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SIGAR: State Department may have spent millions on unneeded telecommunications towers

By CARLO MUNOZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 18, 2014

At a cost of $6.5 million, the State Department built six telecommunications towers in Afghanistan that have apparently never been used as intended, a government watchdog said in a letter earlier this month.

In proceeding with the project, the State Department ignored objections to the project from its own officials and from the Defense Department, said the letter from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which was addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry and released Thursday.

The towers were initially designed to expand cellular communications as well as radio and television across contested areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan where “insurgent activity ... was threatening and destroying commercial and government-owned cell towers,” the State Department said in a March letter responding to previous SIGAR inquiries.

Opening and expanding telecommunication services in “strategically important” provinces in eastern and southern Afghanistan made the tower program “one of the highest strategic communication priorities” for U.S.-led reconstruction efforts in the country, the State Department letter said.

But even before construction began in 2011, Afghan telecommunication officials told their State Department counterparts that Afghan telecom providers would not connect to the system, among other concerns raised, SIGAR said. The Defense Department said it “did not want the towers because of the high cost of fueling the towers’ generators,” the SIGAR letter said.

“Given this information, I am concerned that the officials responsible for planning and executing this project did not take into consideration a number of apparent red flags which were evident prior to the decision to commit over $6.5 million in U.S. taxpayer funds,” SIGAR chief John F. Sopko wrote.

“Despite these concerns, the State Department moved forward with construction,” he added.

In the end, the new towers “could not be used for their intended purpose” SIGAR said.

Department officials turned over two of the towers to the Pentagon and intended to auction the remaining towers.

Communications towers have been frequent targets of attacks from insurgents, who have attempted to cut off local residents and Afghan security forces from the central government in Kabul.

The State Department said cellular communications providers would not use the towers because their operators were being threatened by the Taliban.

SIGAR has yet to issue its official findings on the program, spokesman Alex Bronstein-Moffly said Wednesday.

Auditors are holding off on a final report until the State Department provides additional information on the project, he said.

munoz.carlo@stripes.com