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ISIS and the Crisis in American Statecraft

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

A Facebook friend with an astute comment pointed me toward this Wall Street Journal article by Joe Rago on the mission of General John Allen, USMC  as “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”. What is a “Special Presidential Envoy” ?

In diplomatic parlance, a special envoy is an official with full powers (a “plenipotentiary”) to conduct negotiations and conclude agreements, but without the protocol rank of ambassador and the ceremonial duties and customary courtesies. A special envoy could get right down to business without wasting time and were often technical experts or seasoned diplomatic “old hands” whom the foreign interlocuter could trust, or at least respect. These were once common appointments but today less so. A “Special Presidential Envoy” is typically something grander – in theory, a trusted fixer or VIP to act as superambassador , a deal-maker or reader of riot acts on behalf of the POTUS. Think FDR sending Harry Hopkins to Stalin or Nixon sending Kissinger secretly to Mao; more recent and less dramatic examples would be General Anthony Zinni, USMC and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.  

In practice, a presidential special envoy could also be much less, the foreign policy equivalent of a national commission in domestic politics; a place to park thorny, no-win, political headaches the POTUS wants to ignore by creating the illusion of action and get them off the front pages. The position is really whatever the President wishes to make of it and how much power and autonomy he cares to delegate and what, if anything, he wishes the Special Envoy to achieve. Finally, these appointments are also a sign the President does not have much confidence or trust in the bureaucracy of the State Department or DoD, or their respective Secretaries, to carry out the administration’s policy. I wager that this is one of the reasons for General Allen’s appointment.

This means that General Allen is more or less stuck with whatever brief he was given, to color within the lines and make the best uses of any carrots or sticks he was allotted ( in this micromanaging administration, probably very little of either). Why was he chosen? Most likely because the United States sending a warfighting Marine general like Allen ( or a high CIA official) will always concentrate the minds of foreigners, particularly in a region where the US has launched three major wars in a quarter century. If not Allen, it would have been someone similar with similar results because the policy and civilian officials to whom they would report would remain the same.

So if things with ISIS and Iraq/Syria  are going poorly – and my take from the article is that they are – the onus is on a pay grade much higher than General Allen’s.

I will comment on a few sections of the interview, but I suggest reading the article in full:

Inside the War Against Islamic State 

Those calamities were interrupted, and now the first beginnings of a comeback may be emerging against the disorder. Among the architects of the progress so far is John Allen, a four-star Marine Corps general who came out of retirement to lead the global campaign against what he calls “one of the darkest forces that any country has ever had to deal with.”

ISIS are definitely an bunch of evil bastards, and letting them take root unmolested is probably a bad idea. That said, they are not ten feet tall. Does anyone imagine ISIS can beat in a stand-up fight, say, the Iranian Army or the Egyptian Army, much less the IDF or (if we dropped the goofy ROE and micromanaging of company and battalion commanders) the USMC? I don’t. And if we really want Allen as an “architect” , make Allen Combatant Commander of CENTCOM.

Gen. Allen is President Obama ’s “special envoy” to the more than 60 nations and groups that have joined a coalition to defeat Islamic State, and there is now reason for optimism, even if not “wild-eyed optimism,” he said in an interview this month in his austere offices somewhere in the corridors of the State Department

Well, in DC where proximity to power is power, sticking General Allen in some broom closet at State instead of, say, in the White House, in the EOB or at least an office near the Secretary of State is how State Department mandarins and the White House staff signal to foreign partners that the Presidential Special Envoy should not be taken too seriously. It’s an intentional slight to General Allen. Not a good sign.

At the Brussels conference, the 60 international partners dedicated themselves to the defeat of Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL, though Gen. Allen prefers the loose Arabic vernacular, Daesh. They formalized a strategy around five common purposes—the military campaign, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, counterfinance, humanitarian relief and ideological delegitimization.

The fact that there are sixty (!) “partners” (whatever the hell that means) and ISIS is still running slave markets and beheading children denotes an incredible lack of seriousness here when you consider we beat Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy into utter submission in the largest war in the history of the world with barely a third that number.  The best that can be said here is that Allen, in trying to be a herder of cats, got them to graciously agree on letting the US set a reasonable list of open-ended operations and policy priorities.

Gen. Allen cautions that there is hard fighting ahead and victory is difficult to define….

