SCA Acting Asst Secretary Alice Wells to Retire After 31 Years of Service

 

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Post of the Month: In a Time of Pandemic, a U.S. Embassy Launches a Witch Hunt

“Your previous article has really stirred things up …. a lot of retaliation against who people think might have written you…which is now a large group of suspects…”

Related posts:

Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide? March 23, 2020

US Embassy Turkmenistan Now on Ordered Departure For All USG Family Members Under 18

 

On March 27, 2020, the State Department issued a Level 3 Reconsider Travel Advisory for Turkmenistan. The advisory also announced the ordered, mandatory departure of  “all family members of U.S. government employees under the age of 18 in addition to the authorized departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of U.S. government employees due to stringent travel restrictions and quarantine procedures that affect commercial flights.”
See excerpt below:

Reconsider Travel to Turkmenistan due to the Global Health Advisory and Embassy Ashgabat’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.

On March 27, 2020, the Department of State ordered the departure of all family members of U.S. government employees under the age of 18 in addition to the authorized departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of U.S. government employees due to stringent travel restrictions and quarantine procedures that affect commercial flights.

The Government of Turkmenistan has implemented enhanced screening and quarantine measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  All incoming international flights are being redirected to Turkmenabat, approximately 291 miles from Ashgabat.  Passengers will be required to undergo medical screening and possibly involuntary quarantine at local medical facilities.

Travelers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice. Visit the website of U.S. Embassy Ashgabat for additional information on these new measures.

Medical protocols in Turkmenistan are not consistent with U.S. standards and some travelers have been required to undergo medical testing unrelated to COVID-19.  Consider declining any medical testing unrelated to COVID-19.

Due to the possibility of quarantine of unknown length, carry additional supplies of necessary medication in carry-on luggage.  Contact the U.S. Embassy if you are subject to quarantine or prior to undergoing any invasive medical testing or procedures.

Read the full announcement here.

Map via state.gov

Related posts:
Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide? March 23, 2020
US Embassy Turkmenistan Now on Voluntary Departure For Non-Emergency USG Staffers/Family Members (March 9, 2020)

 

Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide?

Updated: March 24, 12:54 am PDT

Updated: March 24, 2020 10:47 pm PDT

Updated March 26, 12:07 am PDT

SSDO Special Briefing, March 24, 2020

QUESTION:  [… ] And then secondly, I’m sure you’ve seen these reports that there are numerous embassies, or at least several embassies, where people are basically clamoring for order departure status, and that they are being discouraged from that.  Can you address that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Oh, no.  All help is appreciated.  On the second part of your question, Matt, so our embassies overseas have their emergency teams meet regularly to discuss the situation at post, and they have a process and procedure in place where they can really evaluate the transportation system, the healthcare system, and not just the status of COVID in the country.  And when they reach a certain point where they feel like, okay, maybe time to request authorized ordered departure, they submit a request to the undersecretary of management, and those are coming in regularly, and the undersecretary reviews them and then makes decisions on what to approve.  At this point, I think one of the biggest issues is the travel restrictions that countries are instituting around the world.

MODERATOR ONE:  If I could just add on to that, those decisions are made against a robust set of criteria and decisions made based to – based on a consistent set of principles, all which are geared towards maximizing the safety for our employees.

On March 19, we received an email from a post in Central Asia with the subject line: “Abandoned in Central Asia.” We learned that “after weeks of internal debate with Main State” authorized (voluntary) departure was finally approved for their Embassy on March 17. Apparently, last week, the Embassy’s Emergency Action Committee (EAC) also agreed that it was time to go OD”, that is, go on ordered departure, a mandatory evacuation from post except for emergency staffers. Note that the OD was not for suspension of operations.

