The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan

The plan for victory in Afghanistan is simple and sure:

  1. stabilizing the country by garrisoning the main routes, major cities, airbases and logistics sites;
  2. relieving the Afghan government forces of garrison duties and pushing them into the countryside to battle the resistance;
  3. providing logistic, air, artillery and intelligence support to the Afghan forces;
  4. providing minimum interface between our occupation forces and the local populace;
  5. accepting minimal casualties to our forces; and,
  6. strengthening the Afghan forces, so once the resistance was defeated, our forces can be withdrawn.

 How can this plan fail?   But it did.  This is from “The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan“, Mohammad Yahya Nawroz (General, Army of Afghanistan, retired) and Lester W. Grau (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, retired), Military Review, September-October 1995 — with the US substituted for Russia.  Hat tip on this article to Moon Over Alabama.

This is a fascinating article on many levels.  Perhaps most strikingly it illustrates how the discussion of COIN mostly serves to disguise the reality of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — their continuity with previous insurgencies against foreign occupiers since WWII.  Our in Vietnam, Russia in Afghanistan, and all the others (almost all unsuccessful).

In fact we have in fact largely ignored COIN theory. It’s a “good American” construct that hides the nasty forceful actions by which modern armies fight insurgencies (as described by Chet Richards (Editor of DNI and Colonel, USAF, retired):

  • massive firepower on civilian areas,
  • search-and-destroy sweeps, and
  • funding Popular Force militias.

In Iraq the first (e.g., use of airpower and artillery) seldom appeared in the US press. The 2nd did, but only gently described. The 3rd was described in glowing terms, a surge of ground-level patriotism – as in the ”Sons of Iraq”.  Needless to say, the media describes private militia in America using starkly different terms.

Another excerpt from the Nawroz-Grau article

Articles like this provide a mirror in which we can see ourselves, placing our actions in a global and historical context.  We need such a mirror, as our belief in American exceptionalism tends to blind us.  I recommend reading this in full.

The initial strategic concept, operations plans and tactical methods used by the Soviet military in Afghanistan did not markedly differ from what they — or any strong, modern army-would have undertaken anywhere else in the world.

  • Massive firepower delivered from fixed-winged aircraft, helicopters, artillery, rocket launchers and tanks preceded all advances.
  •  Tanks and armored vehicles would cautiously start moving only after their commanders were convinced that no functioning enemy weapons remained in the zone of advance.
  • The Soviet force would then overrun the contested area, firing indiscriminately at any moving object or even just into the air until they were satisfied that their mission was achieved.

Initially, the Soviets considered close combat by dismounted infantry and mopping up actions superfluous since they felt that the huge expenditure of heavy artillery and rocket shells combined with the bombing and strafing by their fighter bombers had either destroyed their hungry, naive and miserably-equipped opponents or panicked them into permanent exile in Pakistan or Iran.

In fact, the Afghan freedom fighter came from a traditional warrior society and proved highly resourceful in fighting the Soviets. They saw no point in remaining under aerial and artillery barrages or in facing overwhelming odds and firepower. They were adept at temporarily withdrawing from Soviet strike areas and then returning in hours, days or weeks to strike the enemy where he was exposed. Over time, the mujahideen morale grew, and they became better equipped with modern weapons taken from the demoralized Afghan Army soldiers or acquired from across the national border.

The harsh and inhospitable land and the deadly treatment that the Soviets received from the people in towns and countryside gradually effected the Soviet soldiers’ psyche, and the indoctrination they had been subject to during their training soon melted away as they increasingly faced the grim realities of the real war. They realized that they were not fighting this brutal war against the imperialists of America and China, but they were set to destroy a poor but proud nation which was only defending their faith, freedom and way of life.

Several stark realities place the Afghan War in proper perspective and permit its proper assessment in the context of Soviet military, political, and social development.

First, although violent and destructive, the war was limited and protracted.

Its tempo and decisiveness did not match that of the series of short Arab-Israeli wars which scarred the Cold War years. It lacked the well-defined, large-scale military operations of the Korean War and the well-defined political arrangements that terminated that war.

It also differed significantly from the oft-compared US war in Vietnam. In Vietnam, American military strength rose to over 500,000 troops and the Americans resorted to many divisional and multi-divisional operations. By comparison, in Afghanistan, a region five times the size of Vietnam, Soviet strength varied from 90-104,000 troops. The Soviet’s four divisions, five separate brigades and three separate regiments, and smaller support units of 40th Army strained to provide security for the 29 provincial centers and few industrial and economic installations and were hard-pressed to extend this security to the thousands of villages, hundred of miles of communications routes, and key terrain features that punctuated and spanned that vast region.