I think my head is going to explode. I’m sure General Allen’s head is too because this means that President Obama and his chief advisers are refusing to define victory by setting a coherent policy and consequently, few of our sixty partners are anxious to do much fighting against ISIS. When you don’t know what victory is and won’t fight, then victory is not hard to define, its impossible to achieve.

At least we are not sending large numbers of troops to fight without defining victory. That would be worse.

Gen. Allen’s assignment is diplomatic; “I just happen to be a general,” he says. He acts as strategist, broker, mediator, fixer and deal-maker across the large and often fractious coalition, managing relationships and organizing the multi-front campaign. “As you can imagine,” he says, “it’s like three-dimensional chess sometimes.”

Or its a sign that our civilian leaders and the bureaucracies they manage are dysfunctional, cynical and incompetent at foreign policy and strategy. But perhaps General Allen will pull off a miracle without armies, authorities or resources.

Unlike its antecedent al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State is something new, “a truly unparalleled threat to the region that we have not seen before.” Al Qaeda in Iraq “did not have the organizational depth, they didn’t have the cohesion that Daesh has exhibited in so many places.” The group has seized territory, dominated population centers and become self-financing—“they’re even talking about generating their own currency.”

But the major difference is that “we’re not just fighting a force, you know, we’re fighting an idea,” Gen. Allen says. Islamic State has created an “image that it is not just an extremist organization, not just a violent terrorist organization, but an image that it is an Islamic proto-state, in essence, the Islamic caliphate.” It is an “image of invincibility and image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.”

This ideology has proved to be a powerful recruiting engine, especially internationally. About 18,000 foreign nationals have traveled to fight in Iraq or the Syria war, some of them Uighurs or Chechens but many from Western countries like the U.K., Belgium, Australia and the U.S. About 10,000 have joined Islamic State, Gen. Allen says.

“Often these guys have got no military qualifications whatsoever,” he continues. “They just came to the battlefield to be part of something that they found attractive or interesting. So they’re most often the suicide bombers. They are the ones who have undertaken the most horrendous depredations against the local populations. They don’t come out of the Arab world. . . . They don’t have an association with a local population. So doing what people have done to those populations is easier for a foreign fighter.”

Except for the “never seen before” part – we have in fact seen this phenomena in the Islamic world many times before, starting with the Khawarijites, of whom ISIS are just the most recent iteration – this is all largely true.

ISIS, for all its foul brigandage, religious mummery and crypto-Mahdist nonsense is a competent adversary that understands how to connect  in strategy its military operations on the ground with symbolic actions at the moral level of war. Fighting at the moral level of war does not always imply (though it often does) that your side is morally good. Sadly, terror and atrocities under some circumstances can be morally compelling to onlookers and not merely repellent. In a twisted way, there’s a “burning the boats” effect in openly and gleefully committing horrific crimes that will unify and reinforce your own side while daunting your enemies and impressing onlookers with your strength and ruthlessness. Men flocked to Spain to fight for Fascism and Communism. A remarkable 60% of the Nazi Waffen-SS were foreigners, most of whom were volunteers. Ample numbers of Western left-wing intellectuals were abject apologists not only for Stalin and Mao but the Khmer Rouge during the height of its genocide. ISIS atrocities and horror are likewise political crack for certain kinds of minds.

The problem is that none of this should be a surprise to American leaders, if they took their responsibilities seriously.

William Lind and Martin van Creveld were writing about state decline and fourth generation warfare twenty five years ago. We have debated 4Gw, hybrid war, complex war, LIC, terrorism, insurgency, failed states, criminal insurgency and terms more obscure in earnest for over a decade and have wrestled with irregular warfare since John F. Kennedy was president. Yet the USG is no closer to effective policy solutions for irregular threats in 2014 than we were in 1964.

A more hopeful sign is that the new Iraqi government is more stable and multiconfessional after the autocratic sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His replacement, Haider al-Abadi, has been “very clear that the future of Iraq is for all Iraqis,” Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. He has restored relations with Middle Eastern neighbors and believes in the “devolution of power” across Iraq’s regions, Gen. Allen says. “Maliki believed in the centralization of power.”

