India and France partnership is an unexpected coincidence in the Indian Ocean Region. A former imperial power and an emerging nation hardly have converging interests, more so when it comes to maritime sphere. But India and France share a common trait of civilizational exceptionalism as both nations have exercised fairly independent foreign policy amidst a divided world. India is known to have a non aligned status in international politics while France has defied US decree numerous times despite being a security ally. In fact after the end of Cold War France was of the view that United States has turned into a hyper power. French discomfort with the unipolar system led it to embrace virtues of multipolarity after the end of Cold War. India too embraced multipolarity as the norm in its conduct of International relations. With shifting geopolitical priorities from Atlantic to Asia Pacific, France decided on India as a preferred partner in the Indian Ocean. It was one of the first countries to sign ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreement with India in 1998 during President Jacques Chirac’s visit to India. Even before India’s nuclear test in 1998, France was opposed to India’s exclusion from global nuclear order and demanded rectification of the order. After the nuclear tests France showed a greater understanding towards India’s security compulsions and embarked on resumption of strategic dialogues. The dialogues that began in 1998 has grown over years in field of nuclear, space, defence, cyber security, intelligence sharing and counter terrorism operations. Bilateral military exercises between the two countries started with naval exercise Varuna in 2001, followed by air forces in 2004 and armies in 2011. These exercises have become a regular affair since then.
Space cooperation is one of the earliest domains India and France have worked upon. The launch facility at Sriharikota was set up by French assistance. The Centaur and Viking rocket technologies were also shared to Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in the 1970s but Cold war constraints prevented further cooperation. Times changed after 1990s when CNES, French space agency and ISRO collaborated on Megha- Tropiques initiatives, a satellite mission for climate studies. Since the Strategic Agreement of 1998 India and France have worked on joint missions in space for meteorology, climate change and oceanography. In 2018 France and India concluded the Joint Vision for Space Cooperation.
In nuclear field France came to India’s rescue in times of crises. After the US cut off the nuclear supplies for Tarapur in 1984 due to domestic reasons, France became the fuel supplier. After the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver in 2008, India and France signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement which provided the framework for French Extended producer responsibility reactors in India. An agreement was also signed between India and France for building six EPR nuclear reactors with total capacity of 9.6 GW at Jaitapur.
French Aircrafts have been part of Indian air fleet since the 1960s. In defence sector an agreement to build six Scorpene submarines in India with French assistance was signed in 2005. Short range missiles and radar equipments were also acquired subsequently. The Rafale Agreement also helped deepening ties between private defence sectors in both countries. Regular exercises between defense services have led to agreements on logistics support and intelligence sharing. In keeping up with this vision, India and France came up with Joint Strategic Vision for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region in 2018.
There has been a recent convergence of maritime interests of India and France. Like India, France has been worried about China’s overtures in the Indian Ocean Region. With the advent of concept of Indo Pacific it became clear that interests of India and France lie in the cooperation. Fortunately both countries almost share the geographical concept of Indo Pacific i.e. from eastern coast of Africa to western coasts of America. French overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Ocean provide it with second largest exclusive economic zone in the world. It has long maintained bases in Reunion islands and Djibouti and established another in Abu Dhabi in 2009. With economic and security dimensions at stake France has adopted for an aggressive response as stated in Joint Strategic Vision of 2018.
French Interests in the Indo Pacific
France has claimed to be a legitimate actor belonging to Indian Ocean Rim and Indo Pacific. Historically it has maintained a presence in the region either due to colonial possessions or to counter Soviet Russia’s expansion. It has always emphasized that it is not an outside rather a resident power in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. France’s presence in the region in the 21st century is also testament of the fact that it wants to become a middle power with global outreach. A middle power is a sovereign state that is not a great power but wields a large influence and international recognition. In a tussle of world domination between US and China, France is trying to leverage its position and offers an alternative arrangement to other middle powers of the region as its commitment to multipolarity. The vast distance of metropolitan France from western shores of Indian Ocean makes it impossible for France to secure the region unilaterally therefore it has been in search of multilateral alliances. Its commitments include respect of the international law, rule based order, open sea lanes of communication, combating piracy and terrorism etc.
France has also developed strong relations with many littoral nations of Indian Ocean to strengthen security of the region. Paris has established intense economic and defence relations with Gulf countries like UAE and Qatar and also with some Southeast Asian states like Singapore. It built strategic relations with China, India and Japan but eventually drifted away from China due to its aggressive policies in the Indian Ocean. Paris has acknowledged India’s growing naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean and has found convergence of interests in its growth.
