Pundits and Beltway blindness

by Sailani on 12/11/2009 · 17 comments

I suppose I am beating a dead horse here, but it often strikes me how different the Afghan conflict looks to me here on the ground and to Washington DC pundits who triumphantly advocate really simple solutions that are the key to victory, but which cannot stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny.

Take Matt Yglesias for example.  I’ll confess I know nothing about his background, but he seems to have opinions on a lot of issues and does not appear to lack conviction about any of them – call it a Starbucks-fuelled, over-the-horizon strategic certainty if you will.  He recently wrote:

On the other hand, as far as problems go it’s an exceedingly correctable one. If there’s anything the international coalition has, it’s more money than the Taliban. If the Taliban pay $300 a month, there should be no problem with the coalition putting $350 or $400 a month together. This sort of thing is one reason why, despite some serious doubts about the strategy being pursued, I think there’s reason to believe Obama, Petraeus, McChrystal, etc. can make it work. Some of the mistakes in our policy are so egregious that an enormous amount of good is going to be done as we simply reverse the obvious errors.

Is it just me or is this reasoning barely fit for a tenth-grade debating society?  Sure, many insurgents are paid for their activities (planting IED’s, launching indirect or direct attacks, etc.), but they are hardly salaried fighters in the same sense that the members of the Afghan security forces are.  It’s not as if they see competing ads in the paper for jobs with the ANA and with the “Taliban” and since the latter pay more they go ahead and sign up for the black turban crew.  Come on people, this is just intellectually lazy! When someone decides to take part in the insurgency, there are a range of motivating factors, but even if the ANA was paying more money that’s not to say that people would be flocking to fight for a government that is seen as incompetent at best and hostile to the Pashtuns at worst.

The mood in the West now sounds like everyone is out to find the quick and easy key to victory in A’stan.  Yes, that includes you Mr. Obama and your short-sighted “18-month” statement (I don’t care how it gets spun, people here on the ground just heard; “we will start to leave in 18 months,” and they started rethinking their long term personal strategies).

The only thing that comes quickly in a counterinsurgency is defeat.


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{ 17 comments }

DE Teodoru December 11, 2009 at 11:54 am

Yeah, Mr. Sailani, I know what you mean. But then as you travel around all over and build relations over 20 or 30 different spots accross Afghnaistan over a decade or so, it starts too look a lot different from the way one sees it bogged down in a tiny spot for a couple of months. Being there, where there’ little in the way of communication and transportation can make you think the whole is just a multiple of your part. Take the famous Maj. Gant’s paper “One Tribe At a Time.” Very impressive and he indeed seems like a heroic American. But I get itchy at this: of course there’s a lot I’m not allowed to talk about because of secrecy. For beyond identifying the people in his story (which, it seems he does) there’s not much of tactical use to anyone in his long past experience and his paper is utterly devoid of strategic intel, being so narrow a perspective. And there’s the rub. One experiences an intense moment in space and time as a tactician and one feels ready to make strategic prognostications. There is not a uniform carpet accross any nation at war as if it were an American home’s homogenous unicolor carpeting. Yglesia is a scholar and reporter and his bird’s eye view is quite useful– at least his writings seem a lot more precient that McChrystal’s non-analytic report. So let’s be modest. If you’re a soldier there, there’s a limit to what you see. If you don’t speak the language there’s a limit to how much you interact (see the case-in-point on PBS’s FRONTLINE of frustrated Marines in the countryside totally dependent on translators WHO DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH!). But there is one skill unique to people whom necessity made nomads, refugees not travelers, who had to face each day, week, month adapting and then move on. Here the CIA is better cut as they are knowledge sponges designed to move in, blend in, do what they gotta do, get out and go to yet another place. Such “tourists” tend to read a lot and they, I can assure you, find Mr. Yglesia quite useful.

sian tiksom December 13, 2009 at 11:34 pm

PBS’s FRONTLINE is not a good information source as it is promotional material for global multi nationals. PBS FRONTLINE have no ethics whatsoever as is evidenced by their thinly disguised product promotions for Ritalin and ADHD- They push growth stunting, mind altering prescription drugs onto children.

