Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace: One size fits all-Afghanistan in the new world order

Reasons for war

A pickup bearing formless, faceless women drives into the stadium. They get out and walk to their execution. The crowd looks on. Overlaying all is heavy music, heralding death.

Nothing epitomized the way in which the Taliban were portrayed in the West, and specifically in the USA, better than this clip from Behind the Veil. The film itself was one woman’s story, the fragment of truth that belonged to that particular woman in one particular time and place, but it became representative of the oppression of all women in Afghanistan. There were other stories like it, but there were also many more that were different. This story, though, suited a purpose; it came at a particular historical moment when the West needed a narrative to justify war. For many, certainly, simple retaliation was enough, but not for all. Others had to be brought on board by an appeal at a different level; this was to be a humanitarian war, a war fought only for the best of motives and with the best of intentions. For this it was necessary that the Taliban were portrayed as the personification of evil, and Afghans, particularly women, as their victims. To underscore the point, the fragment of a fragment was endlessly repeated, over and over again at prime time on CNN and beamed around the world. In a way that was to be repeated before the US invasion of Iraq, the media coverage created a picture of a regime that was unremittingly brutal and from which its people had to be rescued. It served as a rallying cry for a war that had to be shown to have a moral purpose; it screamed ‘We are justified’.

Such imagery did not, however, come out of a void, or in simple reaction to the events of 9/11, rather it was something that had been building momentum for several years. By the time the planes slammed into the World Trade Center, the Taliban were already imprinted on the world’s media as unrepentant abusers of human rights, unscrupulous drug dealers and harbourers of terrorists; people beyond the pale. This enabled a whole range of people to feel righteous in their denunciations and ultimately justified in their war. Even though it was alQa’eda and not the Taliban that planned and executed the attacks, this caused little concern; the terrorism of one was easily elided with oppression of the other, and the war on terror conveniently also became a war for the liberation of a people, its morality so hard to challenge that scarcely a voice was raised against it.

In the outpouring of solidarity with the USA that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, few stopped to question America’s strategy of attacking Afghanistan. Yet if the United States’ aim was simply to cripple alQa’eda and to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, this was an expensive and risky way to go about it. It was-or at least should have been-clear from the beginning that the chances of bin Laden escaping across the border into Pakistan, where he would be much more difficult to deal with, were high. The war was also of debatable legality and set a dangerous precedent: Israel was not slow to claim the war on terrorism as justification for its ever increasingly brutal attacks on Palestinians, and even for its raids into Syria. More effective, and far safer in terms of global security, would have been to do what any other country would have been expected to do: to pursue legal and diplomatic channels to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Taliban indicated that if the USA provided evidence that Osama bin Laden was involved in the attacks, they would be prepared to hand him over to a third country for trial, but at no time was this option tested.
A number of factors, each of which reinforced the other, seem to have lain behind the determined rush to war. There was the straightforward display of power, a deterrent to any other nation thinking of allowing its territory to be used as a base for actions against America. There was also the domestic agenda. Bush was a not very popular president who had gained office in an election widely thought to be fraudulent, and going to war has always been a good move for leaders with domestic difficulties. In the aftermath of 11 September his ratings soared dramatically. More than this, it has been cogently argued (Krugman 2003) that the war was shamelessly exploited not only to cover up misdeeds of the past but also to provide a smokescreen for a whole set of ruthless decisions which would hand great wealth to the people who put Bush in office. It was, in short, payback time hidden under the flag of patriotism. The war not only provided the perfect excuse for having turned a large budget surplus into a deficit, but it gave cover to Bush when he continued to push through huge tax cuts for the very rich despite this deficit. It justified massive increases in defence spending, even though more defence spending would have made no difference to 11 September; that would have required better intelligence and better airport security. It enabled energy policies that dismantled pollution controls and allowed drilling in the Arctic to slide through with little debate, because to question the Bush administration at a time of war was to be ‘unpatriotic’.

Yet somehow it seemed more than all these things. Although the attacks on the USA were the trigger for action, living in Afghanistan in the period up to autumn 2001 it seemed that America had for some time been gunning for a fight. Had the phrase ‘the axis of evil’ been coined then, Afghanistan would surely have been part of it. In a manner reminiscent of the runup to the war against Saddam, or the bellicosity towards Iran, it mattered little what the Taliban did-they were damned. It is hard to pin down the host of ways in which it was made clear that they were beyond the pale, condemned utterly. The choice of language in itself is interesting; they were always a ‘regime’, a term intrinsically signifying illegitimacy, though in truth, to the people of Afghanistan, they were no more illegitimate than those they had succeeded. Nevertheless, two things stood out in particular. The first was the response to the Taliban’s banning of opium production in accordance with international demands. As with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, at first the USA refused to believe that their conditions had been complied with. Then, when the facts could no longer be denied, the goalposts were changed. Just as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ initially referred to nuclear weapons and then when none could be found it was redefined to include chemical weapons, so the demands on the Taliban were initially that they stopped growing opium poppy, and then when they did this the requirement shifted and became about their trading in it. The second, which followed on from the first and rubbed salt into wounds, was the onesided arms embargo imposed as part of the second round of UN sanctions against the Taliban regime. To the Taliban it was, not unreasonably, seen as the international community joining in on one side of the conflict.

Early courtship

It had not always been like this. When the Taliban began their advance through Afghanistan, the Americans greeted them with a degree of welcome. Shortly after they took Kabul, acting State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said he could see ‘nothing objectionable’1 in the version of Islamic law the Taliban had imposed on areas they controlled. Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel urged all states not to isolate them, saying: ‘The Taliban control more than twothirds of the country, they are Afghan, they are indigenous, they have demonstrated staying power.’2 Twice in 1997 the Taliban met with State Department officials in Washington. They were then, it seems, seen as useful.

The reason for this courtship, which followed years of indifference to the country’s fate, was its strategic position between the Central Asian states and international markets. While opening up trading opportunities with these new markets was in itself not insignificant, the really big profits were to be made from oil and gas pipelines. The Taliban’s most important function was to ‘provide security for roads and, potentially, oil and gas pipelines that would link the states of Central Asia to the international market through Pakistan rather than Iran’ (Rubin 1997).