Ordered Departures: Talking Ambassadors “out of it”

Sender A said that the Embassy’s EAC recommended “OD on Wednesday (March 18)” and then something happened. The South Central Asia (SCA) top bureau official reportedly “talked the AMB out of it.”  As to the rationale for this development, we were told that embassy employees were not informed. 
“We just know that on Sunday [March 15] EACs at two posts said they wanted OD” and by Monday, March 16, the respective chiefs of mission “had refused based on input” from the top bureau official, according to Sender A. 
So curious minds would like to know if these OD requests have actually been refused or if ambassadors were under pressure not to formally request it so the bureau will not have to refuse it in writing? Anyone know?
The frustrated employee writes: U.S. diplomats are now stuck in countries where U.S. citizens are specifically advised not to use local medical facilities and the Embassies only have small medical units for minor issues. Even if they’re needed, there are zero local hospital beds available. Best case, it sounds like multiple OIG complaints waiting to happen. But when did the administration’s image at home become more important than people’s lives? How much Swagger will SecState have when his people start dying?”

A Snapshot on Medical Facilities

We thought we’d checked the information on medical facilities for several countries in the region. For example, Turkmenistan is a Level 3 Reconsider Travel country. The State Department’s Travel Advisory says:
Medical protocols in Turkmenistan are not consistent with U.S. standards and some travelers have been required to undergo medical testing unrelated to COVID-19 including but not limited to HIV testing.  Consider declining any medical procedures including testing unrelated to COVID-19. Due to the possibility of quarantine of unknown length, carry additional supplies of necessary medication in carry-on luggage.”
According to Diplomatic Security’s 2020 Crime and Safety Report on Uzbekistan:
The country’s “health care system is not adequate to meet the needs of many serious emergencies. There is a lack of basic supplies and limited modern equipment. Emergency medicine is very basic. Some medication sold in local pharmacies may be counterfeit. Elderly travelers and those with pre-existing health problems may be at particular risk due to inadequate medical facilities. Most resident U.S. citizens travel to North America or Western Europe for their medical needs.”
Tajikistan’s “inadequate public healthcare infrastructure has given rise to private medical facilities offering varying degrees of quality care in some specialties. Also:
“Medical first responders (ambulance crews) do not meet Western standards, and are not widely available, likely poorly equipped, and often poorly trained.”
On Kyrgyzstan: Medical care is often inadequate in the country.
 “There is a shortage of basic medical supplies. Health care resources are limited and often below U.S. standards. Doctors and medical industry staff rarely speak English, and prices for treatment are not fixed. Use a translator or Russian/Kyrgyz speaking friend or family member to assist with medical treatment. U.S. citizens often travel outside of Kyrgyzstan for medical treatment, including most routine procedures.”
In Kazakhstan, medical care options are limited and well below U.S. standards.
“U.S. citizens often depart Kazakhstan for medical treatment, including many routine procedures. Serious long-term care is not a viable option in Nur-Sultan.”

An Ambassador’s Town Hall Meeting

Last Friday, a U.S. Ambassador at a post in South Central Asia held a town hall for embassy employees; held outdoors on the steps of the Embassy, we were told. 
The U.S. Ambassador, citing what he was told by the top SCA bureau official, informed embassy employees the following (provided to us in direct quotes by Sender A):
  • “Ambassador, you need to understand the United States is the red zone, it is not the safe haven that you think it is.”
  • “The U.S. has the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the world.”
  • “It has not peaked in the United States, incidents are rising rapidly, it is out of control.”
  • “The ability to get a test for COVID-19 even with symptoms or comorbidities is extremely difficult.”
  • “The healthcare infrastructure of the United States is not capable of helping.”
This ambassador reportedly further told embassy employees that “500,000 Americans are overseas seeking assistance for getting home.” And that “We are taking down the American economy to fight this enemy.”

(March 25 Special Briefing with CA PDAS Ian Brownlee: “Our posts around the world have received requests for assistance with getting back to the United States from over 50,000 U.S. citizens and we’re committed to bring home as many Americans as we possibly can.”  Wowow!

