By LAURA ONITA
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Six communications towers built in Afghanistan were never used and were a waste of more than $6.5 million in U.S. taxpayer funds, an inquiry into U.S. State Department spending on Afghan reconstruction said on Thursday.
The inquiry by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) tried to find out whether officials responsible for the project ignored a number of apparent warning signals before building the towers.
“We have seen this problem time and time again, the red flags are ignored and the money is pushed out the door without proper planning and oversight,” John F. Sopko of SIGAR told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
State Department records provided to SIGAR showed that both senior State Department officials and flag officers from the Defense Department had expressed concern about the viability of the project.
The aim of the scheme, when it was proposed in 2010, was to give Afghan civilians expanded telecommunications services and media coverage at a time when these were limited by insurgent activity, the State Department said.
Taliban forces were making local phone companies and mobile tower operators close down in the evening, and two of the four Afghan telecoms companies said they would be willing to interconnect with U.S.-built towers, it said in its response to SIGAR's inquiry.
But by the time the towers were completed in 2012, Afghan firms had built their own network of towers and said they did not need the U.S.-built ones and would not pay to use them.
“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,” the State Department said.
“The fact that this $6.5 million was wasted on what the State Department said was one of their highest strategic communications priorities is even more dumbfounding. U.S. agencies must do better protecting taxpayer dollars and we will continue to hold them accountable,” SIGAR's Sopko said.
State Department officials were not immediately available to comment on the SIGAR inquiry, which is still in progress.
Figures released by SIGAR in June 2013 showed the United States had provided about $104 billion for strengthening security forces and promoting economic development in Afghanistan since 2002.
SIGAR is responsible for preventing and detecting waste, fraud, and abuse in programs and operations relating to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
(Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers underreported humanitarian, human rights, corruption and climate change issues. Visit www.trust.org)
(Editing by Tim Pearce; Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers underreported humanitarian, human rights, corruption and climate change issues. Visit www.trust.org)