America has 4 per cent of the world’s population and consumes more than 25 per cent of all energy, much of which it has to import (Kleveman 2003). Not only are very powerful interests involved in the oil industry, but without plentiful and secure supplies of cheap oil the American way of life simply cannot continue. The Caspian Sea and Central Asian states (collectively known as the Caspian region in the oil trade) have some of what are believed to be the last large unexploited oil and gas reserves in the world, and by the mid1990s the scramble for a share of the profits they could yield was already under way. As Sheila Heslin, energy expert at the National Security Council, noted in a testimony to the Senate in 1997: ‘US policy was to promote the rapid development of Caspian energy…We did so specifically to promote the independence of these oilrich countries, to in essence break Russia’s monopoly control over transportation of oil from that region, and frankly, to promote Western energy security through diversification of supply’ (quoted in Rashid 2000: 174).

Oil and gas are of no use if there is no way to get them out, and Afghanistan potentially offered advantages over all the alternative pipeline routes. Most crucially, it meant that a pipeline would not go through Iran, towards which the USA had long been antagonistic. By providing an alternative to existing routes flowing north through Russia, it would also serve to reduce the latter’s influence in the region. The alternative route, from Baku across to Ceyhan in Turkey, was longer and meant traversing the unstable southern Caucasus.3

There was only one problem with the Afghan option: the warlords continued to fight. Insecurity was not good for business, especially the expensive business of building pipelines, and for a time the Taliban were seen as the answer, as a chance for stability. For as long as they were perceived as useful, their harsh interpretation of Islam and their denial of women’s rights did not seem overly to bother the US administration. In the words of one US diplomat: ‘The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that’ (Rashid 2000: 179).

Oil was a strategic as well as a commercial issue, and the Clinton administration weighed in heavily on behalf of UNOCAL in its tussle with the Argentinian firm Bridas over contracts to build pipelines through Afghanistan.4 In February 1997, and again in November of that year, Taliban representatives were in Washington meeting both UNOCAL and State Department officials. UNOCAL estimated it had spent some $15–20 million on the pipeline project (ibid., p. 171), bringing in highprofile, exState Department officials to help devise its strategy with the Taliban. Among the experts it hired was Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American who has been a key figure in the development of US policy towards Afghanistan and the Middle East. A member of the National Security Council, Khalilzad was appointed Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and is now the US Ambassador in Kabul; so strong is his influence that Afghans joke that he, not Karzai, is the president of Afghanistan. Khalilzad served out the time of the Clinton administration working for the Rand Corporation and for UNOCAL, where he undertook an elaborate risk analysis for the Afghan pipeline project (Rashid 2000; Kleveman 2003). Since 2001, he also served as special presidential envoy to the Iraqi opposition, and from December 2002 as special envoy for the civil reconstruction of a postwar Iraq. Khalilzad initially urged engagement: ‘I am confident that [the Taliban] would welcome an American reengagement. The Taliban does not practice the antiUS style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran-it is closer to the Saudi model.’ It was only much later, after UNOCAL had put its Afghan plans on hold, that he shifted his stance to one of condemnation. Another figure from that time is President Hamid Karzai, who in 1997 represented UNOCAL in negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

Changing attitudes

By late 1997 US attitudes to the Taliban had changed. In a testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee in October 1997, Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth spoke of America wanting to see an Afghan government that was ‘multiethnic, broadbased, and that observes international norms of behaviour’. Visiting an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan in the November, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright put it more bluntly: ‘I think it is very clear why we are opposed to the Taliban. Because of their approach to human rights, their despicable treatment of women and children and their general lack of respect for human dignity.’5

While officially the reasons for this change of heart were women, drugs and terrorists, in reality it was much more complex and multi layered. Certainly the highly influential women’s lobby had an effect. In a twopronged campaign they targeted both UNOCAL and the president. The oil company was attacked in a highprofile lobbying campaign that helped persuade them that the public relations costs of continuing to court the Taliban were not worth it, especially as the drop in oil prices was beginning to undermine the pipeline’s financial viability. Clinton, with his political career already rocked by the Lewinsky scandal, decided he could not afford to alienate female voters further, especially after Hollywood’s liberal stars-key backers of the Democratic campaigns-made Afghan women’s rights a cause célèbre. Yet given the United States’ record elsewhere, it is hard not to question its real commitment to the rights of Afghan women. Saudi Arabia, for example, has an atrocious record on women’s rights, and indeed human rights more generally. It has no qualms about stoning women to death for ‘adultery’, prisoners are routinely tortured, over 200 people were beheaded in 2000 and 2001. But Saudi Arabia is a friend, a guardian of the West’s oil, and thus it has been decided that, ‘a patient and discreet dialogue with the Saudi authorities is the best way to make progress’ (Curtis 2003).

A further reason given for the tough stand taken in relation to the Taliban was their involvement in the production of opium. Yet as a reason for the change, it is less than convincing. The surge in opium poppy growing began in the 1980s under America’s allies, the mujahideen, and little concern was then paid to it by the superpower. Drugs out and arms in proved too profitable a formula to interfere with, and as in Vietnam where the CIA ignored the drug trafficking of the anticommunist guerrillas they were financing, they ignored both the activities of the mujahideen and the involvement of the Pakistani ISI. The US Drugs Enforcement Agency uncovered forty major heroin syndicates in Pakistan at that time,6 but not a single one was broken up (Rashid 2000).

The third reason, as put forward in the UN resolutions authorizing sanctions, was that the Taliban provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden. The 1998 suicide bomb attacks on the US embassies in DaresSalaam and Nairobi in many ways marked the beginning of the new phase in American relations with Afghanistan. The USA quickly retaliated with Cruise missile attacks on Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Khost, an attack that inevitably brought outrage from some of the more militant Taliban supporters in the country. Yet here, too, the story does not quite add up. If the real concern was terrorism, far more attention ought to have been paid to Saudi Arabia. Osama was Saudiborn and known still to have links there, most of those involved in the 11 September hijackings were Saudi, and Saudi Arabia remains a key organizational base for alQa’eda. The Saudi connections were known, but they were also highly politically damaging for they led to the heart of American business interests.