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USG Rapatriates Forfeited Funds From Bakiyev Regime to the Kyrgyz Republic

Posted: 2:05 am EST

 

On February 26, USDOJ announced the repatriation of stolen assets to the Kyrgyz Republic “from the corruption and theft of government funds” by the regime of second President of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his youngest son, Maxim Bakiyev. Bakiyev was ousted from office in 2010 during a public revolt and according to the BBC, father and son had been granted political asylum in Belarus.

The U.S. Department of Justice repatriated stolen assets to the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic arising from the corruption and theft of government funds by the prior regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his son Maxim Bakiyev.  The return of the funds was celebrated yesterday in a ceremony in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic attended by Ambassador Alice G. Wells, the head of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs for the Department of State and U.S. Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic, Donald Lu.

These funds were identified in the United States in the criminal prosecution of Eugene Gourevitch for insider trading in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York and a $6 million forfeiture order was subsequently entered by the Court.  Following the conviction in the prosecution led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the Kyrgyz Government filed a Petition for Remission with the U.S. Department of Justice, Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section, claiming that the funds subject to the forfeiture order traced back to monies stolen by Maxim Bakiyev from Kyrgyz state authorities and other banking institutions.  On Oct. 4, 2018, the Department of Justice granted the Remission Petition.

So far, approximately $4.5 million of the funds have been collected and are approved for repatriation of the $6 million ordered to be forfeited will be repatriated.  These funds will be deposited  in the account of  the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic (“current account of the Central Treasury of the Ministry of Finance of the Kyrgyz Republic in the National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic”).  MLARS attorneys working in the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative assisted in the investigation linking these funds to the corruption offenses in Kyrgystan.  Additional efforts will be made by the U.S. Government and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic to try to locate and return the remainder of the stolen assets in the forfeiture order.

Read more here: Justice Department Rapatriates Forfeited Funds to the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic

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@StateDept’s Aviation Program Down to Just 206 Aircraft, Also Spends $72M on Unnecessary Services

Per 2 FAM 800: INL/A serves as the Departments aviation service provider (with the exception of aircraft charters managed by A/LM/OPS for logistics support of nonrecurring and unpredictable requirements like oddly-sized shipments, evacuations and other emergency assistance to Posts) and is coordinator of all aviation related to AGB [Aviation Governing Board] approved acquisitions.  INL/A is responsible for complying with the provisions of this chapter as well as OMB Circulars A-126, A-76, A-11, and A-94 and Federal Management Regulation 10233. Additionally, as part of the Departments Management Control Plan (see 2 FAM 020), INL/A must establish cost-effective management control systems to ensure that aviation programs are managed effectively, efficiently, economically, and with integrity.

Excerpt below via State/OIG:  Audit of the Department of State’s Administration of its Aviation Program (Sept 2018).

The Department is not consistently administering its aviation program in accordance with Federal requirements or Department guidelines. Specifically, OIG found instances in which significant aviation operations were undertaken without the knowledge or approval of the AGB, which is required by Department policy. In addition, the AGB is not fulfilling its responsibilities to evaluate the usage and cost effectiveness of aircraft services, as required by Office of Management and Budget Circulars and Department guidance. Furthermore, INL administer ed country-specific aviation programs differently depending on whether a post used the worldwide aviation support services contract. As a result of limited AGB oversight and the absence of evaluations to determine the appropriate usage and cost effectiveness of the Department’s aircraft operations worldwide, the Department is not optimally managing aviation resources and spent $72 million on unnecessary services from September 2013 to August 2017.

Snapshot: The Department’s aviation program was created in 1976 to support narcotics interdiction and drug crop eradication programs. The aviation program has since grown to a fleet of 206 aircraft and aviation operations that extend from South America to Asia and include transportation services for chief of mission personnel. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the Department owned more aircraft than any other non-military agency and was one of three agencies with the most “non-operational” aircraft. At the time of GAO’s analysis, the Department had 248 aircraft; the Department has since decreased that number to 206. As shown in Figure 1, as of January 2018, the aircraft inventory included airplanes (fixed-wing), helicopters (rotary-wing), and unmanned aircraft.