So did we. Maliki and Hamid Karzai were originally our creatures. There was at least a bad tradition of centralization in Iraq, but we imposed it in Afghanistan ex nihilo because it suited our bureaucratic convenience and, to be frank, the big government technocratic political beliefs of the kinds of people who become foreign service officers, national security wonks, military officers and NGO workers. Unfortunately, centralization didn’t much suit the Afghans.

Critics of the Obama administration’s Islamic State response argue that the campaign has been too slow and improvisational. In particular, they argue that there is one Iraqi-Syrian theater and thus that Islamic State cannot be contained or defeated in Iraq alone. Without a coherent answer to the Bashar Assad regime, the contagion from this terror haven will continue to spill over.

Gen. Allen argues that the rebels cannot remove Assad from power, and coalition members are “broadly in agreement that Syria cannot be solved by military means. . . . The only rational way to do this is a political outcome, the process of which should be developed through a political-diplomatic track. And at the end of that process, as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.”

Except without brute force or a willingness to make any significant concessions to the states that back the Assad regime this will never happen. What possible incentive would Assad have to cooperate in his own political (followed by physical) demise?  Our Washington insiders believe that you can refuse to both bargain or fight but still get your way because most of them are originally lawyers and MBAs who are used to prevailing at home by manipulation, deception, secret back room deals and rigged procedures. That works less well in the wider world which rests, under a thin veneer of international law, on the dynamic of Hobbesian political violence.

As ISIS has demonstrated, I might add.

The war against Islamic State will go on long after he returns to private life, Gen. Allen predicts. “We can attack Daesh kinetically, we can constrain it financially, we can solve the human suffering associated with the refugees, but as long as the idea of Daesh remains intact, they have yet to be defeated,” he says. The “conflict-termination aspect of the strategy,” as he puts it, is to “delegitimize Daesh, expose it for what it really is.”

This specific campaign, against this specific enemy, he continues, belongs to a larger intellectual, religious and political movement, what he describes as “the rescue of Islam.” He explains that “I understand the challenges that the Arabs face now in trying to deal with Daesh as an entity, as a clear threat to their states and to their people, but also the threat that Daesh is to their faith.”

While Iraqi and Iranian Shia have ample existentiall motive to fight ISIS. Sunni Muslims find ISIS brutality pretty tolerable, so long as it is far away from them personally and furthermore ISIS religious-theological lunacy is not terribly far removed from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi version preached and globally proselytized by our good friends, the House of Saud – or exported violently by our other good friends, the Pakistani Army.  Or at least Sunni Muslims are not bothered enough yet by ISIS to pick up arms and fight.

General Allen is doing his best at a herculean task, but American statecraft is broken and seduced by a political culture vested in magical thinking.

In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’

Friday, December 13th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman] [Warning: Maritime in flavor]

No matter how far humanity may go in seeking to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples. Charles Hill’s, Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, page 48

The lift quote in the title is attributed to Winston Churchill, and in this period of uncertainty with sequestration and deep cuts in defense commanding the attention of military leadership, one thing is becoming crystal clear: we have no cogent or explainable military strategy. Sure, we have “concepts” like Air-Sea/Air-Land Battle, A2/AD, and Off-Shore Control, but our most recent unclassified Navy strategy document A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was written in 2007 may be a bit dated.

This week I attended the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum, Shaping the Maritime Strategy and Navigating the Budget Gap Reality and given the title, there was a lot of talk about funding and in that light/context, strategy was that thing “we’re in the process of doing.” Several people I spoke with expressed concern about “telling the navy’s story,” “why we have a navy,” and one member of Congress encouraged us to build an engaged constituency to put pressure on Congress to knock-off the schizophrenic approach to appropriations, so that a bit of certainty will allow the development of a strategy. Since DoD hasn’t been successfully audited in a long, long time (if ever), I wouldn’t hold out hope for a grass-roots rescue. As Mr. Churchill wisely advises, “now we have to think.”

Strategy Defined

Since strategy is a hot topic, offered here are several definitions ranging from the classic to practitioners and academics, with the goal of framing the elegant simplicity of strategy as a theory, and challenge of defining in reality. As Colin Gray points out in his National Security Dilemmas: “The United States has shown a persisting strategy deficit.” (page 170) Dilemmas, written in 2009 before the budget axe fell in earnest he offers: “One would think that the following definition and explanation must defy even determined efforts of misunderstanding:” (he then quotes Clausewitz)

Strategy is the use of engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide the individual engagements.” (On War, page 177)

The definition of strategy from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02:

strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

Other definitions:

J.C. Wylie, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Strategy, page 14

“A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment” 

Henry E. Eccles, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Concepts and Philosophy page 48:

Strategy is the art of comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas in order to attain objectives. (emphasis in original)

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, page 78

“Tactics may be distinguished from strategy by the criterion proposed by Mahan—the fact of contact. “Tactics” refers to localized hostilities that occur where the adversaries are in contact; “strategy” refers to those basic dispositions in strength which comprise the entire conduct of a war.” 