Sailani December 11, 2009 at 12:05 pm

So you think we just raise salaries to a level higher than what the insurgents pay their footsoldiers and, alakazam!, everything starts to look better?

I’m not going to get into a pissing contest about time spent on the ground, suffice it to say that I’ve been here for a significant amount of time and in more than one location, with access to tribal elders and Afghan ministers and all and saundry in between. Having said that, one could spend an eternity here and not understand all they onion layers.

I’d love to see the CIA “blending-in” here in A’stan btw.

DE Teodoru December 11, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Mao said that a soldier is like a frog looking at the sky from the bottom of a well. He may or he may not be right. But it doth behoove us not to crap on people on the same side. A’stan is one place and there are many more where few of them were also heroic. Our military has to account for the fact that for eight years it failed to hold lightly armed insurgents at bay in either Iraq or Afghanistan…$1 trillion later. To be sure, our mom and dad soldiers gave it their all and I am enraged at what they’ve been put through. But the grand strategists and commanders really screwed up and give no sign that they won’t still. CIA alone ended the Taliban in 2001 in 8 weeks and did most of the in-and-out against the Soviets from 1979 to 1989. The Soviets thought them damn good, that I can tell you for sure. On the other hand, US army, like the Soviet Army, is still there eight year later, with commanders insisting that “we’re losing BUT we can win if we send in more…a lot more.” When will it ever end?

I would NEVER reproach anything of any soldier as almost all who fight gave it their heroic all and still more on mere adrenaline. I want them home to protect their nation and to raise their children, both as skillfully as they proved themselves over there. I do not want them sent in intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb fighting by the political strategies of self-serving political generals. This mess of the last 8 years would never have happened had most Americans not suffered from the “ain’t my kid going to war” disconnect syndrome. Perhaps that’s why we need a draft: so we don’t end like Rome! I repeat, no patriotic American would allow to be done with our nations kids what they would not allow be done with their biologic kids. That they “volunteered” is no excuse, neither for their disconnect from soldiers nor from vets while we’re distracted by imperial circuses. We’re ALL responsible for ALL of you, including the CIA you disparage!

sian tiksom December 13, 2009 at 11:45 pm

No we dont need a draft. We need a new political system and human psycho dynamic. So that animal instinct and corporate interest dont keep prevailing. Obviously an end to religion and sexual inequality would help achieve this.

DE Teodoru December 11, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Mao said that a soldier is like a frog looking at the sky from the bottom of a well. He may or he may not be right. But it doth behoove us not to crap on people on the same side. A’stan is one place and there are many more where few of them were also heroic. Our military has to account for the fact that for eight years it failed to hold lightly armed insurgents at bay in either Iraq or Afghanistan…$1 trillion later. To be sure, our mom and dad soldiers gave it their all and I am enraged at what they’ve been put through. But the grand strategists and commanders really screwed up and give no sign that they won’t still. CIA alone ended the Taliban in 2001 in 8 weeks and did most of the in-and-out against the Soviets from 1979 to 1989. The Soviets thought them damn good, that I can tell you for sure. On the other hand, US army, like the Soviet Army, is still there eight year later, with commanders insisting that “we’re losing BUT we can win if we send in more…a lot more.” When will it ever end?

I would NEVER reproach anything of any soldier as almost all who fight gave it their heroic all and still more on mere adrenaline. I want them home to protect their nation and to raise their children, both as skillfully as they proved themselves over there. I do not want them sent in intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb fighting by the political strategies of self-serving political generals. This mess of the last 8 years would never have happened had most Americans not suffered from the “ain’t my kid going to war” disconnect syndrome. Perhaps that’s why we need a draft: so we don’t end like Rome! I repeat, no patriotic American would allow to be done with our nations kids what they would not allow be done with their biologic kids. That they “volunteered” is no excuse, neither for their disconnect from soldiers nor from vets while we’re distracted by imperial circuses. We’re ALL responsible for ALL of you, including the CIA you disparage!