France has traditionally been focused on the Western side of Indian Ocean. It has recently formed an interest on the Eastern front as part of larger engagement with Asia. Indian Ocean provides two avenues of military interest for France. One is in the Southwest Indian Ocean and other in the Arabo- Persian Gulf. In the Southwest Indian Ocean France has sovereignty over its two overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte which together constitute a population of 1 million citizens. The French Southern and Antarctic territories are large maritime expanses of economic, strategic and scientific significance. Together they form an area of 2.6 million square kilometers and require maintenance of 1900 troops in the islands of Reunion and Mayotte. However these bases have to face some non-traditional security issues like illegal fishing, illegal migration and southward extension of Somali pirates. To overcome these challenges France has promoted maritime cooperation with other states of the region like Madagascar, Seychelles and big stakeholders like South Africa and Mozambique.
The second area of relevance for French military is Northwest Indian Ocean. With two major inter services bases in Abu Dhabi and Djibouti; France maintains a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. The presence of these two bases serves three major strategic objectives for the France:
- To maintain stability in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa. A conflict ridden area but at the same time crucial for global security.
- To maintain an operational capability near the important choke points: Straits of Hormuz and Bab-el- Mandeb and sea lines of communication along the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea. These points are crucial for global energy imports and trade.
- To act as a platform to project force in the greater Indian Ocean Region, with Abu Dhabi serving as French Indian Ocean Regional Command.
In Eastern Indian Ocean, France has eagerly enhanced its focus realizing increasingly clout of Asia and realizing its responsibility as a permanent member of UN Security Council. The 2008 French white paper on Defence and National security argued that France must move away from its traditional preoccupation with West Africa toward the Middle East and Indian Ocean and from there to East Asia. In a strategy document of 2009 French Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared that France has presence in every ocean and extensive marine areas under their jurisdiction. He also talked about returning France to its historic maritime role. In its 2013 White Paper France identified the rise of China as affecting the established “equilibrium of East Asia” The paper also talked about securing Indian Ocean as an European access point to Asia. With China’s neighbours looking to arm themselves against China’s assertiveness France offered them a helping hand and an opportunity to expand its naval arms to the region. The 2013 white paper also reemphasized France’s role in the Indian Ocean reinforced by the development of privileged relations with India. As a committed player in security of the region the paper stated “For our country, the stability of Asia and freedom of navigation are diplomatic and economic priorities. Alongside its allies, France would, in the event of an open crisis, make a political and military contribution at the appropriate level.” However this cannot be ignored that France has limited operational capabilities in the Eastern Ocean and East of Malacca. Thus France has depended on defence and security cooperation with various states in the region. It has also strengthened its links with Southeast Asia by signing strategic partnership with Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
With regards to the Pacific Ocean, France also has significant islands and associated EEZs, ‘archipelago of power’ which require substantial permanent military forces. French possessions in Pacific are New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and uninhabited Clipperton Island. New Caledonia hold 20-25 percent of World’s nickel reserves therefore it is strategically important for France. Most of the South east Pacific is occupied by French Polynesia with a population of around 272,000. This includes 118 islands such as Tahiti; with an enormous EEZ of 4767,242 square km.
As for established regional structures in the Indian Ocean, France is the founding member of the Indian Ocean Commission established in 1982. It brings together Reunion islands with other independent island states of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles. France is also founding member of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) established in 2008 and seeks to get full membership of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). As for regional structures in Pacific, France is the founding member of South Pacific Commission, established in 1947. France has also been member of Western Pacific Naval Symposium from 1998 onwards.
Indian Imperatives of the Indo Pacific
Being the resident power and as a nation which considers Indian Ocean as its backyard Indo Pacific was a great opportunity to further its maritime interests. However the concept was propagated by US in the wake of China’s rise, the acceptance of Indo Pacific in Indian strategy has been there for a long time. In 2004, Indian Maritime Doctrine alluded to “the shift in global maritime focus from the Atlantic- Pacific to Pacific-Indian”. Therefore beyond the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific has been identified as falling within the ambit of India’s security interests. India considers the geographical expanse of Indo Pacific as through the east coast of Africa to the island nations in the Pacific Ocean. However with the rise of China and advent of ‘Strings of Pearls’ strategy India’s embrace of the Indo Pacific has been much more potent. India’s approach to Indo Pacific is exemplified by its evolving Look east Policy and ASEAN centrality. At The Shangri-la Dialogue of 2018 Indian Prime Minister shared major policy perspective of India on Indo Pacific. He focused on inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality in the concept of Indo Pacific. Security in the region must be maintained through dialogue, a common rules-based order, freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. India supports a rules-based, balanced, and stable trade environment in the Indo- Pacific region. Further India has been an active participant in mechanism like Indian Ocean Rim Association, ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium etc. Further through Forum for India- Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) India is moving towards engaging Pacific Island countries. Economic imperatives have been at forefront of India’s Indo Pacific Strategy. In security front it has entertained the concept of QUAD- a grouping of US, India, Australia and Japan but it has officially not come into fruition. India has embarked into security and logistics agreement with France that would allow it to access military bases in Djibouti, UAE and French Reunion Island.