General André Beaufre, Introduction á la stratégie, 1963, page 16. (note: I don’t read/speak French, I found the quote in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace)

“…the art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.” 

Paul Van Riper, LtGen, USMC, Ret, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 2012

“…strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend.”

From John Boyd’s Strategic Game of ?And?

What is strategy?

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy?

To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation?state) can survive on our own terms. (emphasis added)

Our own Lynn Rees

Politics is the division of strength. Strategy, its tool, squares drive, reach, and grip while striving for a certain division of strength.

Drive falls between too weak and too strong. Reach falls between too short and too far. Grip falls between too loose and too tight.

How strategy squares the three is open ended and ongoing. Outside friction, deliberate or not, always conspires with inside friction, intentional or not, to keep things interesting for strategy.

Drive is the certainty you want. Reach is the certainty you try. Grip is the certainty you get. Grip can be a little sway over certain minds. It can be big hurt carved in flesh and thing. Amid uncertainty, strategy strives for certain grip. The varying gulf between certain want, uncertain try, and not certain getting is the father of strategy.


Paradoxically, complexity is easy to design.  Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, page 25

All of these definitions have merit, and most coalesce around: power, conflicting wills, violence, and control. Lynn recently had a post on “Grip” where he offers a guide to physically grasp strategy (I do admire his imagery). Admiral Eccles also has a similar and complementary list:

A strategic concept is best expressed in explicit statements of

What to control,

What is the purpose of this control,

What is the nature of the control,

What degree of control is necessary,

When the control is to be initiated,

How long the control is to be maintained,

What general method or scheme of control is to be used. (page 48)

Both of these lists are unambiguous. (One of the biggest complaints about Air-Sea Battle and A2/AD is the ambiguity. Sam Tangredi wrote a book on the latter which I’ll review soon.) Bernard Brodie in A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, page 14-15 (emphasis added), reminds us:

There is no need for a complicated terminology. However, to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy and then carry it out. The great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle, but that is only the first requirement of military leadership. He must thoroughly understand tactics, which with modern arms is bound to be exceedingly complex and require long training and experience. He must know how to solve problems of supply or “logistics,” he must know human nature, and he must have certain qualities of character and personality which transcend mere knowledge. He must be able to stick to his course despite a thousand distractions and yet be sufficiently elastic to recognize when a change in circumstances demands a change in plan. He must above all be able to make adjustments to the inevitable shocks and surprises of war.

Unfortunately, the very preoccupation of commanders with specific and inevitably complex problems sometimes tends to make them impatient with the age old verities. Long-tested doctrines which are utterly simple are rejected in part because of their very simplicity, and in part too because of the dogma of innovation so prevalent in our age. The French High Command in the summer of 1940 found out too late that the side which carries the ball makes the touchdowns, and that all the maxims of great military leaders of the past relative to the merits of initiative had not been outmoded by modern arms. We live in an age when basic theories of naval warfare are being rejected out of hand by responsible officials on the wholly unwarranted assumption that they do not fit modern conditions. One can say about theory what Mahan said about materiel: “It is possible to be too quick in discarding as well as too slow in adopting.”

There’s a lot to digest in those two paragraphs, but one take away is that whatever the Navy presents as a strategy should be easy to understand and explain. The strategy should also explain how it plans to maintain control or “command the seas.” And finally, as Wylie reminds the planner:

Wylie’s assumptions in a General Theory of War:

Despite whatever effort to prevent it, there will be war

The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy

We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves

The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun

As we build our strategies and plans, these decidedly old-fashioned and many cases very simple guides can help us get it right.

Concerning four flags and two tees

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a brief meditation on word and image ]

Flags have been in the news quite a bit recently. There were the Marine Corps and Confederate flags carried by the protester outside the White House in the upper panel below:

and the flag some protesting Native American (Lakota?) grandmothers took from the white supremacists who hoped to establish a community of the like-minded in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota — in what one account called an improv “game” of “capture the flag”.

