Posted on 06-04-2010
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Hamid Karzai is the gift that gives on giving.  The latest by Afghanistan’s venal leader was a burst of peevishness at members of his parliament for having the temerity to block his takeover of the Afghan electoral commission.  See link.  Karzai declared that any more pressure on him would make him join the Taliban.  I encourage him to make the jump, though expect that he will receive the Najibullah treatment in short order if he makes such a move.  Now it is understandable that Karzai is looking for room to maneuver as the United States prepares to leave.  See link.  But by repeatedly criticizing the United States and NATO troops attempting to secure Afghanistan as occupiers he makes the task of pacification that much harder.

Others have noted that Karzai seems to be banking on the fact of his supposed indispensability and perhaps Washington has long memories of the South Vietnam quagmire after it acquiesed in the removal of President Ngo Dinh Diem.  See link.  If so, I think it is a mistake.  It is a mystery of why this venal incompetent with no political base to speak of became indispensable.  Part of the Karzai appeal stems from his being one of the few Pashtun leaders acceptable to other Afghan ethnicities.  But the election fraud last year has dimmed that appeal in the non-Pashtun regions.  His government’s corruption has similarly sapped reservoirs of goodwill in the Pashtun heartland (not helped by the nefarious dealings of his brother Ahmad Wali Karzai).  The supposed indispensability largely stems from a fear of the unknown, something previous Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf exploited to the hilt.

Yet after Musharraf’s departure Pakistan has finally moved against its Taliban proxies and its feeble civil institutions are showing signs of life.  And yet for years Washington and its allies and neighboring India put up with Musharraf’s double dealing because of the fear of what would happen if the urbane English speaking dictator left.  Pakistan may yet fall apart but fears of its imminent cataclysmic collapse appear overstated.  The same appears true in Afghanistan.  The west needs a competent reliable ally in Kabul and it is increasingly clear that the urbane English speaking Karzai is simply not that man.  His presence in power is likely to result in the waste of American blood spilled during the ongoing surge.

Karzai’s departure obviously will not be a panacea to Afghanistan’s ills.  Yet at this point it is increasingly hard to see how it will be worse.  I will close with a couple of clips from yesterday night’s Jon Stewart.

The first is a tongue in cheek look at Karzai’s latest blathering and the consequence of Karzai’s departure.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Turncloak
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Health Care Reform

The second is a more serious discussion with Reza Aslan on why and whether America should remain in Afghanistan.  While I understand Aslan’s point about the moral commitment made by the United States and the squandered opportunity, the reality is that the presence of foreign troops is increasingly unpopular and it is not clear that America will ever be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Reza Aslan
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Health Care Reform

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Posted on 03-04-2010
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Update to the blog post from yesterday.  See here.  After shoving his foot firmly in his mouth the Mayor of Kabul has tried to “clarify” his comments by blaming every politicians favorite target – the media.  See link.  While Karzai likes to blame foreigners his own Parliament almost unanimously gave him an open handed slap by rejecting his attempt to pack the Electoral Complaints Commission with his cronies.  See link.  Its not clear whether this restores the autonomy of the commission, but its a small step for the rule of law in the face of a venal leader’s diktat.

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Posted on 02-04-2010
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Words fail me.  The logic of the claim is baffling.  After blatantly rigging last year’s Afghan elections Hamid Karzai now claims that it was the EU and UN observers who committed the rigging to place a puppet regime in power.  See link.  Either Karzai’s delusions have deepened or this is his latest ham-fisted attempt to explain why he is trying to pack the  Afghan electoral commission with cronies appointed by him.  If he wants to bullshit his way out of his latest jam couldn’t his brain trust come up with something better?

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Posted on 30-03-2010
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Its been a while since I picked on our old friend Hamid Karzai.  Like the itch you cannot scratch he is impossible to forget.  See link.  Ticked off at the brazen packing of the Afghan election commission (which unearthed his election fraud) with cronies the Obama administration sent him a message by withdrawing his invitation to visit Washington.  Since then the mayor of Kabul has been sulking in his palace, garbing himself in the cloak of Afghan nationalism and irritating Washington by flattering the electoral thief on his western border.  Its hard to see what Karzai’s strategy is.  He has no base and no army loyal exclusively to him.  He remains propped up by the dual support of Washington and his warlord cronies.  Washington’s patience has run out.  The fate of Mohammad Najibullah should warn him of the perils of relying on mercurial warlords.