Second, burdened with a military doctrine … suited to a European or Chinese theater of war, the Soviet Army was hard pressed to devise military methodologies suited to deal with the Afghan guerrillas.

The Soviets first formulated new concepts for waging war in non-linear fashion, suited to operating on battlefields dominated by more lethal high-precision weapons. This new non-linear battlefield required the abandonment of traditional operational and tactical formations, a redefinition of traditional echelonment concepts, and a wholesale reorganization of formations and units to emphasize combat flexibility and, hence, survivability.

During the early and mid-1980s, the Soviet military altered its concept of the theater-strategic offensive, developed new concepts for shallower echelonment at all levels, developed the concept of the air echelon, experimented with new force structures such as the corps, brigade, and combined arms battalion, tested new more- flexible logistical support concepts (for materiel support), and adopted such innovative tactical techniques as the use of the bronegruppa [armored group]. Afghanistan not only provided a test bed for many of these lower-level concepts, but it also demanded the employment of imaginative new techniques in its own right. Hence, the brigade, the materiel support battalion, and the bronegruppa emerged on the Afghan field of battle, Spetsnaz units sharpened their skills, and air assault techniques were widely employed.

Third, the inability of the Soviet military to win the war decisively condemned it to suffer a slow bloodletting, in a process that exposed the very weaknesses of the military as well as the Soviet political structure and society.

Ideologically, the Soviet leadership was unable to come to grips with war in Afghanistan. Marxist-Leninist dogma did not allow for a “war of national liberation” where people would fight against a Marxist regime. So, initially the press carried pictures of happy Soviet soldiers building orphanages–and did not mention that they were also engaged in combat and filling those very orphanages.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about our wars in Afghanistan:

  1. Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
  2. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  3. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  4. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  5. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  6. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  7. Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
  8. A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
  9. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  10. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  11. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  12. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  13. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  14. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  15. America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009  
  16. New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009

19 thoughts on “The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan”

  1. Moon of Alabama is one of three or four blogs I visit daily, along with this one. It has a left bent, but regular commenters are highly informed and worth reading.

  2. Major Scarlet

    that’s a great bit of history. i prefer a more modern historical COIN example. Sri Lanka.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As I explained the last time you mentioned this, Sri Lanka is not a relevant example for the US government. The great divide is, as so many experts have noted, between domestic governments 9sometimes with foreign assistance) fighting insurgencies (they often win) and foreigners fighting (usually supportiong a low-legitimacy local governement) insurgencies (they usually lose).

  3. The Soviets had 104,000 troops at their highest point with an Afghan government force allied with them of over 300,000 compared to 86,000 NATO troops and an Afghan National Army of 82,000 today. I doubt NATO’s more advanced technology can compensate for the lack of numbers compared to the Soviet effort. And the Soviets had the logistical advantage of bordering Afghanistan and having a force using the same equipment uniformly unlike the hodge-podge of forces the NATO mission is composed of.

    The biggest problem that the Soviets faced was trying to force an ideology on the Afghan people they found completely foreign to their way of life. Sounds exactly like what the US is trying to do today.

    Maybe the best lesson to learn is what happened after the Soviet withdrawal. With the Soviets gone the Afghan rebel force fractured and the Soviet-friendly government left behind managed to survive for another 3 years. It only fell when the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped sending aid to them.

  4. Doesn’t the fact of our being a “superpower” dictate that we use this brutal Goliath approach to war? This is the weaponry and tactics the military is trained in, replete with, and proud of — the stuff that Congress and the American people have spent many trillions of dollars on over the years. Who could admit that we’d made a mistake, that we’d been corrupted by the military/industrial lobbies and the revolving door? Would the American people support any leader who used less than our “best”, or wanted to fight a humbler form of war?

    At least we’ve distanced ourselves from the delusion of “nation building”, but nation building has been replaced by nation destroying. Somehow, we now find ourselves in the awkward hybrid position of helping destroyed nations back onto their feet. The good news is that we are learning that we can’t pursue more than one and a half of these follies at the same time.

    I suppose no nation in history has ever been able to simply respect the rights of another nation to live in peace. It would be utopian to think that we could be the first.

  5. Major Scarlet

    FM.. you are almost there. Sri Lanka has discovered the reason why insurgencies almost always win. It’s fairly obvious isn’t it? Anti war agencies such as the UN, NGOs, and international media provide aid and comfort for insurgencies. Sri Lanka simply cut them out of the picture. The results were amazing. Are you implying that we can’t do the same?

