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The implications of Pakistan and India’s permanent membership of the SCO

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he next Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan in June 2017, when India and Pakistan are likely to become full members of the organization.

Though the memorandum on the obligations for India and Pakistan to hold membership of the SCO was signed at the SCO Tashkent summit in 2016 but the official declaration was made on 14th March 2017 during the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s regular press conference in Beijing. Prior to this, on 13th March, the Secretary-General of the organization Rashid Alimov, also posted on Sina Weibo about the expansion plan of SCO in coming June. Although it is expected that permanent membership of the SCO will help bolster mutual trust and improve relations between Pakistan and India, which in yield would be beneficial for the regional prosperity and development, however, the expansion will also have some serious implications for the existing members and SCO itself which need to be examined.

In the West-dominated world order, the Eurasian bloc has always tried to establish “balance of power” through the expansion of regional organizations and the emergence of SCO was the outcome of one of these attempts. The organization, originally named as Shanghai-Five, is a Eurasian political, economic, and military organization founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. However, after the inclusion of Uzbekistan in 2001, it was renamed to its current name.

The primary objective behind the formation of the Shanghai-Five was to “peacefully resolve the boundary dispute, which existed among China and the five countries and to ensure stability along the borders”. Once the borders were worked out more or less along the agreed upon lines, the member countries started to maneuver along the expansion of the organization in terms of its membership and execution. Currently the goals of the organization are to (i) strengthen relations among member states; (ii) promote cooperation in political affairs, economics, trade, scientific-technical, cultural, and educational spheres as well as in energy, transportation, tourism, and environmental protection; (iv) safeguard regional peace, security, and stability; and (v) create a democratic, equitable international political and economic order.

For Pakistan, the proclamation of the full membership of the SCO has come at the time when the country is already seeking to forge trade links with Central Asian countries. The permanent membership will foster deeper socio-economic connectivity between Pakistan and Central Asia, inviting the business community of both sides to invest in each other’s agriculture, mining, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors. Furthermore, it could open doors for Pakistan’s moribund energy sector to avail cheap power supply schemes from Kyrgyzstan, a country that has significantly ramped up its energy sector as a consequence of the two-decade development of its large hydroelectric power resources. Moreover, the area is plentiful with the natural gas resources, a readiness that could also be savored by Pakistan in future.

SCO expansion and Pakistan’s inclusion in the organization will prove beneficial for these Central Asian members as well. Most of these central Asian countries are landlocked, but they could convert their perceived disadvantage of being landlocked into an asset by constructing a web and network of roads, railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing from East to West and North to South to connect industrial and production hubs with consumer markets. With Pakistan already having Karachi as its major port can act as a “zipper” for the region, allowing these countries to use its ports and territory for such purpose. Furthermore, under the project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan is building Gwadar as the next important port city in the region. The port is located near key oil shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf, thus it will provide closest access to the sea to Central Asian Republics for oil and other imports. The project also targets to construct the network of roads and rail to carry goods from the Persian Gulf to China and Europe through Silk Route. Therefore, there could be a mutual agreement between Pakistan and these Central Asian countries to expand this economic network of rail and road tracks in Central Asia, in order to ensure the smooth transit of goods across these countries and to provide the economic channel for the scientific-technical, educational and cultural exchanges. And what not. With Pakistan’s vast experience in the context, new measures and joint ventures could also be taken for countering violent extremism in the region.

From India’s perspective, SCO membership would open a new opportunity to reconnect with Eurasia after a century of disruption. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the SCO-BRICS Summit 2015 that membership of SCO would be “a natural extension of India’s ties with member countries.”

SCO could offer India with some unique opportunities to get constructively engaged with Eurasia to address shared security concerns, particularly for combating terrorism and containing threats posed by ISIS and the Taliban. India could also benefit from stepping up cooperation, especially by tapping into the existing SCO processes such as the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) that shares key information and intelligence on the movements of terrorists and drug-trafficking. Likewise, participation in the SCO’s counter-terror exercises and annually conducted military drills could benefit Indian armed forces to understand the operational tactics of other militaries which could also instill greater confidence at the regional level.

