Afghan IT sector growing, with federal investment

large broadcasting antenna

Several U.S. federal agencies have spent billions to help rebuild what has become a relatively lively IT/communications technology sector in Afghanistan. Those agencies, however, have not been keeping track of those investments in a combined cost database, according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The rebuilding of that country's IT/communications sector "is generally seen as a success," the report states. It brought in $1.8 billion in revenue for the Afghan government in 2013 and employs about 130,000 Afghans.

The five licensed commercial cell carriers operating in the country provide 3G mobile phone services to about 90 percent of the population via 5,000 cellular towers across the country. It is the most-used commercial network in the rugged country.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, Afghanistan's IT/communications sector is the country's biggest source of foreign direct investment, the biggest taxpayer and the largest legal employer.

The Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development have pumped $2.6 billion into the IT/communications sector since 2002.

DOD led the way by obligating more than $2.5 billion, according to the report. DOD officials told SIGAR that the department's primary reason for the investment was to support the communication needs of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

The State Department obligated about $83 million to support Afghan media and rule-of-law development, and USAID obligated at least $44 million to increase the IT/communications capacity of various Afghan ministries.

The exact amounts of those obligations, however, might never be known because SIGAR concluded that all three agencies were not required to track their efforts in a centralized database. Therefore, the information the agencies reported "may not be comprehensive or entirely reliable."

An example of that uneven recordkeeping was a $400 million contract to buy radios for the Afghan National Army. SIGAR auditors said they tracked down the contract on their own because DOD did not include it in the investment data the department provided.

According to SIGAR, other obligations are tied to projects that aren't pure IT/communications. The State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, for example, said its $205 million Justice Sector Support Program included one IT/communications-related activity, but the amount could not be broken out of the larger program's funding.

SIGAR also said USAID officials reported that they couldn't provide data on some programs completed before 2005 because the projects were beyond the agency's records-retention timetable.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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