DE Teodoru December 11, 2009 at 8:56 pm

P.S. A national army you will never build because it has nothingf to defend. What can you teach them that they didn’t learn in 200 years of warfare? The real issue is whose side will they be on when you leave. I don’t want you in your old age to remember your youth squandered on another failure that will totally rearange itself after you leave in all sorts of ways you can’t even imagine. Rather than talking to Afghnas, talk to Rusians about what happened after they left. Unlike the CIA, they kept up with it all. Don’t you think it better to leave the Taliban to the Shanghai Cooperative Accord. They want Taliban out even more than we do; afterall it’s ther backyard. Karazi has been negotiating with them for twi years so Obama looked rediculous insisting that we need to give a date certain for our departure or they’ll just keep the stauts quo. Let’s just admit that Americans can’t rule the world and bring you home to raise and defend great American kids!

Jim December 11, 2009 at 10:23 pm

I think perhaps in your frustration with the situation in general you’ve channeled your anger here, and I think it’s a little misplaced. I’ll preface my remarks by saying I’m not a regular reader of Yglesias, and really don’t know enough about him to determine whether he’s usually spot on or is usually spewing hot air.

You indicate that you think his reasoning is not fit for a 10th grade debate. There are three problems with this.

One, and this is a bit of a nit-pick, the guy got a degree in philosophy from Harvard. He could probably destroy either of us in a debate even if we were factually correct.

Second, you come off poorly mocking somebody for their debate skills when your response to their point was simply, “Isn’t that silly!” as if it was perhaps a fundamental truth of the universe that he was wrong. It’s not. So in the future I’d encourage you to flesh out your argument a bit more.

Finally, you imply in your piece and confirm in the comments that your big problem is that you feel Yglesias is acting as if this is the solution to the world’s problems. However, he sets up his piece by quoting Ackerman as saying, “if the Obama administration and NATO are correct that many Taliban foot soldiers essentially fight because of economic opportunity, then this is a glaring, flashing red light of a problem.”

Note the THIS. And then he goes on describing how to fix THAT.

And you know what. IF *THAT* is a big problem, then THAT is as easy to fix as he says it is.

Now you seem to disagree that it’s a problem. Perhaps it’s not a problem, but it certainly isn’t, as I alluded to above, a fundamental truth that it’s not a problem. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that eliminating the financial incentive to fight would be effective at weakening the Taliban. Estimates that I’ve seen as to the number of Taliban that are economically motivated are as high as 70%[1] and as low as 10%[2]. Whichever it is, taking a chunk out of that would be a win. Not only that, but it has to be a point of embarrassment and frustration for the Afghans that they are paid less than the insurgents. It’s laughable.

If you disagree, great. Say why. Otherwise Yglesias will have to be pronounced the clear winner of this year’s 10th grade debate championships. 🙂

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/file_on_4/4755222.stm
[2] Antonio Giustozzi. Koran, Kalashnikov, Laptop.

sian tiksom December 14, 2009 at 12:17 am

Because of polygomy they havent got enough females for each male to have a girlfriend. Especially for young males without wealth. So money, though a factor is undermined by mathematics. As they aquire wealth they aquire multiple wives, depriving others of females. These deprived males then have increased aggression and need to fight for wealth and kill rivals. Rivals are any males who get into their orbit. It is inevitable that they fight.
Also, they view females as a form of property and as a form of wealth. The male stance and attitude to wealth is more like that of the pimp. To engage in their form of currency exchange would just be morally debasing for the US and allies. Hopefuly at least. So its not about money as understood by the US. Although US motive is also connected to the formerly routine practise in the US, of male infant circumcision which induces lifelong brain damage. Regions of the world with high male circumcision rates are more warlike as a consequence.

DE Teodoru December 11, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Oh Jim, Jiiiimmmm, you read like a real scholar. Sometimes we all need the be reigned in by a reminder of what intellect is like and that it is what makes us homo sapiens able to survive. I respect Sailani’s feelings and his thoughts for they are most informative and clearly sincere. But Yylesia is a serious person trying to be helpful. We must help eachother because we aree all in the same boat to sink or float together. As an old man I get angry at the guys at the top who often are so self-serving, oblivious to what guys at bottom are doing in devotion. That’s why I prefer taking my chances doing what I’m asked to do on my own able to blame no one but me if I fail. But Jim, I notice you quote Antonio Giustozzi. That shows you are interested more in who they are rather than in whom we are. You should contact him, you’ll enjoy it. We often need a nonj American perspective because it helps our depth. God bless you, you are soothing wisdom to my eyes. whatever happened to Mr. Froust? I always so enjoyed reading his wise commentaries?