Behind the issue of drugs, women’s rights and terrorism, there seemed to be another more fundamental reason: the Taliban simply did not fit with how America thought the world should be run. For the USA there is only one acceptable model of statehood, as expressed in the recent National Security Strategy (2002): ‘a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise’. But although this is being articulated ever more forcibly, the idea itself is not new. As has been shown consistently from America’s involvement in the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, and Allende’s in Chile in 1973, to the long bitter struggle of Vietnam and its opposition to the democratically elected president of Venezuela, challenge to the dominant liberal capitalist system is simply not allowed. And if it is not to be allowed in countries that are relatively marginal in the global economic system, it is certainly not to be allowed in an oilrich region. The Taliban’s fault seemed to be less that they abused human rights (so do many others) or that they did not stop the growing of opium poppy (neither does Afghanistan’s current government) but that their whole way of being was a challenge to western liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Their vision of returning Afghanistan to Allah and the rule of the shari’a was as radical a challenge as communism or the mullahs of Iran. Here was a country in an enormously strategic location for the global energy market, and its rulers simply weren’t interested in playing the game. Nor could they be bought. For while the Taliban were certainly prepared to take money from the West, as was shown in their early dealings with UNOCAL, they did not want it enough to sacrifice their beliefs for it.

Antagonism to the Taliban began in the Clinton years, but it intensified after Bush became president. This is not surprising; those now in power had long been pushing for a much harder line towards the Islamic Middle East (from which, politically, events in Afghanistan cannot be separated). In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz, then UnderSecretary of Defense, wrote a document calling for intervention in Iraq and legitimizing preemptive attacks on other countries. Dick Cheney also endorsed this view, and although he later backed off in the face of public protest, he and others now in key positions continued to push throughout the 1990s for both a war on Iraq and the adoption of a policy of preemption (Krugman 2003).

As with the earlier courtship, so too were oil interests a driving force in the change of policy. The Bush government is dominated by oilmen. Dick Cheney used to be chief executive officer for the oil supply corporation Halliburton, Condoleeza Rice served on the board of directors for Chevron, acting as their principal expert on Kazakhstan; Robert Finn, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan in the immediate postTaliban period, was a Caspian oil expert. Immediately after taking office, the administration made oil politics a new priority. In May 2001, Dick Cheney presented the National Energy Policy, which recommended that ‘the President make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy’. It went on to say, ‘our engagement will be global, spotlighting existing and emerging regions that will have a major impact on the global energy balance’ (US Department of Energy 2001). Reliance on the Gulf, and in particular on Saudi Arabia, had long been a concern for the USA and this was becoming increasingly critical as alternative sources of production started to dry up. The corrupt and unpopular House of Saud is well known to be a key target of Osama bin Laden and the chance of it being overthrown and the rich oil reserves falling into the hands of an antiUS administration, as happened in Iran, must represent a nightmare scenario to the USA.

At the same time, developments in the Caspian region were increasing its importance to the USA. In July 2000 geologists discovered a massive oil bubble in the Kazakh part of the Caspian Sea. With a 25milewide oil bubble, experts believe that this, the Kashagan oil field, represents some 30 billion barrels of crude oil. Only the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia is larger. Not only does this represent huge profits, but it means that Kashagan has the potential to become what the industry calls a ‘swing supplier’, a supplier big enough to be able quickly to boost production to make up for any sudden cutbacks in supply. Currently only Saudi Arabia can do this, although Iraq (sitting on a total of 112 billion barrels) also has the potential. The US Department of Energy report reaffirmed Afghanistan’s significance ‘as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from central Asia to the Arabian Sea’.

The war on terror therefore presented the USA with a double opportunity: to bring about regime change in Afghanistan, and to establish bases in a number of strategic locations in Central Asia. As Mahfouz Nedai, Afghanistan’s deputy Minister of Industry, noted: ‘Washington has sent their men into our government for good reason. The Americans have not come to Central Asia just for the terrorists’ (Kleveman 2003).

Isolating the Taliban

Once it had been decided that the Taliban did not fit with US interests, the strategy shifted to one of isolating them in every way possible. This was pursued not only through normal diplomatic channels, such as sanctions, but also by a process of rendering them in the public eye as dangerous fanatics. Given a long history in the West of depicting the Orient as simultaneously exotic and barbarous (Said 1992), this was not an unduly difficult task. Nevertheless, no avenue was left untrod in pursuit of the objective: the meaning of security was turned on its head; the concern for human rights exploited; the use of assistance warped. Most of the media proved to be alltoowilling accomplices-again in keeping with a long history of misrepresenting Islam (Said 1997). None of this is to say that the Taliban did not have some very nasty characteristics; as Mark Duffield (2001b) notes: ‘all discourse contains truths. It is in the nature of discourse, however, to select some truths and neglect others, and to rework those that have been adopted into a coherent and functional world view.’ And the discourse built up about the Taliban was to prove very functional indeed.

After 1998, as Afghanistan became the focus of more political attention, the UN became the conduit for more direct censure. This culminated in October 1999 in the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1267, which imposed sanctions aimed at freezing Taliban assets while also withdrawing landing rights to the national airline. The measures were aimed at the Taliban rather than the population at large, although the demonstrations that took place suggested that this was not perceived to be the case by some Afghans. Key memberstates were at pains to ensure that, at a time when the humanitarian situation was becoming the focus of international attention, such measures could not be portrayed as worsening the plight of Afghans. The second round of sanctions, imposed under Security Council Resolution1333 in December 2000, put in place a onesided arms embargo-which all members of the Security Council knew was unworkable because there was no way of enforcing the ban on crossborder supplies-on the Taliban. The military impact was thus minimal. By now the Taliban had come to the realization that, whatever they did, the western powers were against them, while ordinary Afghans felt increasingly isolated by the outside world.

