassy needs in several instances on and off compound. For example:

  • Interference with on-compound construction—OBO officials in Kabul expressed frustration that proposals for new projects would often conflict with plans previously agreed to by previous post management staff. For example, during GAO’s fieldwork, post management proposed to locate a helicopter landing zone near the embassy warehouse. However, according to OBO officials on-site, they had arranged with the previous management team to reserve that space as a staging area for the contractor to build the warehouse expansion. When asked about this, post management officials stated that they had no continuity document that informed them of this earlier decision.
     
  • On-compound physical security upgrades—DS first requested changes to the embassy compound’s security perimeter in December 2010 and added more requirements in response to attacks against the compound in September 2011. In February 2013, the post urged OBO to provide a project schedule and expedite the upgrades. However, that was not done, and as of March 2015, OBO and DS had not reached agreement on schedules and costs for some security upgrade projects.
     
  • Camp Seitz construction—In 2013, DS and post management decided to relocate the Kabul Embassy Guard Force from Camp Sullivan and the Protective Security Detail (movement protection) Guard forces from another camp to sites closer to the embassy compound due to security concerns. To facilitate this, DS initiated the acquisition of the Camp Seitz site through OBO. However, according to State officials, DS then began construction of temporary housing at Camp Seitz without submitting the design to OBO for review or applying for a building permit. After OBO became aware of the completed construction, it identified fire safety deficiencies that DS had to correct.
     
  • Camp Sullivan, Camp Eggers, and Qasemi Lot Vehicle Maintenance Facility—As part of the security contractor relocation, post management and DS asked OBO in September 2013 to remove several support facilities, including a vehicle maintenance facility, from an ongoing construction project at Camp Sullivan, and instead proposed to build them at Camp Eggers. Post management and DS officials stated that once the temporary vehicle maintenance facility on-compound is demolished to make way for two new apartment buildings, it would be better for security and logistics to build the replacement vehicle maintenance facility close to the compound rather than at Camp Sullivan. However, OBO continued to proceed with its plan to build the Sullivan vehicle maintenance facility because negotiations for the 30 leases that would comprise the Camp Eggers compound were not complete. Also, OBO was concerned that if an alternative vehicle maintenance facility was not available for the embassy’s use, construction of the apartment buildings could be delayed and their costs increased. Discussions continued among OBO, DS, and post management, and the proposed temporary vehicle maintenance facility was shifted to Qasemi Lot, a site adjacent to Camp Seitz. However, OBO decided not to eliminate the Camp Sullivan vehicle maintenance facility until plans for a replacement facility at Qasemi Lot were approved by OBO and DS had awarded a construction contract with a scheduled completion date prior to the demolition date for the existing vehicle maintenance facility on- compound. As a result, State is funding two new, temporary vehicle maintenance facilities—one at Camp Sullivan (built by OBO) and one at Qasemi Lot (to be built by DS).[3]

A strategic facilities plan could have facilitated coordination in the above cases by providing a common vision of embassy needs, comprehensively cataloging existing assets and alternatives considered for meeting those needs, documenting expected project timelines and estimated costs, and facilitating continuity by documenting decisions made, while allowing for updates.



[1] The International Facility Management Association is an international professional association that advances facilities management through professional credentialing of facility managers, research, and training. OBO recognizes the International Facility Management Association, and OBO’s facility managers have used its training programs.

[2] GAO, Executive Guide: Leading Practices in Capital Decision-Making, GAO/AIMD-99-32 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 1, 1998), and Office of Management and Budget, Capital Programming Guide, Supplement to Office of Management and Budget Circular A-11, Planning, Budgeting, and Acquisition of Capital Assets(June 2015).

[3] GAO was unable to estimate the cost of these vehicle maintenance facilities as they were part of off-compound projects outside the scope of the on-compound construction contracts that were the primary focus of the May 2015 report.

Actions Needed

To strengthen coordination efforts to address facility needs of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, in May 2015 GAO recommended that the Secretary of State take the following action:

  • Develop a Kabul strategic facilities plan. Such a plan should comprehensively outline existing facilities, identify embassy needs, establish gaps between facilities and needs, and document decisions on meeting those needs.

GAO was unable to estimate the financial benefits of greater coordination in Kabul. However, as of May 2015 State’s investments to properly house and protect U.S. staff in Kabul were on track to surpass $2 billion and likely to increase further. Additionally, it is clear that the changing facility needs of the Kabul embassy will require a combination of further permanent and temporary construction on and off compound. Coordination would be strengthened by the development of a strategic facilities plan. Such a plan for Kabul would need to be tailored to the specific context of the post and would likely go through repeated updates. However, such a common framework would strengthen existing coordination and facilitate greater continuity of decision making. This would lower the likelihood of fragmented or unnecessarily duplicative construction in addressing the embassy’s future needs.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings in GAO’s May 2015 report listed in the related GAO products section. To conduct this review, GAO obtained information from agency planning, funding, and reporting documents and interviewed State officials from OBO; DS; the Office of Acquisitions Management; SCA; the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP); and the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation. In February 2014, GAO conducted fieldwork in Kabul, Afghanistan, to observe construction progress and meet with U.S. embassy officials responsible for construction, facilities management, post management, and security. GAO also met with contractor officials in Kabul and in the United States. In addition, GAO’s Kabul Field Office conducted follow-up meetings with officials in Kabul and their successors through December 2014.

To examine State’s planning for projected embassy facility needs, GAO analyzed State coordination and planning documents, as well as funding proposals for new construction in Kabul. In addition, GAO reviewed State policy regarding master planning and strategic facilities planning. GAO also consulted best practices for such planning established by the International Facility Management Association as well as GAO and OMB capital planning guidance. To discuss changing post facility needs and the various coordination efforts to address those needs, GAO met with State officials from OBO, SCA, SRAP, and DS, as well as with post officials responsible for management, facilities, and security in Kabul.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the May 2015 report upon which this analysis is based, State concurred with GAO’s recommendation to develop a Kabul strategic facilities plan. According to State, OBO plans to continue to work with post and State stakeholders to formalize current and future embassy needs into a plan that outlines existing facilities, identifies embassy needs, establishes gaps between facilities and needs, and documents decisions on meeting those needs.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to State for review and comment. The department did not provide comments on this report section.

For additional information about this area, contact either Michael J. Courts at (202) 512-8980 or courtsm@gao.gov or David J. Wise at (202) 512-5731 or wised@gao.gov.

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