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New Zealand Service in Afghanistan Concludes

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, March 17th, 2021 - 44 comments
Categories: afghanistan, International, uncategorized, war - Tags:

In the beginning New Zealand contributed to the Afghanistan War with noble intent and notable heroism. They built schools, rebuilt parts of towns, did good humanitarian work. This is particularly the case in Bamiyan, where New Zealand led the Provincial Reconstruction Team – our biggest deployment.

New Zealand also deployed the SAS in 2001 and Willie Apiata later won the Victoria Cross for actions in 2004.

But consistently it started turning sour, both for New Zealand’s effort and for the wider campaign.

Both Australian and New Zealand armed forces got pulled into a moral morass of military defence and retaliation. In New Zealand’s case Sir Geoffrey Palmer led the commission of inquiry and former Supreme Court Judge Sir Tom Arnold was highly critical of the NZDF but found that the operation in which there were civilian casualties had been justified under international law. The other casualty was Nicky Hager whose home was raided by the Police. After the damage had been done to our civil liberties he got an apology.

Like the Prime Minister I want to honour the intent and effect of NZDF men and women who sought to make communities in Bamiyan more secure and to put in place elements of an improved future.

Did we do any good? Reports of how well we did in assisting Bamiyan are hard to find and honestly are unlikely to find the light of day now as this NZHerald note attests.

Too often we stumbled.

Every military intervention is hard, gets more complex, and rarely plays well in the media. Ten of our soldiers are dead, and many more wounded. I’ve never been a soldier so I am loathe to criticise our overall effort.

We were a small part of a longstanding United Nations-mandated effort at national reconstruction now coming to rapid conclusion.

And yet here we are 18 years later and it’s time for the results. It’s as bad as it can be.

The great majority of all of this military and reconstruction effort was from the United States military.

More than 2,300 U.S. personnel have lost their lives there; more than 20,000 others have been wounded. The United States government has spent close to $1 trillion on the war.

At least half a million Afghans – government forces, Taliban fighters and civilians – have been killed or wounded. Just a few Afghanis have found their way to New Zealand and settled as refugees.

The United States-led military effort has been unable to end the violence or hand off the war to the Afghan authorities. There’s no bargaining power left for the United States as Afghanistan is left to itself once more.

I’m not going to do a counterfactual of any kind about what kind of United States-led intervention or U.N.-led institutional effort might have been better. Too easy.

But here’s the bookends: after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, Washington forcibly removed the Taliban from power. 17 years later, President Donald Trump signed a peace agreement with the Taliban. However the muteness of that agreement on the future of power sharing, rule of law, and women’s rights have left a forecast of chaos at least as enduring as that formed through war.

That’s an exceedingly poor result for that amount of cost of time, money, and effort.

Many of Afghanistan’s remaining educated people continue to leave, as they did once the Soviets left many decades ago. The country has still not found peace. People have lost faith in institutions, tend only to trust people from their own tribe, and tend not to trust offers of international assistance.

Even after 18 years of what was by the end fairly small New Zealand service, I’m too depressed writing this to even come to any conclusions.

44 comments on “New Zealand Service in Afghanistan Concludes ”

  1. Tiger Mountain 1

    New Zealand should not participate in Imperialist wars, invasions or occupations, or clean ups of such activity–unless the country concerned credibly, and actively invites our presence, and it is genuine peace keeping and assistance rather than making up the numbers and PR for 5 Eyes or the USA Military.

    In New Zealand the Afghan conflict affected our local politics–the rough and tumble between Labour and the Alliance party, and internal struggles of the latter. This was a shame as the Alliance largely was responsible for Paid Parental Leave and Kiwibank. Afghanistan was only a trigger for already existing differences, but it sure exposed the lefts inability to balance international solidarity with local tactics, and Jim Anderton’s anti communism surfaced again!

    But the obvious losers are the people–women and children in particular–of Afghanistan. Another failed state and miserable lives for millions.

  2. Adrian Thornton 2

    @Tiger Mountain +1 " New Zealand should not participate in Imperialist wars, invasions or occupations, or clean ups of such activity–unless the country concerned credibly, and actively invites our presence"

    Enough said.