The creation of a security problem One of the most striking things about the move towards isolating the Taliban was the way in which the security situation was manipulated. As NGOs and locally based UN staff repeatedly pointed out, the security situation under the Taliban was better for agency staff (and in many ways for ordinary Afghans) than it had been throughout the mujahideen time. For the first time in many years, it was possible to travel the roads at any time of the day or night without fear of being held up by gunmen. Yet one incident was to trigger a fundamental change in the way security was managed in Afghanistan. Once the news broke that the USA had launched a Cruise missile attack on the alleged sites of terrorist training camps in Khost, it was clear that there was the potential for trouble on the streets of Kabul. In consultation with their Taliban hosts, who were aware both of the risks of freelance retribution and their responsibility for the security of the small international contingent in Kabul, those in charge of UN security decided that all UN staff should be confined to their quarters until the situation was clarified. Despite this, an Italian assigned as a military adviser to UNSMA, Lieutenant Carmine Calo, and a French colleague took a marked UN vehicle out of the guarded UN compound, and on their way through the streets of Kabul were fired on after a staged accident. Both UNSMA staff were injured and Calo, though rushed to hospital, died some hours later.

Although the UN had experienced a number of other attacks over the previous decade and had still carried on working, and despite the fact that there was little to suggest that the general security situation had deteriorated, this tragic incident resulted in a complete evacuation of international UN staff from the country. It ushered in a new security era, as Afghanistan came to be portrayed as a dangerous country, where the security of foreigners could not be guaranteed. The UN took the unprecedented step of acceding to pressure to forbid US and UK nationals from serving in Afghanistan. After protracted negotiations with the Taliban, the return of UN staff to Kabul began in early 2000, followed by other areas, but with strict limits on numbers. While UN headquarters seemed unwilling to challenge the ban on UK and US nationals entering Afghanistan, some British staff in the field resorted to rediscovering their Irish ancestry, and one went so far as to buy herself a Somali passport. The policy appeared to be degenerating into a farce. Meanwhile, in the absence of any specific details about the alleged risks faced by USA and UK citizens, the ICRC politely resisted pressure to introduce similar restrictions on the deployment of its staff.

The UK went even further in its restrictions than the USA, with the Department for International Development withdrawing funding from NGOs that let international staff even visit the country. It is hard to know, even with the benefit of hindsight, how much this was due to political manipulation and how much it was due simply to illinformed and prejudiced judgements. The Foreign Office insisted it had specific evidence that there were threats, but would never elaborate on what these were. From the beginning, NGOs strongly challenged the UK government line, pointing out that security was both better than it had been in the past and better than it was in many other countries where no such draconian restrictions were in place. The British refused to budge and most NGOs, believing the issue was more about politics than security, found their money elsewhere. The funding restriction was finally lifted by the UK in mid2001, but only upon stringent security assessments of the agencies concerned.

While the result of all the regulations was to paint a picture of a country that was irredeemably dangerous, security on the ground actually remained quite good. Although there were some holdups of vehicles, mainly associated with the looting of Codan radios, the incidents were neither as frequent nor as violent as those that had happened in the past. Even after 11 September, when it was clear that Afghanistan would face retaliatory attacks, the Taliban stuck by the security guarantees they had given the international community and facilitated an orderly evacuation of international staff, leaving Afghans to face the American bombs alone.

Aid, rights and the US project

Aid has long been part of the strategy by which outside nations have gained influence in Afghanistan. But whereas in the 1960s and ’70s this had been essentially a bilateral endeavour, and in the 1980s it had been linked to Cold War alliances, by the mid’90s there was a move towards all organizations involved in assistance-donors, the UN and NGOs-pulling together in one systemwide effort in pursuit of peace in Afghanistan. Not all organizations bought into the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan (discussed in detail in Chapter 3),7 and of those who did a number were somewhat reluctant partners. Nevertheless, officially at least, the assistance community aspired to ‘speak with one voice’.

While the initial impetus for this effort came from the perceived need both to address the deepseated conflict and to improve the effectiveness of assistance in what was seen as a ‘failed state’, once international policy became driven by efforts to isolate and demonize the Taliban, the modalities of the SFA could also be used to this end. The anchor for the common approach was seen as a set of shared principles by which decisions would be made as to when and how to give assistance. In the quest to define these, the notion of rights became central: people had a right to humanitarian assistance; a right to protection; women had equal rights with men. But the emergence of an assistance community bent on ‘principled’ and ‘rightsbased’ programming at the very time that the Taliban were gaining control of the country and seeking to impose their own, rather different, notion of principles, meant that a clash was inevitable. This confrontation, though often stemming from a different set of priorities to the US agenda, played into the move to isolate the Taliban. For though the motives may have been different, the assistance community and the US body politic were both party to building up the discourse that the Taliban were evil and dangerous.

In part this was due to confusion on the ground as to how to achieve supposedly universal rights in someone else’s country, one in which by custom as well as diktat these rights were not always recognized. But it was also due to overlapping agendas. The assistance community did not speak with one voice, not even within one organization. As the UN’s senior human rights adviser at that time noted, any real progress on human rights issues was undermined by ‘a high level of rhetoric at the international level that had more to do with external political agendas than development of interventions that would actually help erode discriminatory attitudes and practices’ (Niland 2003).

One such example of how rights became an instrument of political agendas lies in a highprofile confrontation that seems to have gone down in international folklore as a truly heroic stance against evil. In 1997 Emma Bonino, then head of the European Community Office for Humanitarian Assistance (ECHO), visited Kabul, accompanied by celebrity CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour. They had asked to see the health facility, Rabbia Balkhi hospital, that the Taliban had declared would be dedicated to the provision of services to women. This followed a protracted controversy that had centred on allegations by the aid community that the Ministry of Public Health planned to centralize female healthcare, whereas in fact it had proposed the strengthening of one facility, which would be reserved for women. As would be the case in any other Muslim country, the visitors and accompanying press contingent were asked specifically not to film inside the hospital with a male crew. They chose to ignore this request, and proceeded to film at will in the female wards, whereupon the female head of the hospital called the police. Not surprisingly, the saga of the brief detention of Bonino became headline news.