Importantly, the rapidly growing India is one of the biggest energy-consuming countries in the world. The Central Asian region possesses large resources of oil and natural gas reserves. Therefore, once the SCO membership is under the belt, India would seek the gateway to Central Asia’s humongous energy fields. Moreover, at times when India is seeking for a permanent seat in the United Nations (UN), it is important to strengthen its historical and regional links with the Eurasian countries.

For SCO, roping in India and Pakistan adds fresh vitality, providing greater voice and status to the grouping, which has hitherto remained China-centric previously. After Pakistan and India inclusion, SCO has now become one of the biggest organizations in the world that is a voice of half of the population of the world.

Now let’s consider the other side of the coin as well. Was the accession of membership of both Pakistan and India at the same time coincidental or consequential?

Well, the sources say that Russia traditionally pushed India’s case for full membership. As India’s entry to the SCO in 2017 would lead to even “closer Russian-Indian cooperation”, opening gates for collaboration in civil nuclear energy, partnership in the natural gas, petrochemicals sector and liaison in the space sector. The Russian decision to back India was also supported by Kazakhstan and Tajikistan who have close ties with India. Now China, being the most influential member of the organization, felt being cornered because of the inclusion of India and the growing proximity between India, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Thus, China started supporting Pakistan’s entry into the SCO as a “balancer” against the weight of Russia and its allies-India, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Does this mean that Pakistan and India permanent membership is going to bifurcate the SCO into groups?

Keeping Pakistan and India refractory relations in mind, it does seem like that both the countries will find a new platform to blather banal allegations over each other just like they recently did in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 34th regular session in February 2017. Therefore, the quirky relations between Pakistan and India could shift to the SCO platform. As the hostilities between the two countries have always had a Central Asian dimension. On one hand, India is building its relations with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to import petroleum, natural gas, and uranium from the region. On the other hand, Pakistan is working with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan on the CASA-1000 Project to transmit electricity from Central Asia to South Asia. Moreover, through Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA), Pakistan is setting a deal with Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, China and Kazakhstan to facilitate the transportation of goods and flow of traffic from Central Asia to South Asia and China. Consequently, both countries view Central Asia as a strategic clamp with which to exert pressure on each other from the rear. Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, have also described the entry of India and Pakistan to the organization as “time bomb.”

Alexander Gabuev, head of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region program of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has also impugned the expansion of SCO by saying: “The SCO is changing quantitatively but not qualitatively. Its population, territory, and share of global GDP are increasing, but the main problem is that this regional organization lacks a specific function to deliver something tangible”. He believes that the “New countries are seeking to join not because of the great prospects, but for fear of falling behind the powers of continental Eurasia already inside. That is the main motivation for India and Pakistan to join the SCO as well”

Furthermore, it could also dilute the organization member’s already meager powers. That is precisely the reason that there was news last year that the existing Central Asian members will block the entry of India and Pakistan in the organization. But their approbation to the expansion of the SCO has scotched all the rumors. However, the risk that the inclusion of India and Pakistan will take the spotlight away from Central Asia and other more urgent matters remains. This may also result in the alteration of the initial structure and concept of the organization, after which Central Asia will find it harder to advance its own positions and to cooperate on regional issues.

So, what is to be done now?

India and Pakistan should take a cooperative position in the organization if they want to genuinely exploit opportunities that SCO membership may offer. Both countries should certainly join SCO with a fresh mind without any ambiguity. Also, China and Russia will now have to accept to run a mature role to make sure both Pakistan and India comply with the norms of SCO and do not demur the organization’s original purpose and role. Furthermore, all the existing and new members should work to recast the organization as a more comprehensive regional forum. There is a need to regulate the organization as a vehicle for any kind of substantive regional integration or cooperative problem solving rather than making it an emblematic club of like-minded members who do nothing except talk about how much population, land and global GDP they control.

Maria Amjad has graduated from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore, Pakistan, with a Political Science degree. Her interests include the history and politics of the South Asian region with a particular interest in India-Pakistan relations. The writer can be reached at mariaamjad309[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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