  3. Adrian Thornton 3

    Meanwhile in the USA and their endless wars re; Afghanistan…

    If you have a NYT sub..

    U.S. Has 1,000 More Troops in Afghanistan Than It Disclosed

    Or if like me you don't…

  4. mickysavage 4

    Seriously good piece of writing Ad. You managed to capture a long piece of history very elegantly.

  5. RP Mcmurphy 5

    so why was the US there in the first place? 1. Afghanistan had become a narco state and flooding the world with heroin. 2. The taliban were not as wise as their name implied. trying to wrap all this up in verbiage is not serving any purpose. The fact of th ematter is that the US is able to drone strike any combination of forces there now and will continue to do so.

  6. Gosman 6

    Couple of things in the plus column

    – Afghanistan has had nearly 20 years without the brutal and backward Taliban running the majority of the country. As a result a generation has grown up which has seen a better way of doing things.

    – Afghan territory has not been used as a safe haven for Islamic terror groups to plan and train for attacks against Western civilian and military targets.

    Both of these outweigh most of the negatives. Perhaps it could have been done in a different manner but I'd like to know what anyone would have done differently if you were in charge.

    • Adrian Thornton 6.1

      " Afghanistan has had nearly 20 years without the brutal and backward Taliban running the majority of the country"…and how exactly how do you think the Taliban came to run the country with it's brutal repression of the population?

      US intervention of course….

      " The mujahideen were eventually able to neutralize Soviet air power through the use of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles supplied by the Soviet Union’s Cold War adversary, the United States."

      " The quality of their arms and combat organization gradually improved, however, owing to experience and to the large quantity of arms and other war matériel shipped to the rebels, via Pakistan, by the United States "


      Did you forget that important part of the timeline?

      You like Rambo… seem to forget lessons history taught to you only yesterday..

      • Pierre 6.1.1

        I still maintain that the Afghan communists did more to develop the country and advance civil liberties in 14 years of socialist construction than the following 29 years of Taliban/NATO occupation. There was already a generation which saw a better way of doing things, they built for themselves a secular and democratic republic. But even now the state backed by the western powers is the 'Islamic Republic of Afghanistan'. I see no progress there.

        • Gosman

          Yeah that's why the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 because the Afghan Communists were doing such a bang up job /sarc

      • Gosman 6.1.2

        Incorrect. The US did not fund the Taliban. They funded and supplied the Mujahideen some of who went on and worked with the Taliban. However the Taliban itself was a creation of the Pakistani intelligence services totally separate from any significant US involvement.

        • Adrian Thornton

          No you are wrong and just quibbling over semantics, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan was a direct result of US intervention on behalf of the Mujahideen,

          That the Pakistani intelligence services had or didn't have any hand in the rise of the Taliban is not the issue…the known facts, the Taliban is a splinter group built off the back of the successful US back Mujahideen,

          "The group was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerilla fighters, who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) with the covert backing of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). They were joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas, or seminaries; taliban is Pashto for “students.” Pashtuns comprise a plurality in Afghanistan and are the predominant ethnic group in much of the country’s south and east. They are also a major ethnic group in Pakistan’s north and west."


          What part of these facts are incorrect?



          • Gosman

            The Taliban was formed to fight the various other factions that made up the mujahideen. The US lost interest in Afghanistan post the collapse of the Soviet backed regime in the mid 1990's. That was one of the reasons the country fell in to a prolonged civil war.

  7. Gosman 7

    What the conflict in Afghanistan does highlight is the lie of many anti-War people who argued that the US (and by extension the West) was only involved (or even mainly involved) in the country because of some grand plan to build a pipeline from Central Asia through to the sea. Like the lie that the invasion of Iraq was all about the oil this has been shown to be nonsense.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 7.1

      Like the lie that the invasion of Iraq was all about the oil…

      What was the invasion of Iraq all about then Gosman – keeping us safe from WoMDs, or was that another lie which has been shown to be nonsense?

      2003 invasion of Iraq
      The invasion of Iraq was strongly opposed by some long-standing U.S. allies, including the governments of France, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand. Their leaders argued that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that invading that country was not justified in the context of UNMOVIC's 12 February 2003 report.