What he needs more than ever is to midwife a resolution of the Afghan civil war before the Americans leave and then pray that Pakistan’s usual games in Afghanistan do not cause his regime to crumble.  It will require diplomatic tact and statesmanship that has not yet been on display.  But instead Karzai fiddles in the Afghan ruins, watches Pakistan force itself into the Afghan negotiating table and irritates the only people who can keep him in power.  Joe Biden once proposed partitioning Iraq.  That may be in Iraq’s future.  It is a pity he did not propose something similar for the basket case buffer that is the legacy of the Great Game.

Emir Sher Ali with his friends

Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his "friends" the Russian Bear & British Lion (1878).

The cartoon from 1878 above seems oddly prescient.  Just the participants have changed.

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Posted on 25-02-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The Christian Science Monitor has reported that Pakistan  arrested half of the Afghan Taliban leadership in recent days.  See link.  Speculation abounds about the timing of the crackdown and whether it was related to Pakistan seeking a more direct role in the Afghan peace negotiations.  To me the speed at which the Taliban leadership is being rounded up raises the question why this was not possible in the past eight years or even in the last couple of years when Pakistan itself became the target of the fundamentalist terror it midwifed.  Pakistan’s future actions will show just how serious it is in tackling the threat, or whether this is merely the latest gambit in the new Great Game (see previous blog post).

Also, unclear is the extent the lack of leadership affects the Taliban’s military operations.  It should make it harder to coordinate joint attacks, but there are enough lower level commanders with guns and experience to continue fighting.  Similar decapitations of the leadership among the Pakistani branch of the Taliban appear to have lead to militants training their guns at each other as they jockey for power.  Whether and to what extent the pattern repeats itself here remains to be seen.

For now, this should be a boost to the American surge.  But good news in Aghanistan seems to be accompanied by bad.  As usual it comes from the man supposed to provide the good governance essential for a lasting peace.  In recent days Hamid Karzai has tried to pack Afghanistan’s impartial election commission with his cronies, deepened his ties to the corrupt warlords and once again pandered to the fundamentalist fringe by weakening constitutional protections for female representation in parliament. See here, here and here.  Some things never change.

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Posted on 11-02-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Following up on my previous posts here and here, is this Newsweek article on the practical difficulty of buying off the Taliban.  See link.  A failure to buy off the “good-Taliban” renders a large chunk of the Obama administration’s Afghan pacification strategy meaningless.  Ron Moreau’s article highlights how the choice before the Pashtun peasantry resembles Morton’s fork.

There is no love lost for the brutal Taliban, but still a sneaking admiration for the true believers who have not taken the easy way out.  But the weak and venal Karzai regime along with its equally brutal warlords offer likelihood of protection.

When the Americans leave it is very likely things fall apart.  As noted in previous blogs, the Taliban resurgence has been immeasurably aided by the inability or the unwillingness of Pakistan to crack down on their former clients.   Pakistan’s crumbling state has also been unable and unwilling to seal off the porous Afghan border.  So the Taliban can strike, retreat to its Pakistani refuge and strike again. Even without the active backing of Pakistani intelligence services, this strategic advantage allows them to survive the immense disparity of manpower that exists on the ground.

Assuming Pakistan has cut off the cash and weapons flow to its former proxies, will that continue once America leaves?  There is little love lost between Karzai and his Tajik and Uzbek allies and Pakistan.  The temptation to rehash the early 1990s could prove irresistible to a Pakistani regime that still tries to distinguish between the domestic Taliban it is bombing and the Afghan Taliban it harbors, however unwillingly.

For a long time I supported the Afghan surge and still believe the diversion of American attention to Iraq cost the world a chance in a generation to guide an exhausted Afghanistan to an uneasy peace.  But as the Afghan conflict starts morphing into a tribal civil war of the sort that has plagued it since the creation of the country by Ahmad Shah Abdali, the desirability of American boots on the ground in the middle of the crossfire will continue to drop.

I hold out a tiny sliver of hope that the Afghan regime will prove my pessimism wrong, but the sliver is tiny and keeps shrinking.

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Posted on 20-12-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

The New York Times has a piece on a pattern of killings within Hamid Karzai’s extended family and the attempts to hush it up.  Honor killings and revenge killings permeate throughout tribal societies like Afghanistan, but it is distressing to see a westernized family like the Karzai’s engage in such fratricidal bloodletting.  It is also a reminder of how the rule of law necessary for the functioning of civil society simply does not exist in Afghanistan.

