An Urgent Memo to the SecDef

On May 13 about 70 percent of Iraq's mobile telephone network will cease to operate.  This will be a serious blow to the Iraqi economy.  Moreover, a shutdown of Iraq's mobile phone network - upon which our own people in Baghdad rely to communicate, by the way -- will greatly diminish our intelligence gathering on al Qaeda in Iraq, thus de-railing our counter-insurgency strategy of relying on tips telephoned to us by Iraqis.  And that will cost American lives.

Here's what's happening:

The primary mobile phone network in Iraq is operated by a Kuwaiti company called Zain GroupZain also operates cell phone networks in other Mideast countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan and Lebanon.

It takes about 1,300 cell towers to provide service in Iraq, and to protect these towers from being blown up by terrorists, or cannibalized by Iraqis working the black market, Zain signed a contract with an Iraqi-owned company called Babylon Eagles Security Company (BESC).

As the cell phone network in Iraq has grown during the past four years, BESC itself has grown to more than 7,000 heavily-armed and well-trained Iraqi security employees.  The company has developed its own intelligence and counter-intelligence capabilities, and maintains a complex set of working relationships with all the various tribes, militias, political parties and religious sects that live within its area of coverage.  For instance, BESC has been providing 4,200 food boxes per month to villagers where cell phone towers are located.  And recently BESC personnel worked with US and Iraqi military forces to pinpoint insurgent strongholds in Dyala province.  (So far about 150 BESC security guards have been killed protecting the cell towers, and the company has a good record for taking financial care of the families of its dead guards.)

Zain and BESC are in the midst of a commercial dispute that's heading for arbitration in London.  This, by itself, is of no interest to the US.

However, according to BESC, Zain hasn't paid BESC since December --- about $12 million that's owed -- and since then all BESC employees have been receiving their salaries from BESC's fast-dwindling cash reserves.  That money runs out on May 13, and even now notice is being prepared for all BESC employees telling them that on that date they're out of work.

Those 1,300 cell phone towers won't survive a week.  Either the terrorists will blow them up, or Iraqis will plunder them for the metal and equipment they contain.  (For example, each site includes two generators that could bring about $50,000 each on the black market.)

Our objective ought to be keeping those cell towers safe and operating.

One possibility would be for the US government to intervene diplomatically in the Zain-BESC commercial dispute, for instance by leaning on the Kuwaiti government to bang some heads together over at Zain's corporate headquarters.  Or we could ask the Iraqi government to threaten withdrawal of Zain's license to operate in that country. But I doubt that either of these strategies would work, and in any case we haven't got enough time to even give it a shot.  (By the way, I've tried contacting Zain for their version of all this, but so far I cannot get anyone at their offices to respond.)

Another possibility would be to alert our military forces in Iraq to the looming problem so we can pick up the security for the cell towers.  The problem here, of course, is that we don't have 7,000 soldiers sitting around with nothing else to do.

Perhaps the best option -- perhaps the only real option -- is to keep those 7,000 BESC security guards working beyond May 13 by finding the money for their salaries. It couldn't possibly take more than a couple of million bucks to keep them working for at least the next month -- and by the standards of what we're spending each day in Iraq, this is chicken feed. With the towers secure, then there will be time to straighten out the financial dispute between the two companies.

Just to be clear about this, I have no financial interest whatever in BESC, Zain or any other business entity involved in Iraq's cell phone service.  Neither does the gentleman who contacted me this past weekend to tell me about the looming problem.  He used to work where I used to work -- and you worked there with us both, when Bill Casey was in charge. When he learned about all this a few weeks back he started making calls to old friends in Washington in hopes of getting someone there to do something before it's too late.  He says he's gotten nowhere, so he's asked me to lend a hand.  Hence this open -- but nevertheless urgent -- memo.

Bob, this one's a no-brainer.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council.  He is author of How to Analyze Information.
On May 13 about 70 percent of Iraq's mobile telephone network will cease to operate.  This will be a serious blow to the Iraqi economy.  Moreover, a shutdown of Iraq's mobile phone network - upon which our own people in Baghdad rely to communicate, by the way -- will greatly diminish our intelligence gathering on al Qaeda in Iraq, thus de-railing our counter-insurgency strategy of relying on tips telephoned to us by Iraqis.  And that will cost American lives.

Here's what's happening:

The primary mobile phone network in Iraq is operated by a Kuwaiti company called Zain GroupZain also operates cell phone networks in other Mideast countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan and Lebanon.

It takes about 1,300 cell towers to provide service in Iraq, and to protect these towers from being blown up by terrorists, or cannibalized by Iraqis working the black market, Zain signed a contract with an Iraqi-owned company called Babylon Eagles Security Company (BESC).

As the cell phone network in Iraq has grown during the past four years, BESC itself has grown to more than 7,000 heavily-armed and well-trained Iraqi security employees.  The company has developed its own intelligence and counter-intelligence capabilities, and maintains a complex set of working relationships with all the various tribes, militias, political parties and religious sects that live within its area of coverage.  For instance, BESC has been providing 4,200 food boxes per month to villagers where cell phone towers are located.  And recently BESC personnel worked with US and Iraqi military forces to pinpoint insurgent strongholds in Dyala province.  (So far about 150 BESC security guards have been killed protecting the cell towers, and the company has a good record for taking financial care of the families of its dead guards.)

Zain and BESC are in the midst of a commercial dispute that's heading for arbitration in London.  This, by itself, is of no interest to the US.

However, according to BESC, Zain hasn't paid BESC since December --- about $12 million that's owed -- and since then all BESC employees have been receiving their salaries from BESC's fast-dwindling cash reserves.  That money runs out on May 13, and even now notice is being prepared for all BESC employees telling them that on that date they're out of work.

Those 1,300 cell phone towers won't survive a week.  Either the terrorists will blow them up, or Iraqis will plunder them for the metal and equipment they contain.  (For example, each site includes two generators that could bring about $50,000 each on the black market.)

Our objective ought to be keeping those cell towers safe and operating.

One possibility would be for the US government to intervene diplomatically in the Zain-BESC commercial dispute, for instance by leaning on the Kuwaiti government to bang some heads together over at Zain's corporate headquarters.  Or we could ask the Iraqi government to threaten withdrawal of Zain's license to operate in that country. But I doubt that either of these strategies would work, and in any case we haven't got enough time to even give it a shot.  (By the way, I've tried contacting Zain for their version of all this, but so far I cannot get anyone at their offices to respond.)

Another possibility would be to alert our military forces in Iraq to the looming problem so we can pick up the security for the cell towers.  The problem here, of course, is that we don't have 7,000 soldiers sitting around with nothing else to do.

Perhaps the best option -- perhaps the only real option -- is to keep those 7,000 BESC security guards working beyond May 13 by finding the money for their salaries. It couldn't possibly take more than a couple of million bucks to keep them working for at least the next month -- and by the standards of what we're spending each day in Iraq, this is chicken feed. With the towers secure, then there will be time to straighten out the financial dispute between the two companies.

Just to be clear about this, I have no financial interest whatever in BESC, Zain or any other business entity involved in Iraq's cell phone service.  Neither does the gentleman who contacted me this past weekend to tell me about the looming problem.  He used to work where I used to work -- and you worked there with us both, when Bill Casey was in charge. When he learned about all this a few weeks back he started making calls to old friends in Washington in hopes of getting someone there to do something before it's too late.  He says he's gotten nowhere, so he's asked me to lend a hand.  Hence this open -- but nevertheless urgent -- memo.

Bob, this one's a no-brainer.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council.  He is author of How to Analyze Information.