As of January 2018, the Department had aviation operating bases overseas in five countries —Colombia, Peru, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq —and a support base at Patrick Air Force Base located in Melbourne, FL. The Department closed aviation programs in Cyprus and Pakistan during 2017. The Department plans to re-open an operating base in Guatemala. In addition, the Department has two dedicated chartered aircraft located in Cartersville,GA, and Nairobi, Kenya.

The Department’s Aviation Governing Board (AGB) is responsible for providing oversight of aviation activities, including approving policies, budgets, and strategic plans. The AGB was established in 2011. It is chaired by the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and has three other voting members—the Assistant Secretaries (or designees) from the Bureaus of Diplomatic Security, South and Central Asian Affairs, and Near Eastern Affairs.

INL/A consists of approximately 60 Civil Service personnel and 13 personal services contractors. To carry out the Department’s aircraft operations, maintenance, and logistics for the country-specific aviation programs, INL/A administers and oversees a worldwide aviation support services contract that provides a contract workforce of more than 1,500 personnel. According to an INL/A official, starting November 1, 2017, DynCorp International began its fifth extension of a $4.9 billion worldwide aviation services contract.

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Snapshot: Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Org Structure (As of Nov 2017)

Posted: 3:38 am ET

 

Via State/OIG:

[click on image for a larger view]

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Unemployment Status of @StateDept Family Members Overseas (4/2017)

Posted: 2:01 am ET
Updated: 1:51 pm PT for clarity and a new hashtag
Updated: August 5, 10:17 am PT
Updated: 12:07 pm PT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’]

 

Update: August 5, 10:17 am PT: The FLO website now has a new August 4 update that says: “The Secretary approved an exemption to the hiring freeze that will allow the Department to fill a number of priority EFM positions that are currently vacant. This exemption gives posts authority to fill critical vacancies supporting security, safety and health responsibilities.” This update has no time stamp but must have come out late on August 4.  

We understand that this change relates to CLO coordinator positions at Community Liaison Offices. Embassies (USG has 170 of them) and some Consulates General have one CLO, or have two individuals sharing the position as co-CLOs. We believed that a certain number of CLO positions, not all, were made vacant in the winter and the current rotation cycle of personnel. What we don’t know yet is if Tillerson’s exemption is specific to CLO vacancies only, and if that’s the case, how many positions are actually affected.” End update.

Update: 12:07 pm PT: We’re hearing some other EFM exemptions including consular positions are also being approved but we don’t have clarity on all exempted positions or how many.  End Update.

 

According to the FLO website, the Department of State’s current hiring freeze guidance “remains in effect, including with respect to hiring under a Family Member Appointment (FMA) or Temporary Appointment.”

It also says that Eligible Family Members may continue to apply for any advertised position for which they feel they are qualified and the hiring preference will be applied during the process. However, Appointment Eligible Family Members (AEFM) cannot be offered a position at this time due to the freeze on FMA and temporary appointments.

The stats below is from April 2017. It indicates that 6% or 743 EFMs are pending due the clearance process or the hiring freeze.  Even if the security clearance process is done, now that the hiring freeze remains in place, is anyone going anywhere? Of EFMs in South Central Asia, 10% are pending, the highest percentage in the geographic bureaus (SCA includes posts like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India). In terms of actual numbers, EUR and WHA have much larger family member population, and they are at 6% and 5% respectively.

Since the 6% will not be able to work unless the freeze is lifted by Secretary Tillerson or the EFMs are issued waivers, the “Not Employed” Foreign Service family members below is not 56% (6,695) but actually 62% (7,438).