Inevitably, it was the Taliban, rather than the visitors, who were accused of unacceptable behaviour. Most aid workers in the city agreed with Afghan health professionals in seeing this as a crude selfserving stunt that served only to obscure the real story, which was about the need to improve health facilities for women. Apart from leaving the Afghans who were accompanying her on her visit (and who had tried to halt the filming) in detention, the legacy of Bonino was to make the work of Afghan medical professionals much more difficult. As the female head of the hospital said months later, ‘the outside world has scored its points, but the ones who will pay the price are my patients’.8

Having decided that the Taliban were unacceptable, few opportunities were lost to point out their failings. The advocacy organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) (2001) launched a report claiming that 95 per cent of women in Kabul saw a decline in their mental health during the rule of the Taliban. Though they later admitted that the data collection was flawed, by then the damage was done.9 The findings were highlighted in the press and soon became ‘facts’, to be used by a range of organizations and individuals as evidence of how bad the Taliban were. A later report issued by PHR, which drew a more nuanced picture and was based on much more thorough research, drew no press interest whatsoever. UN reports also regularly admonished the Taliban for not meeting some perfect moral standard. They were castigated for doing things that are the common behaviour of politicians worldwide, such as wanting to control assistance, or only spending their own money on public goods when it was ‘roads and other infrastructure that benefits their supporters’ (Leader 2000). While they were regularly denounced for what they did wrong, they never received credit for the things they managed well, most of which were quickly forgotten as inconvenient.

Hazarajat was a case in point. Some terrible things happened in this part of Afghanistan and they were rightly condemned. But some good things happened also. Women did not have to wear burqas, the Shi’a Hazaras were left in peace to pray as they chose, and when there were problems with the kuchis returning to claim their old grazing rights, the Taliban, at least in cases we knew of in Nawor and Panjao, helped to resolve them. And just as in the jihad, when NGOs were vocal about the crimes of the government side but anyone criticizing the mujahideen for their human rights violations was automatically seen as an apologist for the Soviets (Baitenmann 1990: 62), so now only the Taliban could be criticized. When the Taliban massacred 200 people in Yakawlang they were rightly condemned; but no one spoke out against Hizbe Wahdat for the initial attack on the town that precipitated this incident, even though Wahdat must have known they could not hold the town and that civilians would pay the price for their actions. The onesided approach not only demonized the Taliban but it also allowed the other side to feel it had impunity, that whatever it did it would not be taken to task.

As in the fight against the Soviets, the USA was happy to ally itself with whoever suited its interests, whether it was the military or the propaganda war. This produced some interesting bedfellows. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is a hardleft group of urban, educated women of the type that establishment interests in the USA, conservative or liberal, would normally waste no time in condemning. Based in Quetta, it has always represented only a minority of Afghan women. In America, however, it became for many the voice of all. Its members were not slow to see the advantages offered to them by the interest of highprofile western women and a media hungry for the latest atrocity, and they used every opportunity they could to highlight the attacks on women’s rights. On one memorable occasion, at a starstudded $1,000aticket New York production of The Vagina Monologues, a shrouded RAWA delegate ascended to the stage, dramatically lifted her burqa and delivered a fiery speech to the cheers of the assembled audience (Thrupkaew 2002). The cynicism with which the women were, in turn, used can be seen in the way that, while in those days the USA thought their evidence against the Taliban credible enough to cite, today there is no mention of their documentation of the crimes of the Northern Alliance (Kolhatkar 2003). After 11 September, the crescendo of feeling against the Taliban accelerated. The American media, largely owned by the right, fell into line, with few dissenters. We were based in Islamabad in September and October 2001. Despite doing almost daily interviews with the international media, it was impossible not to observe how the US media almost never wanted interviews. It wasn’t just that we were not American; even US colleagues received no callers. There simply was no room for views that might call into question, let alone be critical of, what the USA was doing. The British media tried harder. Locally based reporters searched out those who might tell a different story, who might know how it was for Afghans left behind, who knew something of the history of the country; but the BBC team reported that it fought a constant battle with London to present a more critical perspective-and, despite their efforts, those viewing the domestic news in the UK found little to challenge the party line.

Stitching up a country

“The Americans won’t ever give up their military bases in Afghanistan. From here they will control the entire region.” (Farhang, Minister for Reconstruction, quoted in Kleveman 2003)

The events of 11 September presented the USA with the opportunity to start again, to build a pliable state in Afghanistan that would conform, at least outwardly, to liberal notions of ‘democracy and free enterprise’. Given that the new administration was brought into being not by any political struggle but rather by the space opened up by American bombs, it was perhaps not surprising that it offered no coherent vision of what a future Afghanistan might look like. But if the Interim Administration lacked a clear ideology, the same could not be said for the country’s ‘liberators’. In the gap that ought to have been filled by political debate, they were already busy trying to establish a client state that would serve their interests.

At the same time as real political debate on the future of Afghanistan was failing to happen, the rhetoric of democracy was being used to hide the pursuit of western interests, not only in securing oil routes, but also in refashioning the whole economy in the market economy mode. Policies were being made on the ground by a few key ministers and their many foreign advisers. The Minister of Finance, Ashraf Ghani, was a longtime World Bank employee and devotee of the economic liberalization argument; the desire to parcel out the Afghan economy to the private sector ran through everything he touched. The draft National Development Framework produced in April 200210 was followed by the National Development Budget. Both were about turning Afghanistan into an economy where ‘a competitive private sector becomes the engine of growth’. The government’s role was seen as promotion of the private sector, government assets would be privatized and international firms were seen as partners in all major projects.

The documents sat well with the dogma of America and its favourite ally, the UK. In its National Security Strategy, America boldly declared it would bring ‘free trade to every corner of the world’, igniting ‘a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade’. For the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, the poorest countries’ ‘obligations’ were to ‘pursue stability and create the opportunities for new investment’.11 In a similar vein Margaret Beckett claimed Britain’s businesses needed to be able to trade throughout the world ‘without facing high tariffs, discriminatory regulations or unnecessarily burdensome procedures’.12 How well such a strategy serves Afghanistan is another issue.