    Great post! Looking forward to your next one.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It’s a minor factor, as shown by the lack of success by both totalitarian and democratic nations fighting insurgencies in other lands since WWII. The critical difference — foreign vs. local — has been discussed in dozens of articles over the past few years. Just to mention a few (cites I have handy):
    * I described it in January 2007.
    * Chet Richards (Editor of DNI; Colonel, USAF, retired) discusses it at length in his 2008 book, “If we can keep it”.
    * “Lies, damned lies and counterinsurgency“, Robert W. Chamberlain (Captain, US Army), Armed Forces Journal, May 2008.

  6. Your argument being we don’t know how to win COIN. which i agree. however, you and i disagree on how to win. as i’ve said before, the “humanitarian” international laws that we have signed since 1910 have created an umbrella for “operations other than war”. insurgents use these laws, a willing and culpable media, anti-war agencies like the UN and other NGOs to win against sovereign countries that are pressured to live up to the laws while the insurgents are given a free pass.

    Sri Lanka demonstrates the means and ends of how to win. It just hasn’t sunk in to the 4GW/COINdinistas yet.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It seems esp odd to say “Anti war agencies such as the UN, NGOs, and international media {which} provide aid and comfort” are a significant factor in reply to a post about the USSR’s defeat in Afghanistan — where none of these were present.

    The historical evidence is clear about this. For a more detailed analysis, see Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s “Changing Face of War” (2006), speaking of attempt by nations to occupy foreign lands. Note that many failed despite absence of UN, NGO, and media involvement. Excerpt:

    What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s explusion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

    Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to hold their conquests.

    Likewise, the historical record is clear about the importance of a few key factors, such as the role of foreigners vs. locals and external aid (e.g., money, supplies, training, sanctuaries).

  7. How is COIN theory, or 4GW theory, different from the theory behind Rumsfeld’s first quadrennial defense review? (I’m asking as a total amateur.) As I recall among its highlights were greater mobility, more intelligence, better understanding of local culture, etc. The common denominator of both is the belief that a powerful country can impose its will on a smaller one.

    Was paying/bribing Sunni tribes in Iraq to fight Al Q’aeda a 4GW tactic? What kind of tactic was the apparent choice (no one’s ever admitted it, of course) of fomenting civil war by bombing the temple at Samarrah? Is destabilizing governments anywhere, in any case, a 4GW tactic? The drift of these questions, which may sound naive, is whether 4GW is just a smarter form of meddling?

    Two other points: Does Colin Powell’s “quick, decisive victory” criterion have any place in 4GW theory? Can the two co-exist? If so, isn’t it a matter of judgement which should be applied in a particular case? Cheney and Rumbsfeld thought they could achieve the first in Iraq, and in trying to do so, created a bonanza of 4GW conditions.

    Is 4GW predicated on the belief that we will no longer launch wars of choice, offensive wars, but merely respond to “terrorist” challenges, or local resistances, as they arise? If so, there may be a kind of self-deception involved here — that terrorist threats have nothing to do with our prior actions. Or, there may be no self-deception at all — rather a recognition that the globe is henceforth permanently unstable (primarily because of the imbalance of wealth between north and south), and therefore we (the north) will be permanently involved in maintaining “order”.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All good questions. Suggestions where to look for answers:

    * in the posts on this site (see the Military and strategic theory reference page)
    * in the online articles listed at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld
    * and, as the place to start, the seminal October 1989 Wilson-Lind-Schmitt article in Military Corps Gazette that first introduced the term: “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation“.

    “Was paying/bribing Sunni tribes in Iraq to fight Al Q’aeda a 4GW tactic?”

    It is a historical commonplace in conflicts of all kinds. Works well in 4GW.

    “Is 4GW predicated on the belief that we will no longer launch wars of choice, offensive wars, but merely respond to “terrorist” challenges, or local resistances, as they arise?”

    We invaded Iraq, changed the government, and the resulting 4GW is fought to support the new government.

  8. Major Scarlet

    Would Russia have been successful if we hadn’t FUNDED the Taliban and provided them Stinger missiles to shoot down Russian helicopters heloing in troops in the mountainous terrain? let me be more precise, there are many moving parts to an insurgency. external support, anti-war groups, the media, international laws, coupled with impudent use of national powers is the problem with operations other than war.