Via State/FLO:

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State Dept Issues Travel Warnings For Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia; Warns of “Imminent Attacks” in Kabul

Posted: 11:17 EST
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

On February 24, the State Department issued Travel Warnings for Algeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia:

Algeria Travel Warning:

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens who travel to Algeria to evaluate carefully the risks posed to their personal safety. There is a high threat of terrorism and kidnappings in Algeria, as noted in the Department of State’s latest Worldwide Caution. Although the major cities are heavily policed, attacks are still possible. The majority of terrorist attacks, including bombings, false roadblocks, kidnappings, and ambushes occur in the mountainous areas to the east of Algiers (Kabylie region and eastern wilayas) and in the expansive Saharan desert regions of the south and southeast. In September, the ISIL-affiliated Jund al-Khalifa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) abducted and beheaded a French citizen, in the Kabylie region.
[…]
The U.S. government considers the potential threat to U.S. Embassy personnel assigned to Algiers sufficiently serious to require them to live and work under security restrictions. The U.S. Department of State permits U.S. diplomats in Algeria to be accompanied only by adult family members, and children under age 12. Embassy travel restrictions limit and occasionally prevent the movement of U.S. Embassy officials and the provision of consular services in certain areas of the country. Likewise, the Government of Algeria requires U.S. Embassy personnel to seek permission to travel outside the wilaya of Algiers and provides police escorts. Travel to the military zone established around the Hassi Messaoud oil center requires Government of Algeria authorization.

state.gov/nea map

state.gov/nea map

Pakistan Travel Warning:

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi continue to provide consular services for all U.S. citizens in Pakistan. The U.S. Consulate General in Peshawar no longer offers consular services and the U.S. Consulate General in Lahore remains temporarily closed for public services.
[…]
The presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan. Across the country, terrorist attacks frequently occur against civilian, government, and foreign targets.
[…]
U.S. government personnel travel within Pakistan is often restricted based on security or other reasons. Movements by U.S. government personnel assigned to the Consulates General are severely restricted, and consulate staff cannot drive personally-owned vehicles. Embassy staff is permitted at times to drive personally-owned vehicles in the greater Islamabad area.

U.S. officials in Islamabad are instructed to limit the frequency of travel and minimize the duration of trips to public markets, restaurants, and other locations. Official visitors are not authorized to stay overnight in local hotels. Depending on ongoing security assessments, the U.S. Mission sometimes places areas such as hotels, markets, and restaurants off-limits to official personnel. U.S. officials are not authorized to use public transportation.

Saudi Arabia Travel Warning:

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia. There have been recent attacks on U.S. citizens and other Western expatriates, an attack on Shi’ite Muslims outside a community center in the Eastern Province on November 3, 2014, and continuing reports of threats against U.S. citizens and other Westerners in the Kingdom.
[…]
Security threats are increasing and terrorist groups, some affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have targeted both Saudi and Western interests. Possible targets include housing compounds, hotels, shopping areas, international schools, and other facilities where Westerners congregate, as well as Saudi government facilities and economic/commercial targets within the Kingdom.

On January 30, 2015, two U.S. citizens were fired upon and injured in Hofuf in Al Hasa Governorate (Eastern Province). The U.S. Embassy has instructed U.S. government personnel and their families to avoid all travel to Al Hasa Governorate, and advises all U.S. citizens to do the same. On October 14, 2014, two U.S. citizens were shot at a gas station in Riyadh. One was killed and the other wounded.

In related news — yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul also issued an Emergency Message concerning threats to American citizens in what is still a war zone.

“As of late February 2015, militants planned to conduct multiple imminent attacks against an unspecified target or targets in Kabul City, Afghanistan. There was no further information regarding the timing, target, location, or method of any planned attacks.”

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is the first overseas destination of the new defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter. According to the NYT, he arrived in Afghanistan over the weekend and opened up the possibility of “slowing the withdrawal of the last American troops in the country to help keep the Taliban at bay.”  Most of the remaining troops in the country are scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2016.