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Posted on 02-12-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Barack Obama’s speech yesterday threw no surprises. (Transcript here).   More troops are headed to Afghanistan (see previous post here) which has caused heartburn on the left.  There are assurances that this is not an indefinite mission and troops are supposed to start coming back by 2011 which has caused conniptions on the right.  There have been the expected harrumphs about fighting corruption and getting the Afghans ready to step up when the Americans leave (original post on Afghanistan from this blog here).

What is unclear whether this is feasible.  If the Afghan army is still a figment of imagination (previous post here) and the Karzai government remains as incompetent (both very likely scenarios) will the United States really start withdrawing to the chorus from Republicans that Obama “lost” Afghanistan?  Hopefully the answer is yes, because the prospect of an American withdrawal may be the only way to jolt the Afghan government to action.

What happens if the Taliban withdraws to its safe havens in Quetta?  Will Pakistan, which only reluctantly turned its guns on its homegrown Taliban, start another fight inside its western border in a province (Baluchistan) already brimming  on the verge of open rebellion?

What about the various NATO allies who have started withdrawing their troops?  Obama’s address noted that Al Qaeda’s attacks had targeted them as well.  Will that be sufficient to overcome the war weariness in those countries? Germany’s top general and deputy defense minister were forced to resign last week over a botched air strike and there are calls for a German withdrawal by 2011.

A successful solution is not entirely in American hands and relies a great deal on lady luck (and on wobbly Pakistan doing its bit).  Obama’s speech was a sober and realistic appraisal of the situation on the ground, but perhaps too optimistic (as such speeches always are) about success in the future (See Juan Cole’s take here).  The “success” of the Iraqi surge may have raised hopes of similar success in Afghanistan, but these are two entirely different societies with very different problems.  The future in Afghanistan remains murky.

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Posted on 12-11-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Andrew Sullivan praises Barack Obama’s deliberative decision making in Afghanistan.  With no end in sight to the war, no Afghan army that can engage the Taliban and an incompetent and corrupt local partner, it is heartening to see that the decision is finally discussing an exit strategy.  In the short run, I think more troops will be sent to Afghanistan (the number 30,000 is being tossed around).  But with American troops already outnumbering the Taliban on the ground, this will not solve a problem that ultimately lacks a pure military solution. The Taliban can always retreat to their Pakistani refuge or melt back into the tribal heartland.The US could try securing the perimeter like the Soviets and does have the decided advantage that the people outside the urbanized zones are not all shooting at its soldiers.  But that leaves a lot of white areas on the map in the previous link from Matt Yglesias that local allies need to fill.  The corrupt thugs and kleptocrats in Kabul will be of no help in this.

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Posted on 11-11-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

A follow up on a previous post.  There is yet more chatter that the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar is trying to distance itself from the nihilistic campaign of Al Qaeda.  With the American ambassador in Kabul now joining the critics of an expanded military presence in Afghanistan and with Hamid Karzai showing no signs of mending his ways this could enable the United States to cut bait on the Afghan quagmire and focus primarily on Al Qaeda.  Aram Roston at The Nation has a disturbing account of how the webs of corruption in Afghanistan have the United States funding Taliban operations.  The more I read about this mess, the more I gravitate towards the camp wanting to stop wasting American lives and treasure to protect a bunch of corrupt and brutal thugs.

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Posted on 09-11-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

The United Nations has declared the Afghan electoral farce as “credible and legitimate.”  I understand the political motivations for this resolution but frankly it insults the intelligence of anybody who is not a political hack.  How credible is a process where blatant fraud was initially overlooked, a runoff was ordered under intense international pressure, and the challenger eventually decided it was not worth it because the crooks in charge of the first round would administer the runoff.  We are stuck with Hamid Karzai and his kleptocrats because there is no Pashtun acceptable to the other minorities in Afghanistan.  Now the result of Karzai’s ham-handed and probably unnecessary electoral rigging is the alienation of the very minorities he was supposedly acceptable to.   The international community is understandably wary of redrawing the map, particularly when the border has remained in place for over 150 years.  However, at some point the question must be asked whether the tribal mish-mash that is Afghanistan is really viable as a modern state.

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Posted on 02-11-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

With the withdrawal of Abdullah Abdullah and the declaration of Hamid Karzai’s victory the United States is now stuck with him.  The usual congratulatory call from the American President appears to have been unusually terse.  In addition to cleaning up his act on all fronts, much also depends on how Karzai reaches out to his opponents.  To the extent any goodwill gestures are made, they will likely be the result of outside pressure.  I am not holding my breath on much improvement on the Afghan domestic front.