    In the Russian’s case, we were the Taliban’s external support and Russia failed to effectively counter it. The stinger missiles we supplied turned that war for the Taliban. Had it not been for our support, history could be different. As Sri Lanka demonstrated, cutting off outside support is one of the most important factors (diplomacy and economics), managing the anti war groups (informations), securing the terrorist areas (military). As you can see, the covered the bases of the elements of national power.

    As I’ve said before, i don’t take Creveld seriously. Anyone can make a list of failures and say “see, force doesn’t work”. the problem is that it is a strawman. Force is just one part of a successful strategy against insurgents.

    It is interesting that he mentioned post- 1945 since that is when insurgencies came full bloom and is the key to my theory that the agreements we signed after the war signed away our national security.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The last line of my comment specifically mentioned other factors, such as external support for insurgencies. Whether you take van Creveld seriously is not relevant, as this is a list of insurgencies showing the minor role of media-NGO’s-UN on the outcome.

  9. Sri Lanka is relevant despite it being a civil war. The simple truth is we cannot be sufficiently brutal to win any of these wars. We have no reason to be, cannot justify this to ourselves so we invent a lot of crappy theories which are steadily undermining our sanity and destroying the devotion of our most loyal citizens. The cretins who run our media and university cannot even raise their own children or instruct ours. We have no need to win any of these wars and should not be fighting them — not one, including Korea, served anyone but the corrupt congress and the military industrial cabal. Meanwhile we failed to protect our borders, our airports, any of our infrastructure, ruined the space program, cannot design and manufacture a decent rifle, still have 800 plus overseas bases. We are a country out of control, not been led with any intelligence or discernment since Eisenhower. But we are still (barely) free. We need to take our country back from the hacks who have controlled it since Joe Kennedy put his excellent but deeply flawed boys in the front room while the money guys took over completely. Well, we have seen the result. We are out of excuses and almost our of time.

  10. The Russians didn’t withdraw from Afghanistan they had to fight their way out. The so called government that lasted 3 years only controlled Kabul which was partially destroyed in the fighting over it.

    Funny to read US commanders saying things like how much the afghan locals will appreciate the patching up of their dam – the same dam that the Russians spent 1000 times more on to built from scratch. It didn’t impress then and the cheap glass baubles are unlikely to impress now.

    Mission Accomplished in Sri Lanka ? No nothing much has been won. There has been no political solution, so there has been no victory. If you don’t understand that you don’t understand insurgencies at all. But as ever the “firepower fools” think that just a bit of applied genocide is all that is required. Only a matter of time before the next bombing of Colombo and the “surprise” that it isn’t over at all.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Great additional context. Thanks for posting!

  11. “We have no need to win any of these wars and should not be fighting them” (@ #9)

    I profoundly agree, in principle, yet wonder whether we would have prospered as we have over the past sixty years without some/most of them. What sector would have replaced the employment provided by the millitary/industrial complex? What industrial resources or markets might we have lost if we had not been toppling governments and supporting military juntas in Latin and Central America all the while? What if we had not subverted communist parties in Italy and France in the immediate post-war period? Without our overbearing military, would we have had the leverage to compel most of the world’s industrial and developing nations to conform to our trade and economic agendas?

    Could there have been such a thing as a “benevolent” empire, based on mutual, parallel development, and democratic institutions if you wish, without the mailed fist of military might? Is “empire” an oxymoron, a contradiction with the laws of life, bound to fail, and to bound to waste millions of lives along with it?

    Just wondering!
    Fabius Maxmius replies: Probably not. The Brits came closer than most, and were nothing like benevolent. For details see Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire (27 May 2009).

  12. Ralph Hitchens

    The plan sounds good but the USSR took it off the rails during their occupation. As I recall their bombing pretty much destroyed the centuries-old but very fragile agricultural infrastructure and the widespread use of antipersonnel mines definitely alienated the rural population. Plus, they had a hostile sanctuary state on the southern & eastern borders and an only slightly less hostile state to the west. This time Pakistan appears to be fighting the Kabul regime opponents instead of nurturing them. I think we have a lot of problems with this war, but they are somewhat less significant that what the 40th Army faced.

    I should add that Les Grau and his colleagues at Ft. Leavenworth (I believe it is/was called the Foreign Military Studies Office or something like that) analyzed the war from 1) Soviet open-source information, and 2) debriefing friendly Mujahideen sources, like the aforementioned Nawroz. The latter were marginal players in the war, compared to the more strident Islamists like Gulbudin Hekmatyr or the legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Masood. To get a real understanding of how the Soviets fought the war it was necessary to have access to the vast amount of SIGINT we collected on the 40th Army, too little of which ever got much analytical attention. I don’t think Les had such access, or at any rate he couldn’t use it. I did have access back in the day and published several reports, but all remained in highly classified channels. I’ve got a declassification request in for one of mine, but have little hope of ever seeing it (or much of it).
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for this insightful comment! And yes, Grau wrote this at the Foreign Military Studies Office.

