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Millions Wasted on Communication Towers in Afghanistan

According to a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the State Department paid $6.5 million for six communication towers that were never used as intended. This high cost exceeded the State Department’s initial recommended limit of $2 million per contract.

In 2010, the State Department began constructing a network of communication towers in Afghanistan. According to the State Department, the main objective of the towers project was “to expand and enhance media provider coverage and telecommunication services to the civilian Afghan populations in underserved and strategically important Helmand, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Paktika provinces via television, radio, and telephonic mediums.” Since then, the towers have been built, but the project has not served its original purpose. The State Department reported to SIGAR that once it was clear the towers could not fulfill their purpose, “the Department considered alternatives but determined that there was no available foreign assistance or other State Department use for the towers.”

Eventually, the Strategic Communication Unit in the Public Affairs Section found a potential use for the towers whereby “the Department of Defense (DoD) would provide cell and internet service to troops in the vicinity with the hope that it would eventually reach the local population.” Two such towers have been transferred to the DoD (including one that had already been built by the Department of State as part of a previous project) and the remaining five towers are in the process of being put up for auction to commercial entities.

In a prior inquiry, SIGAR asked the State Department why the towers had not been turned over to the Afghan government. The Department responded, “Granting the towers to the Afghan government was considered, however as the Afghan Government continued to struggle with lacking resources and technical capacity to operate and maintain these towers, this option was rejected for the safety and welfare of the public, as well as other reasons.” SIGAR recently stated “It has been reported that an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopter recently hit a tower during night operations in southern Afghanistan killing one ISAF member,” and asked how the six communications towers are currently being marked for air traffic safety.

All this for towers that, at one point, the State Department had decided not to build. On August 20, 2011, according the SIGAR report, senior State Department officials suspended and planned to end the communication tower project based on “the higher-than-expected cost of contracting a service provider, the lack of infrastructure agreements, and the threats to the telecommunication operators.” Nonetheless, on September 1, State issued a Decision Memo recommending the construction of the six towers. Rightfully, SIGAR has asked the Department of State why it proceeded to construct the towers after the project had been slated for cancellation.

SIGAR has expertly documented the long track record of waste in Afghanistan reconstruction. For example, SIGAR reported that garbage incinerators on U.S. bases in Afghanistan costing millions of dollars were not being used, as well as significant structural failures in other construction projects. These unused communication towers are no exception to the pattern of wastefulness by U.S. agencies on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.