      Blix also said that America’s pre-emptive, unilateral actions “have bred more terrorism there and elsewhere“. He accused President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of acting not in bad faith, but with a severe lack of critical thinking.

      • Stuart Munro 7.1.1

        What was the invasion of Iraq all about

        Iraq had been on the US radar for quite some time, and oil was a consideration.

        But for W, it was personal.

        So, oil and spite, on top of policy wonks arguing for it for decades.

      • Gosman 7.1.2

        It was about the geopolitical state of the Middle East. An Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein was incredibly destabilizing for the region. Removing him allowed the opportunity to create a counterweight to Iran AND Saudi Arabia. The US fluffed that chance though in the immediate aftermath of Saddams ouster. The country is eventually coming right though.

        • Drowsy M. Kram

          An Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein was incredibly destabilizing for the region.

          And which countries supported/armed the Hussein regime – what was that all about? The whole miserable history of foreign ‘powers’ trying to control the geopolitics of the Middle East stinks, imho.

          • Gosman

            Saddam Hussein mainly got the arms for his armed forces from the Soviet bloc pre-1991.

            • Drowsy M. Kram

              Saddam Hussein mainly got the arms for his armed forces from the Soviet bloc pre-1991.

              Mainly, not exclusively.

              US and British Support for Hussein Regime

              US intelligence helped Saddam's Ba`ath Party seize power for the first time in 1963. Evidence suggests that Saddam was on the CIA payroll as early as 1959, when he participated in a failed assassination attempt against Iraqi strongman Abd al-Karim Qassem. In the 1980s, the US and Britain backed Saddam in the war against Iran, giving Iraq arms, money, satellite intelligence, and even chemical & bio-weapon precursors. As many as 90 US military advisors supported Iraqi forces and helped pick targets for Iraqi air and missile attacks.

        • RedLogix

          Yes that nails it Gosman.

          The critical players in the ME are Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi.

          Iran is a very old culture built from a polyglot collection of hundreds of small mountain valley settlements. Virtually the entire nation, bar the deserts to the east, is one giant mountainous plateau, which has made Persia a very difficult place to invade. The microclimates in these valleys have sufficient rainfall to sustain agriculture, commerce and an economy. Over time they've learned to aggregate these otherwise isolated sub-cultures into a Persian identity.

          With their own language, culture and identity, plus the ability to feed and defend themselves, the Iranian's are not going away. Their leadership harbours the dream of reviving the Persian empires of old, but they currently lack the resources to reach out past their territory with much clout.

          Turkey is another seriously mountainous plateau nation, but enjoys a highly fertile, high rainfall region called the Marmara which again provides a secure agricultural base. Since their defeat in WW1 the Turks have avoided much in the way of international entanglements – but under Erdogan this is changing as their recent ventures into both Syria and Libya attest. They have options to expand north into the Balkans, west into conflict with a weakened Greece, eastward into Armenia, Azer. or Georgia (already a very unstable region), or south into Syria if the current Abbas regime falters.

          North and east bring them into conflict again with Russia and they may not feel this is wise at present. West with Greece provokes the entire EU and NATO. South into Syria and Iraq are in my view the likely options when the Americans finally lose interest in the region.

          Everyone senior in the geopolitical world understands that the Saudi regime is a psychopathic regime of uber-violent crazies. People only tolerate them because of the Hajj and oil. Moreover the Arabic Saudis absolutely loath the Iranians – it's an ancient blood feud that has nothing to do with the West. The only thing really defending them is many hundreds of kms of some of the most hostile desert in the world – and Iraq. It's very much in the Saudi interests to ensure Iraq remains destabilised and not fall under the control of the Iranians. The Turks they might tolerate.

          Iraq itself is a geopolitical basket case – it's agricultural base is constrained to a narrow strip of land between the Euphrates and the Tigris which is wonderfully productive, but extremely exposed and impossible to defend. Culturally there are major divisions between sectarian factions that have seethed for centuries.

          Now play in the fact of the US becoming rapidly less invested in the region because shale oil means they're no longer dependent directly on ME oil. But then factor in that both Europe and especially China are still heavily dependent on it.