The USA and its allies, along with the international financial institutions, which they largely control, have long been telling developing countries that what they need is to open up their markets, to privatize their industries, and to end government’s role as a service provider. Whether it is Argentina, Afghanistan or Angola, the message is the same. Yet while such a prescription is undoubtedly good for First World trade, there is little evidence to suggest that it will lead to growth in the countries concerned. On the contrary, all the evidence to date suggests that the private sector alone is unlikely to be a sufficient engine for growth. The countries where by far the highest levels of economic growth have been seen over recent decades have been those of East Asia, particularly China and South Korea, but also Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Though all of these countries are very different and there is no one blueprint that can be drawn from them, they do show some interesting contrasts to the strategy being proposed for Afghanistan. None of these countries started its strategy for growth from the position of being a completely open economy; all had carefully structured barriers to protect their fledgling industries and only later, once industry was established, did they liberalize. Japan, somewhat earlier in the twentieth century, followed the same pattern, as of course did the USA itself. Even now, America quickly dumps its free trade policy as soon as its own industries are threatened. In January 2002 it introduced tariffs of as much as 30 per cent on imported steel in order to try and protect its steel industry; tariffs which were ruled by the WTO to be illegal and inconsistent with free trade.13 In a similar vein it continues to grant massive subsidies to its agricultural sector, whose excess wheat then becomes food aid for the poor world, often depressing local prices and depriving farmers of their livelihoods.

In addition, East Asian countries not only invested heavily in health and education, but also in strategies that ensured that everyone had access to these essential services, thus producing an educated and healthy workforce.

Jobs for the boys While most Afghans have so far seen little benefit from reconstruction, US companies have been doing very well indeed. According to a report published by the Centre for Public Integrity, US firms received over US$8 billion in contracts for work in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan. The top recipient was Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, of which Dick Cheney was chief executive officer prior to being chosen as George W. Bush’s running mate. It was awarded contracts worth $2.3 billion. Almost all of the companies that won contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were political players, giving some $12.7 million to the various Republican committees, and $7.1 million to the Democratic ones. George Bush alone reportedly received over $0.5 million. Although USAID has a public duty to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are used ‘efficiently and effectively’, an examination of contracts awarded would seem to suggest that other factors also come into play. In

January 2003 Creative Associates International Inc., an organization that had no experience of working in the country, bid for a major education contract as part of a consortium with two NGOs, neither of which was an expert in education. They won the bid over another consortium comprised of DAI and the three international NGOs that have the strongest track record of education development work in Afghanistan. Creative Associates is one of the many private consulting firms that developed in the 1970s and ’80s in response to the US government’s decision that it needed to subcontract much of its assistance work. Commonly known as ‘Beltway Bandits’, because they all have offices inside Washington’s beltway, they are often staffed by former government employees and their main business is contracts from government organizations such as USAID. In addition to the Afghanistan contract, in March 2003 Creative Associates won an Iraq education contract worth up to $157 million. The organization, which has several former USAID officials on its staff, is the eleventh largest recipient of government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis (CPI 2003). While it is the big fish that will clearly benefit most, even the smaller enterprises are confident of a killing. As the manager of a company bidding for the new US funds that were the talk of Kabul in early 2004 put it: ‘We cannot lose-the guys in Washington have not only insured our assets in this place, but also our profits.’

Aid and the pursuit of liberal governance Aid, said USAID head Andrew Natsios in 2001, is ‘a key foreign policy instrument’. And in case there was any doubt about what this meant, he elaborated: ‘Foreign assistance helps developing and transition nations move towards democratic systems and market economies; it helps nations prepare for participation in the global trading system and become better markets for US exports’ (Kaplan 2003).

From a bilateral perspective this is perhaps neither surprising nor new. What is notable in Afghanistan is how far both the multilateral agencies, and even many of the supposedly independent NGOs, have been pulled into the free market project. This is in part only an intensification of a trend that has long been under way. For years now, liberal governance has made its way in the world via a whole network of agencies that manage what Mark Duffield (2001b) called ‘the borderlands’. On the margins of the global system lie a whole raft of countries where poverty and longrunning conflicts seem endemic. This, the excluded South, has for some time been seen as a danger to the international system because of the risk of conflict, criminality and terrorism spilling out over its borders. It also, to those concerned with justice, remains an unacceptable scar on the face of a rich world, an everpresent reminder that the policies work only for some. But in a unipolar world, where there is no longer any radical political challenge to the status quo, both those concerned with justice and those concerned with the advancement of the free market roll out the same solution: to try and manage the troublesome South through strategic networks that involve the UN and NGOs in a shift away from simply providing humanitarian assistance towards programmes to reduce conflict and increase stability.

Even so, 9/11 brought about a change of gear. The terms of engagement were set by Bush’s famous ‘you are either for us or against us’. The statement at a stroke removed the independent space in which the UN and NGOs might have been able to operate. While in the past it was often suspected that the UN was just part of the US project, undertaking its operational work in parts of the world where the US preferred to be ‘hands off’, now it was official. Agencies have been slow to realize the implications of this, and of how much more dangerous it has made the world for them. There is, it seems, at times a wilful donning of blinkers, a refusal to see the political project, far less the role they have come to play in it.
The UN in particular continued to pretend, even while the everincreasing layers of razor wire on top of the walls of their buildings, the concrete bollards and ‘no stopping’ signs that surround them, showed that on one level it understood all too well. The price of this pretending was already being paid in Afghanistan, with an ICRC international staff member and a number of NGO national staff murdered, but it was not until the bombing of the UN’s HQ in Baghdad that it seemed to sink in. Awful though the attack was, it was not, to anyone who has any understanding of the situation, surprising. The UN had not only overseen more than a decade of crippling sanctions, but had gone into Iraq in the wake of an illegal occupation of a country, and as such was bound to be a target. To pretend otherwise was, at best, dangerously naive. Yet at a memorial service in Mazar, held by the UN staff for their dead and injured colleagues and friends, the repeated question was: Why us?

A more courageous UN could, of course, have refused to accept this diktat, could have insisted on its independence and gone out of its way to prove this. But complicity is a hard habit to break, and cooption seductive. The postCold War dominance of a single worldview has made it if not easy, at least necessary, to persuade oneself that the only option is change from within. Once there it is all too easy to have one’s critical faculties blunted. As Peter Griffiths notes in the foreword to his book about the World Bank, The Economist’s Tale (2003):

“Some individuals chose to be incompetent, dishonest or downright evil. Some are pressed by the employers, their family or their society. Others tolerate incompetence, dishonesty or evil because they are afraid. They may be afraid they will lose their jobs and starve. They may be afraid that they will be beaten up or killed. Or they may be afraid that they will be seen to be making a fuss.”