  13. From C.E. Callwell’s seminal work at the turn of the 20th century, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (1896):

    “In the last Afghan war Kabul was occupied early in the campaign, after the overthrow of the troops of Yakoub Khan. But its capture by no means brought about the downfall of the Afghans as a fighting power, on the contrary it proved to be merely the commencement of the campaign. The country was in a state of suppressed anarchy, the tribes scarcely acknowledged the Amir to by their King, and when Kabul fell and the government such as it was, ceased to exist, the people generally cared little; but they bitterly resented the insult to their nation and to their faith which the presence of British troops in the heart of the country offered.”

  14. “The great divide is, as so many experts have noted, between domestic governments 9sometimes with foreign assistance) fighting insurgencies (they often win) and foreigners fighting (usually supportiong a low-legitimacy local governement) insurgencies (they usually lose).”

    Also domestic governments – to paraphrase Mick Jagger – have time on their side. Foreign invaders do not. It took the Sri Lankan government twenty-five years to defeat the Tamil Tigers. There is no way United States armed forces would have been able to engage that conflict that long.

  15. reminds me of a great movie: The Beast of War (1988). The film is prefaced with a quote from Rudyard Kipling:

    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
    An’ the women come out to cut up what remains
    Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

    Our Allies the Mujahideen hated the Communists for trying to establish equality for women. Compulsory education for girls. Bride price was abolished. Minimum legal age for marriage for girls was set at 16. Khatol Mohammadzai became Afghanistan’s first woman paratrooper. She later becomes a General in the Afghan National Army.

    Would we be safer today without Charlie Wilson’s war, and with a communist Afghanistan?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Since we’re safe with the current regime, safe with probably any future regime, and would have been safe with a Soviet-dominated regime (one probably still fighting insurgents), I suspect the answer is yes. I doubt we will allow any future regime to provide camps for the al Qaeda, or that any future regime will allow camps for al Qaeda, or that the camps there before 9-11 had any substantial role in 9-11.

  16. See TamiNet as to whether the affair is ended , where different perspectives lie , where there are layers of complexity – maybe true , maybe false . Talk to educated , articulate , ( Tamil ) grown men and women who weep , if you visit Parliament Square in London .

    And back to Afgh . That dam . I have been told it was Soviet built , I think before invasion ? Problems with Iran , re water supply to their agricultural valleys . Some of the turbines smashed by US bombing in battle with small group of Taliban . One turbine replaced by NATO with great publicity . No turbines now working , moth and rust hath corrupt , just need spare parts from ? China , manana . I dont know if this is true.
    FM Note from TamiNet’s “about us page”:

    “TamilNet is an independent and not-for-profit newswire service that provides up to date news with Tamil perspective on issues concerning Tamil people in the island of Sri Lanka. Receiving on average half a million visits per month, it has developed into a mainstream news source on issues pertaining to the Sri Lankan conflict. The organisation, with specific requirements and expectations of a professional institution, is embarking a project journey of transformation into an institution with dedicated resources to cope with the development needs of a state of the art newswire.”

  17. Re 16 , Aha , good example of ” western sponsored horror show ” for Islamic fundamentalism .

  18. “The stinger missiles we supplied turned that war for the Taliban.”

    Questionable. It did cause heavier losses, forced some changes in tactics etc. But western propaganda accounts of the time, where Stinger toting mujahideen wiped out the the VVS from the sky are, shall we say, a bit exaggerated. It was not an uber weapon with no countermeasures. And analysis pinning a war outcome on a single weapon are usually superficial in general.

    Western forces in Afghanistan, while with lower numbers of troops, tanks and the likes have several advantages the Soviets did not enjoy. From better training and sanitation (non trivial, the soviets had large numbers of troops incapacitated by diseases) to far more capable air forces. Soviet PGMs expenditure in Afghanistan was very tightly rationed, with only few tens used during the entire war by some accounts and this is only an example.

  19. Soviets were incompetent. The idea that they were in some way comparable to the US Forces is laughable. Having said that does not mean I think we can win in Afganistan if winning means converting them to the Western way of life. We can only punish those who support our enemies after we have destroyed the Al Qaeda we should withdraw with the promise to return if they rebuild.

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