A 2010 State Department contract to build telecommunications towers in Afghanistan was supposed to be part of “one of the highest Strategic Communications priorities for the Department of State.” But new documents released today by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction show that the program, reportedly part of a stealthy cell phone system code-named Operation Palisades, may have been a big waste of taxpayer money.
John F. Sopko, the man in charge of the SIGAR, released a series of letters and documents detailing what he calls “red flags” that should have alerted officials to serious problems with the program. In a Sept. 9 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Sopko questions why officials went forward with the $7 million contract even though Afghan telecom companies indicated they would not connect to the system and deployed their own smaller towers.
“Based on the records provided to SIGAR, such red flags included serious concerns expressed by senior State Department personnel, Department of Defense (DOD) flag officers, and Afghan officials regarding the viability of the project,” Sopko wrote. “Specifically, concerns were raised that Afghan telecom providers would not connect to the system, and that DOD did not want the towers because of the high cost of fueling the towers’ generators. Despite these concerns, the State Department moved forward with construction.”
The goal of the tower project was to provide telecommunications services to local Afghan media companies and cell service to civilians in provinces deemed strategically important to the counterinsurgency effort against the Taliban, including Helmand, Kandahar, Ghanzi and Paktika. The Taliban had been forcing local telecom companies to shut down at dusk under the threat of death.
But the plan quickly backfired. Afghan telecom companies refused to use the towers because of threats from the Taliban. In addition, when initial cost estimates came in significantly higher than the $2 million State had earmarked for the effort, the contract was suspended. Two weeks later, the contract was abruptly reinstated and an award was made to Laurel, Maryland-based MNM Communications Inc. for $7.2 million.
Plans called for the towers to be constructed in secure areas and the Defense Department was to issue a services and maintenance contract under its Expeditionary Cellular Communications program. Documents show that the Pentagon may have intended to leverage the towers to provide cellphone service to forces operating in remote areas. But fighting led DOD to cancel the ECC program and the U.S. government “lost most of its potential use for the towers,” according to the SIGAR documents.
State Department documents provided to the SIGAR show that at least one tower located near the Marine Corps’ outpost Camp Leatherneck was designated by the State Department as “excess property” and was transferred to the DOD for $150,000. A March 28 letter from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff Director, Air Force Lt. Gen. David Goldfein, to the SIGAR stated the tower near Camp Leatherneck was no longer in use.
The State Department put the remaining five towers up for auction. But the SIGAR has since learned that a seventh tower, located near Kandahar Air Field, was brought into the program but later transferred to DOD as well.
“After it became clear that the towers could not be used for their originally intended purpose, the Department considered alternatives but determined that there was no available foreign assistance or other State Department use for the towers,” a State Department document states.
The SIGAR has given State until Sept. 24 to answer specific questions about the contract. Follow @DanielVerton