Human rights

Rights have long been a victim of the war in Afghanistan, but only sometimes have outside powers chosen to recognize this. The diligent concern for human rights abuses displayed by donors and senior UN officials when Afghanistan was under the Taliban evaporated with the signing of the Bonn agreements. In the months following, a number of frontline workers tried to raise human rights issues within the UN, only to be silenced. That rights are only ever invoked by mainstream politicians when it suits their purposes is not, perhaps, surprising; what is more shocking is the way in which the UN failed to challenge this. The overarching statements paid dutiful lipservice, stressing the importance of the full and equal participation of women in political, economic, cultural and social life. Action on the ground, however, suggested priorities were otherwise. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Lakhdar Brahimi, stated that Afghanistan could not at this time have both justice and peace, and UN workers who tried to raise these issues found themselves blocked. An independent human rights commission was set up but was given little political support.

If one thing symbolized rights issues under the Taliban, it was the burqa. Images of shrouded women flooded the press, the embodiment of rights denied. Yet arriving back in Kabul in December 2001 one could not help but notice that every woman was still wearing it. As the months rolled by a few got rid of the burqa, but they were still in a minority. Outside Kabul, little has changed. By the summer of 2004 some women still wore it out of custom, or said they had just come to feel more comfortable that way, but for many there was no choice, they said simply: ‘We do not feel safe.’ Even those educated women who had been strong defenders of women’s rights for many years did not always feel they could choose.

The burqa, of course, was always more symbolic than a substantive issue. For most Afghan women the rights to education and to paid work were far more important. But here, too, for all the publicity about girls going back to school, the actual improvements have been limited. In part that has been due to the lack of a coherent education policy, but conservative forces have also burned girls’ schools and banned females from attending. Yet the international community has been largely silent.

A similar silence descended on the human rights abuses in the northern provinces. From Qunduz in the east to Faryab in the west, this area is a patchwork of different peoples with a long and complex history. At different times different groups gained access to land, displacing others and often themselves being displaced later, either by yet another group or by the return of earlier incumbents. In accordance with this longestablished pattern, when the Taliban ruled in Kabul the Pashtuns were in the ascendancy in the north. Then, when the Taliban were defeated the Pashtuns bore the brunt of retributions, often for no other reason than that they came from the same ethnic group. Yet despite the fact that this situation was predictable, the international community failed to protect them and it was not until much later that the UN managed to intervene successfully to reduce the violence targeted at local Pashtun communities. Yet there were sizeable coalition forces in the north, and the Afghan forces accused of the violations were their military partners. Why did they not use their influence better to protect the civilian population? Why also did they not ensure protection for the hundreds of Taliban and other combatants who surrendered to the Northern Alliance after the fall of Qunduz and who are believed to have met their death either by suffocation in the containers in which they were transported or by summary execution? Bodies from this massacre, and from earlier ones, lie in mass graves in northern Afghanistan. Yet despite the fact that many believe that a proper investigation of the graves and a dignified burial of the remains are an essential part of any accountability and reconciliation process, so far UNAMA has been reluctant to act, stating that the decision whether or not to investigate lay with the Afghan authorities and the Human Rights Commission. Concern was also expressed that it would not be possible to protect witnesses and that responsibility to the living had to take precedence over justice to the dead. International human rights groups disagreed, as did the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, who visited Afghanistan in midOctober 2002 and called for an international inquiry into past human rights violations, including the graves in the north (UN 2002a). Finally, a decision was taken by the UN in September 2001 to authorize an official investigation into the sites but this was to be limited to ‘finding and preserving evidence’ and would have a ‘low profile’ since systematic and full investigations ‘would seriously disrupt the fragile peace that the Government and international community are striving to foster and reinforce’. Since then a number of witnesses to the fate of Taliban captives at Dashte Leili are reported to have disappeared or have been tortured. As a human rights worker interviewed in December 2002 noted: ‘Every time someone comes and looks, someone disappears.’

As with rights, so too have standards on security changed since the fall of the Taliban. The string of attacks on UN and NGO staff have included both expatriates-the gang rape of a female NGO worker in the north, the murder of an ICRC engineer in Uruzgan in early 2003 and a UNHCR worker in Ghazni in November 2003-and Afghans, of whom many have been killed and many more wounded. Some of these attacks have been ugly in the extreme, with groups of workers hauled from their ambushed vehicles and summarily executed. Ye t there has been no evacuation.

In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the worsening security situation is conveniently blamed on ‘remnants’ of the old disorder. The truth is far more complex. The military intervention opened up a security vacuum, which the USA blocked an international force from filling as it feared it would interfere with its pursuit of alQa’eda. As a result, two distinct security problems now exist in Afghanistan. In the south and east, groups opposed to the current administration, many of which are finding shelter over the border in Pakistan, deliberately target anyone linked to the new administration. Their task is made easier by the political disenfranchisement of a large part of the population and the discontent caused by the heavyhanded tactics of the coalition forces. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country warlords who are nominally part of the government continue to fight each other. Those who recall the evacuation of UN staff in 1998, in response to a tragic but single casualty, can be forgiven for questioning the meaning of security when more than a third of rural districts are out of bounds to aid agencies and when, due to security concerns, all but one NGO has evacuated Qandahar.

NGOs-wanting it both ways

Beneath the cloak of having ‘come to help’, NGOs are also often part of the selloff of the country’s assets and the privatization of its services. The agencies themselves appear confused and uncomfortable with the position they find themselves in. Although unhappy at being associated with the government through involvement with projects such as the flagship National Solidarity Programme, they continue to take the money, slow to recognize the implications of the change in the political landscape. The years in which the mujahideen first fought for, and then fought over, Afghanistan left them the space to work as they chose, the Afghan government not being in a position to control their activities; the notion of independent NGOs working directly with communities took root. The Taliban days, if anything, entrenched this; NGOs were paid by donors to be ‘independent’ agencies working with communities in the face of a repressive government. They could retain their moral stance and be paid for it; for the agenda of donors and the agenda of NGOs was substantially one and the same. That is no longer the case.