          Historically the ME has always been one of the three most volatile regions of the world, and understanding the map, the terrain, the agriculture, the cultures and the history is a deeply complex stew of competing interests. I've not even scratched the surface above. How all of this plays out in the next decade is impossible to predict, but if I had to put money on it – I'd have Saudi and Iran extending their proxy war in Yemen, both of them acting to de-stabilise Iraq, and Turkey responding by moving south to 'intervene'.

          Afghanistan in the meantime will remain the geopolitical arse of the universe. As it pretty much always has been. (No offense given to the people, who have suffered much.)

          • Adrian Thornton

            Not exactly sure where you get this notion from?….
            " Now play in the fact of the US becoming rapidly less invested in the region because shale oil means they're no longer dependent directly on ME oil. But then factor in that both Europe and especially China are still heavily dependent on it "…I don't think the people running the US military industrial complex have got that memo.

            A Mutual Extortion Racket: The Military Industrial Complex and US Foreign Policy – The Cases of Saudi Arabia & UAE
            These mutually-beneficial relationships have contributed to a vicious cycle of conflict and human rights abuses across the Middle East and North Africa, including increased exports of arms and defence services to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which began under the Obama administration and have ramped up under President Trump."

            The Times describes the CIA program as “one of the most expensive efforts to arm and train rebels since the agency’s program arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.”

            It seemed for a while that Trumps instincts were to withdraw from the ME, that is until until he actually came face to face with the US war machine (with, unfortunately, strong pro war support from the US liberal media)… seriously can you imagine another sitting POTUS coming out with this pearl..
            U.S. military leadership want more war to keep defense contractors "happy": Trump

            Could add plenty to that list, but got to go…

            • RedLogix

              Arms industries everywhere will continue to line up to do business with the hyper-wealthy Saudis and UAE – that's very unlikely to change. If it's not the US or the EU, the Russians and Chinese would rush to fill the vacuum.

              But in terms of the US having an appetite for another Iraq war – forgeddaboudit.

              • Adrian Thornton

                " But in terms of the US having an appetite for another Iraq war – forgeddaboudit"…I am not so sure about that, exactly who in the halls of power with actual power to wield in the US (on both sides) has not been (if they were from any other country in the world) an extremist in their foreign policy actions and/or views at some recent time in their career?

                And let us not forget, one of the internal braking systems when it comes slowing down and even stopping (once) US led foreign interventions/wars (since the late 1960's anyway) the US Liberal media, has forsaken this role and has now become bloodthirsty as any right wing media I can think of.

                None of that sounds like a successful recipe to satisfy the apparent insatiable hunger for endless conflict that has been a hallmark of the American Empire…though I would sorely love to be proved wrong on this.

    • McFlock 7.2

      Dunno about "all about" the oil.

      I tend to view US policy as an extreme example of political chaos: innumerable competing, conflicting, and contradictory interests (some internal to the decision-making community, some from non-governmental lobbyists) pushing the ship of state in different directions, with the net force direction hopefully propelling the ship in that direction without crushing the hull.

      Was oil a factor in consideration for either war? Probably. Was it an argument against? Probably nope.

      I think this article overstates the importance of oil as a final policy factor for Iraq, but it certainly outlines it as a positive factor in several elements of the policy-making milieu. Afghanistan? Maybe not so much, but a pipeline could well have been on the table as a secondary US policy objective.

      • Gosman 7.2.1

        The pipeline was never a serious contender for a major factor in the Afghan war. Perhaps if there was zero conflict it may have come up. That was always highly improbable though.

        • McFlock

          The question is whether it would have moved a decision camp from "don't care/ doesn't affect us" to "not too bothered, but it could have a happy consequence for us if it pans out really well".

          So the desire to break down the transport costs on Caspian oil would have been a weak positive for energy advocates, while the geopolitical factor of cutting Russia's monopoly on access to that resource would similarly be a positive for the geopolitical chess players (who might have otherwise thought that an occupation of the graveyard of empires was a risk with an unacceptable penalty for failure).