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Media Operations Centers in Afghanistan: $7.2Million Build/Suspend and Demolish Projects

— Domani Spero
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

They’re called MOCs or Media Operations Centers (MOCs). We’re building them in Afghanistan.  One State Department grant was for the construction of one MOC at Balkh University for $3,782,980. A second grant was for the construction of another MOC at Nangarhar University for $3,482,348. The grant awards totaled $7,265,328, and the periods of performance for both grants were October 1, 2013, through December 31, 2014.   According to State/OIG, these grants were executed in Afghanistan by Omran Holding Group (OHG) with two subcontractors, Capitalize Omran—a company based in Washington, DC, responsible for managing the overall project—and TriVision Studios, the firm responsible for outfitting the MOCs with broadcasting equipment. Apparently, the contraction construction related to both grants was suspended in January 2014 and has not resumed. On September 18, State/OIG recommended the immediate termination of the two grant agreements. Why?

Based on preliminary results of the audited sample, OIG identified areas of concern related to two construction grants being executed in Afghanistan by Omran Holding Group (OHG) that require immediate attention. These areas of concern include misuse of Government funds, significant noncompliance with Federal regulations, and inaccurate financial reporting. Additionally, OHG failed to comply with the terms of one grant agreement by beginning construction without required design approval, and also began construction of the building in the wrong location. We therefore recommended, among other actions, that the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) immediately terminate grant agreements S-AF200-13-CA-012 and S-AF200-13-CA-014 with OHG, and that the Bureau of Administration’s Office of the Procurement Executive (A/OPE) develop Department guidance regarding the use of Federal assistance funds for overseas construction.

 

So one MOC was constructed without the required design approval:

“The grants required that the recipient develop building designs for the MOCs and that these designs be approved by the Department prior to the commencement of construction. However, OHG “jumped” the construction schedule and began to construct the Balkh University MOC in December 2013, without prior approval from the Department. As a result, certain aspects of the newly constructed structure were not in accordance with the Department’s requirements for the building design.”

The same MOC was constructed in the wrong location, and had to be demolished no later than October 31, 2014.

“OHG began the Balkh University MOC construction in the wrong location, based on the direction of a local Afghan government official who did not have the authority to direct the grantee, resulting in the need to demolish the new structure.” 

How did we end up from design/build to build/demolish?

State/OIG may have an answer:

“OIG also noted concerns related to the Department’s oversight of construction grants, in general. Specifically, the Department had no policies or procedures for awarding or overseeing construction grants, which resulted in ineffective construction grant agreements. For example, the OHG grant agreements lacked details that are normally included in construction contracts, and the terms and conditions were created by the GOR without documented input or approval from Department legal representatives or construction specialists.”

The Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) and the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) concurred with the recommendations with the later noting that the termination letters for each award are currently in the clearance process. A response from the SRAP also notes that the Public Affairs Section (PAS) at embassy Kabul has “obligated more than 975 awards totaling over  $270,000,000  under extraordinarily challenging circumstances.”

Think about that for a moment.

We don’t know how many MOCs have been constructed in Afghanistan, but in January 2013, the State Department announced a $325,000 award for “the completion of the PAS-funded Media Operations Center (MOC) at Herat University”and a maximum award for $200,00 for the  the operation and maintenance of this facility for a period of up to 24 months.  In spring 2013, the US Embassy in Kabul also announced the inauguration of a state-of-the-art Media Operations Center (MOC) at Kabul University.  The Embassy provided a $2.67 million grant to the HUDA Development Organization, to build and equip the Media Operations Center there.

So just to round-up, our precise and active verbs for these Afghanistan projects now include: design, build, suspend,complete, equip, maintain, and demolish. Also terminate.

Although, possibly, terminate is only good until a new grantee can be located to complete these grants.

Read the audit here (pdf) and weep.

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