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Posted on 27-10-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Matthew Hoh, former Marine corps captain who served in Iraq to join the foreign service resigned last month in protest over the continuation of the Afghan war.  This is not a man who can be dismissed as a week kneed liberal and appears to have been highly regarded.  This blog has been ambiguous on the subject of the Afghan intervention.  It has expressed concerns that the United States appears to be intervening in the next round of the Afghan civil war and that unless the corrupt Afghan government gets its act together the sacrifice of men and material will all ave been for naught.  Mr. Hoh seems to have expressed similar concerns from his vantage point on the ground with concerns that the American military involvement is fueling Pashtun nationalism.  These are valid concerns that must be addressed.  Unfortunately, domestic politics may trump these valid points as the ultimate tipping point on remaining in Afghanistan for the near future.

Having generally ignored Afghanistan for most of the Bush presidency, former Vice President Dick Cheney reemerged last week to accuse President Obama of dithering on Afghanistan and urging him to rush his decisions in a manner that obviously worked so well on Mr. Cheney’s watch in Iraq.  Likely 2012 presidential rivals Mitch Romney and Tim Pawlenty whose foreign policy statements generally contain more platitudes than deep thoughts or practical policy are also tossing some criticism.  See here and here.  A cynical outlook suggests that a fear of looking weak will force the Administration’s hand, though if Mr. Karzai continues his delightful habit of blaming everybody but himself it will increase American eagerness to jettison its Afghan albatross.

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Posted on 23-10-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid has an interesting blog on how the United States forced a recalcitrant Karzai to accept a runoff.   However, as Matt Yglesias notes that the ethnic tinderbox in Afghanistan likely forces the United States to root for a victory by the inept Karzai.  The lack of a Pashtun alternative with support from his own community and who would be acceptable to Afghanistan’s other minorities has left the United States with little room to maneuver and hopefully the runoff will not saddle the United States with a partner of dubious legitimacy.

Yglesias’s article also raises another point that has not always been addressed recently.   Is the Presidential system really suited for an ethically diverse country like Afghanistan?  While a Parliamentary system runs the risk of executive gridlock, it also gives a voice to minority groups from elected representatives instead of warlords and self appointed community leaders.  It is also a reason why even Iraq adopted a parliamentary system.  Such a system would also prevent Afghanistan from being saddled with a leader out of his depth for a fixed term of the next four years.

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With millions of votes from the ham-handed rigging of an election Hamid Karzai would have likely won being tossed out, a runoff in Afghanistan appears increasingly likely. After displaying some intransigence pressure from the Obama administration appears to have forced Mr. Karzai to back down, for now. See this link for a great article by Renard Sexton on the recount and its implications on a fair election, if one were possible. The rigging in the Afghan election has made the logistics of a runoff harder and a Zimbabwe of Kenya style compromise may be needed (though those have not worked well).

Regardless of the next step, its time to have a heart to heart with Mr. Karzai. Even with his incompetence and corruption, the Afghan people do not appear to want the Taliban back, for now. But a failure to provide security could cause the Pashtun majority to remember the relative peace in the brutal Taliban regime with nostalgia. If America is supposed to keep fighting in what is now an Afghan civil war, it needs a partner on the ground whose administration put added obstacles in its way. Just as Pakistan is not getting a free ride, neither can the corrupt Karzai government. With the patience of American public opinion running out, America may be better off cutting bait. If Hamid Karzai and his backers do not want this to happen, they need to shape up. Even if some of the problems are caused by Hamid Karzai’s weaknesses, he cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption in his inner circle and family any more. The fate of Moussa Arafat should warn them of the fate of corrupt, nepotistic cronies when their protector moves on.

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Posted on 14-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Hamid Karzai’s Teflon cover in American opinions sheets is drawing to an end.  A year after now Vice President Biden famously walked out of a dinner where Karzai denied that his government was corrupt, Tom Friedman now joins the chorus.  This follows a detailed New York Times article this summer on Karzai detailing his descent into haplessness and paranoia.  Vietnam analogies are always problematic, but Washington now faces a repeat of trying to bolster a corrupt, faction ridden ally against a more ideologically cohesive foe.  The long term answer to Washington’s draw down in Afghanistan, short of abandoning the place, relies on an Afghan partner whose army takes the lead in fighting the Taliban.  That and not the surge enabled Washington’s drawdown in Iraq…absent that the United States is stuck in the Afghan quagmire.