Jim December 12, 2009 at 11:47 am

Thanks!

I agree that Sailani’s efforts are quite sincere, and indeed it appears a good discussion is forming out of his post, which is always the most important thing. But your point on Yglesias is valid as well, and that’s why I’d like to see Sailani challenge Yglesias in a more productive, less dismissive way. Nothing bad can come of a productive discussion between the two.

Thank you for your tip on Giustozzi. I believe it may have been on Foust’s recommendation that I read his book. It’s very raw (something that Giustozzi addresses himself, it is raw by necessity), but an incredibly interesting perspective.

Speaking of Foust, I am sure such a prolific writer could not disappear for long. Keep your eye out, I’m sure he’ll be around. 🙂

Sailani December 12, 2009 at 3:36 am

@DE: strange, just strange…

@Jim
1. I’m afraid I lack any trembling awe in the face of Harvard grads (they are as different as they are many, and it’s certainly not some prima facie reason to kowtow to anyone).

2. I said, to use your paraphrasing, “isn’t that silly!”, and then explained that I think there are (a) more motivating factors behind taking up arms beyond the competing “salaries” offered, and (b) a key one is the fact that the government is largely seen as outright hostile in the South and East of the country. Fleshing out seems to be in evidence there if you’d care to reread.

3. I think you’re mixing messages here. I said pundits tend to spew simplified solutions to the world’s problems, and that this is an example of such – not to say that raising ANA salaries would solve all the world’s problems (I think you see the disconnect).

Finally, I do not disagree that economic motivations for insurgents and taliban pay scales are a problem. I disagree (and that is the point of this post, sorry if it was opaque) with latching on to issues and saying “let’s fix that” without realizing that addressing it may be next to impossible.

This is the nub of the argument; yes, ANSF salaries are low, yes, some insurgents fight out of economic necessity (there’s never just one driver though), BUT a mechanism for “putting $350 to $400 a month together”, identifying insurgents, paying them, commanding them if they are to fight their former colleagues, addressing their concerns with the “evil Pashtun-killing government”, etc. is exceedingly complicated if it is feasible at all.

Since you say it would be “easy to fix” …. do tell.

Jim December 12, 2009 at 11:40 am

@1 – I don’t think you should tremble in awe, but acting as if he’s a bumbling idiot is probably not wise, nor accurate. At the very least I think you are setting yourself up to look incredibly bad, but whatever, I suppose your tone is your decision.

@2 – To be honest, and I’m attempting to be polite about this, your “fleshing out” is incredibly weak and unconvincing. Whether there are other factors that cause people to take up arms is pretty much irrelevant unless you can demonstrate that there isn’t a significant body where that *is* the dominating factor in their decision. Either way, there are certainly legitimate sources that indicate that there are portions of the insurgency where this is the primary or only motivating factor, so in the face of that your response is a bit hand-wavy.

As far as part B, I’m not sure what you are trying to imply? That people from the South and East of the country won’t join the ANA? Certainly they are underrepresented, but the idea that they won’t join just isn’t born out by the facts. Taking the Pashtuns as the largest ethnic group from the area you mention, they are currently reported to be 30% of the ANA.[1] This is an under representation compared to the general population, and I would not be surprised if the reported 30% is perhaps more than there are in reality. But the fact is they will join, so your point is moot.

@3 – As I’ve already said, it’s a simple solution to a simple problem. If the problem is that the ANA is paying less than the Taliban, and that many Taliban are fighting for economic opportunity, then guess what. Simple solution. Raise the pay rate. Will that somehow magically destroy the Taliban? No, of course not, and I doubt Yglesias would argue that. But I also doubt you would really attempt to argue that it wouldn’t help at all.

And I think that’s the problem that some of us here in Washington D.C. have, as we sip our Starbucks. Everything is too difficult, apparently. So instead we change nothing about what we are doing and expect that with a limitless commitment of time and troops we can somehow do something differently.