Donors have clearly embarked on a political project to reconstruct Afghanistan in a certain mould, and while they are more than willing to fund NGOs to be implementers of projects within this framework, it is clear that there is no longer big money on the table for those who choose to remain outside. NGOs face a difficult choice, which few of them as yet seem to have recognized. The years of funding to do development work according to their own beliefs and priorities are over. Either they become part of the political project, with all its faults, or they retain their independence but lose largescale funding and, perhaps even more importantly to some, a seat at the table of the powerbrokers.

For USAID, the new role is clearly expressed in the shift from grants to contracting. Rather than being given resources to engage in development processes, agencies will now be given contracts to deliver to specified outcomes. Targets will be set-for example, the number of children to be vaccinated against measles-and if the agency does not meet them its funding will be cut accordingly. While this may be an attempt to get some accountability into the system, which in itself is no bad thing, it is accountability according to the donor’s priorities, not the NGO’s. To bemoan that more meaningful development indicators are not part of the picture is to miss the point-this is not a development process. For many donors, NGOs are now being funded not as development agencies but as subcontractors for specific programmes.

Failing the Afghans

The gap between the American values that are being pushed and the values of the majority of Afghans is enormous. For all America’s attempts to promote its cultural values, the emphasis on individualism does not sit well with Afghan society. This is not just an issue of old versus new, rural versus urban, educated versus illiterate; even many welleducated, urban Afghans holding down wellpaid jobs, those who are doing well out of the current dispensation and who could be called ‘modern’, do not subscribe to the US dream. They may not as yet have worked out a coherent alternative, but this does not mean they do not know that there is something wrong with what has been offered. Although for the moment America may still be more welcomed as liberator than hated as occupier, the line is a fine one. Already there are clear signs of unhappiness with what is happening. As one friend observed: ‘The new generation of Afghans will not be really educated, but trained not to stand in the way of US interests.’

Meanwhile, for the majority of the country’s citizens, the ordinary people who do not have access to wellpaid jobs, there is simply a deep yearning for life to be better, to live in safety, to have healthcare and education, and the means of making a reasonable living. As yet, little has been offered in the way of meeting these aspirations. For all the fine words about economic growth relieving poverty, there is little indication that this might happen; nor are the models of services being put forward likely to produce much for the poor. The danger for America, with its all too visible presence in the country, is that it will be held responsible for these failures.

There is not only an immediate frustration but also a longterm problem of a lack of political leadership and of any vision as to how these aspirations could be met. This is more than just an Afghan problem; the absence of any models to challenge liberal capitalism is a global issue. At least until the 1970s alternative statebased models of modernity and of economic development existed, socialist and nationalist. Alongside them were models of political action by means of which people might hope to achieve change. Now all these have gone. In the 1980s economic liberalism increasingly became the dominant economic paradigm among southern elites as well as in the West, and coherent political action splintered into singleissue protest movements. While part of the reason for the decline of alternative modes of statehood was their own corruption and their failure to understand the systems they were trying to reform, their decline nevertheless leaves an enormous gap. To acknowledge that they had faults does not mean that their critique of the status quo was not valid. But, as Mark Duffield notes: ‘From its position of dominance, liberal discourse has suppressed those aspects…that argued the existence of inequalities within the global system, and most importantly, that the way in which wealth is created has a direct bearing on the extent and nature of poverty’ (Duffield 2001b: 28). In its dominance, the West and the system it embodies has allowed itself to think it has the answers, even as it is failing so many people. Rather than ask how the system must be changed, the question has now become how to make southern societies fit the system. The notion that underdevelopment may be a function of the relationship between rich and poor countries has been more or less erased from the development discourse. The notion that any form of governance other than the market state might be valid has been excised from the global discourse (Gray 2003).

The danger of such a lacuna was ably illustrated by the outburst of a young Afghan friend. Karim is in his early twenties, a graduate of law from Balkh University and currently in a good job, giving him both a reasonable salary and interesting work. We were travelling together in the north of the country along the, admittedly dreadful, road between Pul i Khumri and Qunduz when he burst out: ‘This country is completely corrupt, look at this road! What can we do-there is nothing for it but terrorism.’ While it is unlikely that he would ever join up with alQa’eda, his burst of anger came from a deep well of despair at ever seeing any real improvement in his country. It was a powerful wakeup call to the price that will have to be paid if things do not get better. In the conversation about political change that followed, it became very clear that the models of political struggle and change that were part of the fabric of life for those of us who grew up in the West in the1960s and ’70s, whether or not we were activists, no longer exist for today’s young people. There is no longer a Mozambique with its brave vision of the future as it struggled to free itself from Portuguese colonialism, no longer a South Africa with its Nelson Mandela. The alternative visions of societies in which resources would be used to allow the poor to attain the basic requirements of a decent life, to be free of fear, to have enough to eat and safe water to drink, to have basic healthcare and education for their children, are no longer put forward. Yet the market state will never be able to meet the aspirations of most Afghans. Little wonder terrorism has a recruiting ground.



  1. Voice of America, 27 September 1996.
  2. Statement by Robin Raphel, head of US delegation, United Nations meeting on Afghanistan, 18 November 1996.
  3. In 2002 BP Amoco finally took the decision to go ahead with this route. Construction will take about three years and is estimated to cost $3.2 billion.
  4. The story is well documented in Rashid (2000).
  5. Reuters, 18 November 1997.
  6. In those days conversion into heroin was done in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan; the CIA’s allies the ISI were heavily involved in the trade.
  7. Notably, ICRC and MSF formally stayed outside, believing it compromised their neutrality.
  8. Personal communication.
  9. Personal communication with PHR senior staff member, 2001.
  10. Ashraf Ghani was then head of the AACA, which produced the NDF. He became Minister of Finance after the ELJ issued in the ATA.
  11. Speech to the Federal Reserve Bank, New York, 16 November 2001.
  12. ‘Towards full market access’, Financial Times, 10 July 1997.
  13. ‘Fear of trade war after US steel tariffs ruled illegal’, Guardian, 1 November 2003.

(Source: Chris Johnson & Jolyon Leslie, “AFGHANISTAN: The Mirage Of Peace,” Zed Books, London – New York, 2004)

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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