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In the aftermath of 9/11 the United States intervention in Afghanistan was somewhat a no-brainer. The Taliban regime had provided a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and would not (or could not) surrender Osama Bin Laden and his followers. So strong was the global outrage at the attack on the twin towers that NATO whole heartedly supported the United States toppling the Taliban and provided troops as peacekeepers.

As we all know, the opportunity was squandered. Worried about casualties the United States never committed enough boots on the ground. It first relied on the Northern Alliance to do the fighting on the ground, a motley crew that contained many warlords with horrendous human rights records. The limited American presence on the ground probably helped Osama Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. Having toppled the Taliban with ridiculous ease, the Bush administration then pursued the Iraq invasion squandering global goodwill and failing to secure the peace.

With limited boots on the ground the United States relied instead on hitting the Taliban with air strikes from remote controlled drones. The civilian casualties caused by mistaken strikes sapped the goodwill that ordinary Pashtuns had to the United States for getting rid of the Taliban.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to expand the military presence in Afghanistan and delivered shortly after taking office. A further review was promised after the Afghan presidential election. The leaking of General McChrystal report calling for more troops caused a firestorm in Washington in last month. The left is increasingly tired of spilling blood in Afghanistan without an end point. Some commentators on the right, notably George Will, have joined in. Eager to show themselves as being strong on terror the Republican Party has generally lined up behind the General’s uniform.

As the President and his advisors confer on the next course, it must be asked, what does the United States hope to achieve in Afghanistan? What is the United States fighting for. Commentators such as Fareed Zakaria have noted that the Afghan war is not at present a war with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is holed up in its Pakistani hideouts and has not made a major comeback in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is essentially the next round of the civil war that has plagued the country since the toppling of the monarchy in the 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 10-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The Nobel Peace Price is inherently political in nature. In the last couple of decades the leftward political ideology has appeared more marked.  Nothing prepared the world however for the shock of the 2009 prize.  A week after Republicans crowed about the limits of Barack Obama’s international appeal when Chicago was not awarded the 2016 Olympics, the Nobel committee awarded probably the most unexpected award ever. The most prestigious prize in the world has forever been linked to the audacity of hope (some would say hype). If Barack Obama falters the tarnish will attach to the Nobel Peace Prize.

The award seems ludicrously premature. Given the fact that Barack Obama had been president for about two weeks before the nomination period for the award expired, a huge component of the award seems tied to the fact that he is not George W. Bush (or even the bellicose John McCain who once sang a ditty about bombing Iran and last year was eager to get into a brawl with the Russian bear over Georgia).

This blog has generally supported the contours of Obama’s foreign policy. His calm handling of foreign policy has generally lowered the global political temperature. His speech in Cairo could be the springboard for a renewed American engagement with the Islamic world. He understood the limitations of American power in responding to the Iranian ferment this summer. The adults have taken control of American foreign policy with the removal of a missile shield that did not work from Eastern Europe that unnecessarily irritated the Russians. The feckless Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan no longer has a free pass. Obama has continued the withdrawal from Iraq on schedule.

However, so much more still needs to be done. The Netenyahu government in Israel is displaying intense paranoia about American intentions and seems willing to accept only a neutered Palestinian state. The Iranian nuclear crisis is still not solved and just how helpful Russia and China will be remains to be seen. The administration is engaged in a major debate on Afghanistan that could lead to a policy that stabilizes Afghanistan or (more likely) a withdrawal as Afghanistan relapses into civil war. Even though the drop in oil prices lessened Hugo Chavez’s ability to bite, the Venezuelan strongman is still an irritant in Latin America. Honduras is an embarrassment waiting to explode as the coup plotters have shown a knack for taking an initially justifiable assumption of power and then blowing it with inept overreach. The Hermit Kingdom stepped back from the brink recently, but Kim Jong Il remains as unpredictable as ever. Guantanamo still needs to be closed and the Obama Administration has repeated many of the Bush Administration’s assertions on notational security powers.

Things could go very very bad quickly though factors outside of Obama’s control. For better or worse, Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize will be tied at the hip for at least the next 4 years.

To his credit Barack Obama appears to appreciate how premature this award is. For all the Republican hoots about narcissism (most recently repeated by George Will), his speech linked above acknowledging the award was artful in combining humility and tying it to the American ideals tarnished by the previous administration. Here is a fervent hope that he lives up to the initial promise of his foreign policy.

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