In your last paragraph you describe an exceedingly complicated situation for implementing this plan. Guess what, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Put out a “we’re hiring” sign, and you are done. Starting from younger men who are just considering what to do with themselves (believe it or not those kids asking for “one dollar mister” do grow up, we can’t just wait for all the current insurgents to die) will now be faced with a choice, the better paying ANA position or the worse paying one fighting for the Taliban. The majority of them, if they were predisposed to, will pick the Taliban one most likely. But there will be a number of them which would have, based on economics alone, chosen to go the Taliban route. They will not do that anymore.

Your concern seems to be some Taliban switching sides, back to the ANA. I’m not sure if you are aware, but they send people from the South up North. So they wouldn’t necessarily be fighting their “colleagues” (heh. I like that word choice, it’s like the are working on software together 😛 ). If your concern is about infiltration or something like that, well, that’s already an issue the ANA has either decided to try and deal with or to ignore (to be honest I don’t know). Either way, it doesn’t somehow suddenly because an issue that didn’t exist before because of a changed pay scale.

[1] http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KL01Df02.html

Sailani December 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm

@Jim
I don’t recall acting as if he’s a bumbling idiot, but I found his post intellectually lazy. I am sure that’s not representative of his overall intellectual capability, and I think I even qualified my statement by saying that I didn’t know the man. He was a useful example of something I think is rampant (should have used Fred Kaplan instead I suppose, ensuring universal agreement!). The trembling in awe referred to some sort of Harvard-worship which I find funny. I went to a world-class university, but I don’t trumpet that for increased credibility (not that Matt does either).

Yes there are a number of Pashtuns in the ANA, they are more representative of Northern and Central Pashtun areas than they are of the South and the East in general. My point was only that wages are but a part of their calculations when signing up for the ANA. I did not say that they would join, but their reasons for joining are not simply about the money. We can’t buy our way out of this war, however reconciliation of current fighters is an important plank of a “stable Afghanistan” strategy (my first post here was about that).

You seem to focus mostly on recruits while I am more concerned with those already in the fight. Both are valid points. There are plenty of unemployed young men in this country (unemployment is something like 40-80%) so even if we bring in half a million new recruits for $400 each per month there will STILL be a near-limitless supply of unemployed young men with no future that are going to be tempted by the $300 (or whatever) the insurgents will pay them. My point is that the recruitment pool of insurgents is too big for us to hire the potential ones and thereby have a significant impact on recruitment.

Like I said before, I’m angry that we’ve completely neglegted reconciliation efforts (that can very cheaply draw low- and mid-level fighters away from the insurgency) and are focusing on building a huge and unsustainable ANA instead. That combined with putting insurgents under pressure in the field (e.g. killing them), and making communities secure from their penetration and intimidation, is a way to change the value proposition of those young men who consider firing a rocket or planting and IED for day wages.

Jim December 12, 2009 at 2:27 pm

All valid points, I can’t disagree there. An excellent response.

A question though, based on your point, “there will STILL be a near-limitless supply of unemployed young men with no future that are going to be tempted by the $300 (or whatever) the insurgents will pay them.”

I’m tempted initially to agree with you, that seems correct. But I wonder how things are now. Do we have any evidence that people are being turned away, or are insurgents being taken as fast as they can get them? This I don’t know, if anyone has any idea on this, I’d be curious to know.

I think the only other thing I’d say is that the reason I’d tend to be in favor of something like this is that for a relatively small price we might be able to have some small positive effect. And the reality is that’s the way we’re going to win this, a lot of small things. At least that’s my opinion.

Sailani December 12, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Mille grazie Jim, Starbucks is on me next time I am in DC.

The way I see, it the insurgents are not taking on new fighters in droves. They have a pretty solid base fighting force, much of which has been recruited from the Afghan population across the border and which engages in cross-border operations on a seasonal basis. They do hire locals to launch simple attacks, fire rockets or mortars (all incompetently I might add), or emplace IEDs for the most part, and I’d consider these more like day laborers than permanent hires – a latent, untrained force if you will.

However, I am unfortunately not in touch with members of the insurgency, but rather at least one or two degrees of seperation away from them, so this view of mine is part data and part gut feeling.