So that’s two protests, right there. But the title of this post suggests it will concern “four flags and two tees” — and thus far I have mentioned three flags. The fourth is the flag worn as a tee-shirt decoration by one of the Grandmothers, and as shown below (upper panel) it is in fact the flag of the American Indian Movement:

while by way of contrast, the tee worn by the confederate-and-marine-flags chap is a logo rather than a flag — it’s a Southern Thread Men’s Special Deluxe Art Tee to be exact. As the ad says:

Alone or under a snap front shirt or a button down, you can show your southern roots or the vintage inspired western look.


My mind is a side-winder, as you know, so all this thinking about flags and logos got me thinking too about the Logos (or Word of God) and his standard.

When the Emperor Constantine, for better or worse, co-opted Christianity or converted to it or both, his battle cry in hoc signo vinces (or in this sign you will conquer in late Barbarian, in case that’s your maternal tongue) raised the chi-rho as the sign, ensign, or battle flag — the logo if you will — of the newly baptised Roman Empire. The chi-rho — ☧ — combining the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, and meaning the Anointed One.


Flags and mottos are consequential things. Which comes first: the image, or the word?

American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980’s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.

“No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu, Part II

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Since the original post of “No one is really listening, they are just pretending,” there are indications that pretending may actually be doing institutional harm.

The US Naval Institue recently sponsored the Joint Warfighting Conference 2012, and my friend Lucien Gauthier (YN2/SW) wrote a very good recap of the event. In his post, Lucien remarked on the comments of retired USMC General James “Hoss” Cartwright. Cartwright’s comments have been described by others around the blogosphere as “unleashed,” and indeed his comments may have raised a few eyebrows. But this sentence of Lucien’s post, while perhaps stating the obvious may reveal one challenge the Navy and DOD face in the credibility and trust department:

“Gen Cartwright had the luxury of no longer being in uniform and so his candor was particularly poignant.”

Now I don’t know General Cartwright, but I know people who do and they report he is a fine officer, and my remarks aren’t about him, but the implications of Lucien’s observation. The suggestion “…the luxury of no longer being in uniform and so his candor…”  struck me, for what is the reverse? “…in uniform, no candor?” If our highest ranking officers wait until they are retired to be candid, what does that say for those remaining in uniform, and what does it say about the environment? Does the environment inspire pretending? How many serving “pretend” daily just to get by, or worse, to get promoted?

A few months ago in a conversation with a young naval officer, one of the brightest I know, I was talking about “to be or to do” and the value of honesty always. The officer remarked, “Well sometimes you have to let the boss think the idea was his…” or something to that effect. I made the point that this is part of the problem: if these leaders are so uptight they need to be handled, then they are part of the problem. Trust can grow only where honesty is ubiquitous.

Recently, the Navy Times published a short query entitled, “Tell us what you think: Faith in Navy Brass?” One of the questions surprised me: “Do you trust the Navy’s leadership and still take them at their word?” If those who responded (be sure to read the comments) are to be believed, the answer is a resounding, “no.” Curiosity piqued, I conducted an informal poll among a small group of naval officers (active duty and retired) asking the same question. The answer: “no.” Since my Navy days, I’ve heard the old saw, “A bitching Sailor is a happy Sailor,” but this seems different.

At least ten commanding officers have been relieved of command eight months into 2012. Two were relieved due to unfavorable command climate surveys, so one could conclude the Navy is listening and taking action in some quarters. The recent decision by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to require breathalyzers of Sailors and Marines reporting for duty introduces evidence of distrust, and his decision is nothing short of institutional micromanagement. At their core, a micromanager does not trust their subordinates.

When the folks on the pointy-end of the spear aren’t trusted, leaders should not be surprised when those folks return the favor. So to leaders, while you may think some of your subordinates agree with you, they may pretending, and are you ok with that? Are you ok with that if you learn you are the cause? Less pretending, more honesty.

Postscript: For more evidence, check out his post at the USNI Blog, The Wisdom of a King. Another fine example of the importance of trust can be found in a September 2012 Proceedings article by LCDR B.J.Armstrong, Leadership & Command (both come highly recommended).

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

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