          The additional support for a land grab wouldn't have been a deciding factor by itself, but would have helped the invasion lobby vs the folks who wanted to bounce rubble and flocks with JDAMS and tomahawks, as well as vs the folks who viewed "The Taliban" as less of an homogeneous bloc and more as a loose cluster of diverse factions, many of whom could be dealt with in order to get the desired anti-AQ outcomes (some State Dept and CIA factions).

  8. Sabine 8

    Afghanistan has been at war/conflict/military conflict/skirmishes/….. since 1979 and it itself has never attacked/invaded someone.

    We should have never gone there.

    • Gosman 8.1

      The Taliban should never have provided a safe have for Al Qaida but it did. Al Qaida does not have a safe haven there any more.

  9. In Vino 9

    Coming in a bit late, For Heaven's sake..

    I am old enough to have thought when the USA went into Afghanistan, "Oh no, you idiots are doing a Vietnam all over again."

    Many USA and allied propagandists insisted,"Oh no, this is nothing like Vietnam, there are no parallels at all!"

    Huh. I now gather that the USA is withdrawing in a 'Peace with Honour' agreement, whereby the war will be Afghanistanised by the withdrawal of US troops, and good supplies of arms to the current government there.

    No parallels at all, huh? Anyone have a stopwatch to press 'start' on now to see whether it takes a longer or shorter time for the Taliban to take over all Afghanistan than it took for the Vietcong/NVA to take over all of Vietnam?

    Sorry AD – you wrote well, but I think NZ has repeated the same dumb but understandable mistake that we and the USA made in Vietnam. I doubt if drones will make all that much difference in Afghanistan: without US troops on the ground, the Taliban will take over.

    Wait 20 years – I think historians will be looking at both ventures in the same light. And I don't think that the Taliban will turn out to be any worse than those wicked Commies who took over Vietnam..

    • McFlock 9.1

      Some "Taliban" groups are as bad as the collective reputation.

      Others are just local leaders who went with the flow and dislike invaders more than they dislike the semi-local nutbars.

      Then there's the economics of irregular warfare: taxes on local industries like drugs or lapis lazul, and tacit assistance for various factions from neighbouring nations and anyone else with an interest.

      Oh, and the isolated settlements who just want everyone else to fuck right off.

      It's not Vietnam.

      It's Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia combined.

      • RedLogix 9.1.1

        Afghanistan is another seriously mountainous country that relies on snowfall in the high peaks, and meltwater feeding river based irrigation. There is sod all rainfall. As a result their agriculture is highly fragmented, localised and constrained. Climate change is definitely reducing the snowfall.

        And this is before we take into account the conflicts arising with Pakistan and Iran over damning of rivers that will likely escalate over time.

        One of the characteristics of all societies dominated by large mountain ranges is that the people live in scattered, isolated valleys and tend to be highly independent minded. Trade has to carry the overhead of high transport and infrastructure costs and as a result communities are more self-reliant, less specialised and always less productive. Outsiders are only tolerated on a narrow basis of some specific trade needs that are absent locally. Socially they're often conservative bordering on backward. Warlordism is the rule not the exception.

        Afghanistan ticks all these boxes with the biggest, fattest highlighter pen. This is a nation that was always going to struggle to achieve anything like modernity – except perhaps among the middle class of a few larger cities. The rural hinterland – simply lacks the geography and resources to develop. At least with our current technologies.

        The modern fad for making everything political leads us into traps all the time, it causes us to overlook all the other factors which feed into the narrative of a nation or region.

        • McFlock

          True, to a degree, but it's not a futile area. There are some really interesting photos of Afghanistan from the seventies.

          Without invaders, it was in the process of modernisation from the urban hubs out.

          But both invaders largely viewed the local warlords and leadership as an homogeneous enemy, rather than pulling an Anabasis and negotiating with each, equally.

          Oh, and the yanks build shit roads, which never helps an empire.

        • Adrian Thornton

          " This is a nation that was always going to struggle to achieve anything like modernity" you say that like it is a bad thing, has it ever occurred to you that maybe the people who live in those isolated valleys might be quite satisfied with their lives and like the way they live?

          I don't want to be rude here, and apologize in advance, but fuck you really sound like a arrogant white guy in an armchair in some of your comments.