I am pleased to see ANA salaries rise, but like I said before, the best way to thin the ranks of the insurgents would be to relaunch a genuine reconciliation effort (the system is already there in the PTS program).

DE Teodoru December 13, 2009 at 7:47 pm

BRAVO SAILANI AND JIM!!!!

Jim and Seilani, do you two realize what we’ve got going here? MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE. It may be a little philosophical and motivational and a tiny bit personal, but you both are discussing a legit issue legitimately. Most fascinating is that with increasing ping and pong, we get MORE common ground between the two of you. I hope to use your exchange as demonstration of what NYC commies at UC Berkley in 1964– which we CAL CONSERVATIVES FOR POLITICAL ACTION fully supported and used to beat back their attempt to make the Student Union a “union” and closed shop at that totally independent from Chancellor so they would forever rule campus life—as an impromptu example of the benefits of MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE to my wide-spread mailing list of academic, political and policy folks. For their the FSM for FREE SPEECH on campus they got some 5000 students supporting them in the first round referendum and won hands down, supported by 25, 000 out of 27,000 students on strike for free speech. But when their Leninist student union came up, they got the same 5000 students, but we came up with 15,000 silent majority type of students to vote down the effort to make a Leninist campus out of Berkeley. BUT LET IT NEVER BE FORGOTTEN THAT WE DID THAT BECAUSE THEY FOUGHT FOR AND GOT FOR ALL OF US MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE (INSTEAD OF RED REVOLUTION) WHEN THEY WON AND RESPECTED MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE ALL THE WAY THROUGH THEIR DEFEAT ON THE STUDENT UNION AND ON TO VIETNAM TEACH-INS, GIVING PRO-VIETNAM EQUAL TIME IN MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE. Alas, the trouble was that, with the draft ended, interest in the war waned and first psychodelia, then a ME-IST culture, took over everywhere else in America by 1970s. Now, me-ists of the 1970s are the old farts suffering “ain’t my kid going to war” disconnect syndrome. They’d rather know about Tiger Woods’ affairs than what our soldiers are doing in Afghan/Iraq Wars (all weekend, no news on CNN from war and lots about Woods). This is bad because only through a national endorsement of MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE can there be an end to this WashDC politics-like personalization of the wars where people there and people here are just throwing “this is it”s at eachother and “gottchas” while not listening to eachothers but lobbing verbal grenades at eachother as if in Iraq/Afghans parliaments. On the other hand, this Seilani-Jim exchange is a perfect example of how MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE evolves into from ape to man type interactions with respect for eachother’s view gradually evolving into developing common ground. We are all here for the same reason Froust started this REGISTAN.NET– to seek solutions together through responsible dialogue and debate. Even if someone speaks in ignorance, it is better to light more candles to illuminate other dark corners around him/her of the issue that to blow out his/her light of interest in this discourse with a put-down. This “gottcha” attitude started with the same kind of guys Gen. Powell warned us about: PROFESSIONAL non-combatant verbal commando bureaucrats that get paid very well as terrorism “entrepreneurs” (French for taker-in-the-middle). It behooves all those with genuine interest and human caring for the lives of our people and the Afghans to seek common ground from which to educate eachother and ourselves through inductive and deductive discourse. The “facts” are never that clear. But the more minds look at them POLITELY and RESPECTFULLY towards eachother AND ABOVE ALL WITHOUT IMPUNING THE MOTIVES OF EACHOTHER FOR INVOLVEMENT (people are so ready to assume ego drive and thus to put down than to assume real concern and then educate) the better we ALL understand. Forgive my prolix statement but I think that the warning we got from leading figures during the Vietnam era, that we’re tearing ourselves apart as clashing interests, the more we are losing any prospects for common ground. Right now, as a 9/11 survivor, I can tell you that binLaden did more brain damage to America than bodily blow. Read his and Zawahiri’s rationale for the costly– to them as a movement– event. WE can see that they justify it by the way we behave with eachother since 9/11. We focus on suspicion of eachother’s motives. As a Balkan, let me tell you, that’s the best way to fragment and destroy our nation. Please let me know if I can reproduce and disseminate the Sailani-Jim dialogue. Thanks guys, you made my rainy day shinny!

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