          • RedLogix

            I'm quite certain the local warlords are happy with their lives. And yes it's an amazingly beautiful country to visit – I'd jump at the chance.

            But hands up who would 'happily' choose to live in some isolated valley deep in the Hindu Kush? It might look kind of 'noble savage romantic' – until the day came when you really needed something.

            But as usual when everything gets politicised, you missed the point. Set aside the people and politics, there are deeper underlying reasons why turning Afghanistan into something modern faced a bitter uphill slog – and it's because long-term realities like geography, rivers, rainfall, agriculture and transport have more power in determining the fate of nations than we’re accustomed to thinking about.

            And like everyone else before them, the US charged into the place idiotically oblivious to these realities, and like everyone else before them, came away disillusioned.

            • Adrian Thornton

              @Redlocix, come on, seriously? ..

              "But hands up who would 'happily' choose to live in some isolated valley deep in the Hindu Kush? It might look kind of 'noble savage romantic' – until the day came when you really needed something."

              You and I might not want to live there, by we aren't Afghans families who have been living there for centuries, and what makes you think they want to live like you?

              What I can't get my head around is why on earth would you think what it takes to make people from other countries and cultures satisfied and/or happy with their lives in their own country and environment has to be the same as what it takes to make you happy and satisfied with your (or anyone else's) life in middle NZ?

              "there are deeper underlying reasons why turning Afghanistan into something modern faced a bitter uphill slog"…I must be missing the point because I am not sure exactly who is it that has the right to turn any country that is not their own, in to anything if not invited to do so? did I miss the bit where the west was invited into Afghanistan?…maybe if we all just left them alone and stop invading their county all the time they could do what ever it is that would naturally occur in their own country, thought their own volition and in their own time…how does that sound?

              • RedLogix

                Working in multiple developing nations probably changed my perspective here; wherever I went I saw people are taking every possible opportunity – where it exists – to move on from the old modes of life you seem to think they should be uniformly 'happy with' You really should ask them before assuming how they want to live.

                And in a stroke of remarkable timing Caspian Report has just uploaded this. Modernity may catch up with Afghanistan after all:

                • Adrian Thornton

                  I don't the first hand experiences working or living in developing counties that you obviously have had, however I have taken a keen interest in how countries are 'developed' and 'modernized' for many years from afar, though reading and listening and talking to others that have been involved in these matters.

                  I found Manfred Max-Neef's economic theories in the end to be some of the most enlightened, he developed his economic theory 'Bare Foot Economics' after the ten years he spent working in extreme poverty in the Sierras, jungles and urban areas of different parts of Latin America…I sure you probably know all this already…

  10. Adrian Thornton 10

    Isn't it interesting that in any western discussion about the US war in Afghanistan, when it comes to putting numbers on the killed and wounded, it is always the numbers of Afghans killed and wounded in their own country that is mentioned last…. this is what is commonly known as systemic racism, which of course we all suffer from, and why wouldn't we?..all the media we consume reinforces this way of thinking so often and it is done without the slightest second thought (they wouldn't even realize they are doing it themselves) into our subconscious that we end up not even realizing we are doing it ourselves.

    Probably just another little reason why we shouldn't have ever been in Afghanistan.

  11. Morrissey 11

    New Zealand's participation in the destruction of Afghanistan was far worse than the "folly" that politicians admit it was. It was a crime. Instead of being bullied and inveigled by Bush and Blair and their henchmen, Helen Clark should have listened to Afghani women like the wonderful Malalai Joya….

    • Gosman 11.1

      The destruction of Afghanistan??? Are you not aware of the state of Afghanistan back in 2001? The country is in a far better shape today than it was back then.

      • Adrian Thornton 11.1.1

        @Gosman, I forgot what a ghoul you are, lets not comment to each other in the future, thanks.

      • Tiger Mountain 11.1.2

        Gosman drops another floater in the pool.

        You will be up for some sort of award with the unstinting support for US Imperialism.

  12. Siobhan 12

    Who else feels the sudden urge to go make a batch of Afghan Biscuits and have a quiet, slightly depressed, undoubtedly cynical, giggle to themselves..

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