India has been interested in building a naval facility in Seychelles’ Assumption Island and entered into a bilateral agreement for the same in 2018, but the plan has faced some local resistance due to militarization fears. India’s efforts have been praiseworthy but they do lack a solid security component against China due to weakness of India’s defence forces and inability to project power in the oceans.
Indian Naval shortcomings
Indian Navy has aspired to become a 200 ship fleet since 2012 when it articulated its ambitions for the 15 year period. It was in congruence with India’s plan of being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. With the navy’s doctrine and mission statement it felt like although ambitious the blueprint of future blue water navy was ready. The Defence ministries agreed on the plan albeit not commiting funds to it and deciding it on case to case basis from necessity to acquisitions on its own merits. Eventually the plan floundered and has been unachievable with successive governments failing to provide the means. Although India continues to be active in Indian Ocean Region it spends far less than its peers and competitors. Figures from 2017-18 indicate that India spends only 15 percent of its total military expenditure on its navy, far lower than its peers in the Quad. The United States leads the pack, spending nearly 30 percent of its military expenditure on its navy, while Australia and Japan spend nearly 25 percent and 23 percent respectively. Official numbers from China are hard to obtain, but reports indicate that China spends nearly three times as much as India on its military overall. The lack of expenditure on India’s part has come at a time when navy has recognized the need to increase its capabilities. While India already has one commissioned carrier INS Vikramaditya and plans to commission a second, the INS Vikrant which has already faced delays and cost overruns. However when compared to India’s actual expenditure on its navy, the ambitions are not matched by its spending. During 2017-18 Indian navy asked for $5.2 billion for its expenditure but was allocated only $2.9 billion. This under allocation meant that Navy would be able to achieve just its operational cost leaving no money for acquisitions or further modernization. As a result delay in building aircraft carriers like Vikrant or Arihant submarines which makes India unable to deter China in the Indo Pacific.
The lack of funds is also reflected in India’s underutilization of strategically located Andaman and Nicobar islands. While India has built a tri service theatre command on the island to secure its interests in the Straits of Malacca, it continues to place limited assets on the islands and have used them only for logistics support. It is used as a logistics facility for planning and coordination for navy’s deployment in East and Southeast Asia. India lacks in understanding that Andaman and Nicobar could be used as a true command to deepen collaboration and cohesion between India’s three military services. It possibly hinders on India’s plan to acquire P-8 platform as well as potential acquisition of Sea Guardian.
With the recent reduction in Navy’s budget, procurement and modernization have been hit hard. The effect of this announcement is also felt in Indo Pacific region where questions will be asked about Indian Navy’s ability to act as an important player. The self mandated regional role taken by Navy would not be backed by economic strength. India’s regional diplomacy has revolved around capacity building of Indian Ocean littoral states. This has included transfer of hardware at no costs, training, maintenance and imparting maritime domain awareness. With paucity of funds and Indian navy unable to achieve its capability goals, its ability to support its maritime neighbours will be hindered significantly. In such a scenario it is quite likely that India is under danger of ceding maritime space to China and loses a measure of conventional maritime advantage against its traditional rival Pakistan. Until and unless India ties up with a major power in Indian Ocean it would be unable to deter China on its own naval capabilities.
According to Kanwal Sibal, India may have a major interest in Western Pacific; it should be underlined by the fact that it is an Indian Ocean power with enormous responsibilities to safeguard its coastlines, island territories, off shore economic assets and its EEZs. This has also bogged down India’s ambitious targets for the Indo Pacific. The two vital choke points in Indian Ocean region: Strait of Hormuz and Malacca are of operational significance for Indian navy as they hold the key for international energy and trade routes. Besides India had experience of sea borne terrorists’ threats which requires its coast guards and Navy to be always ready to address the situation. Piracy has also become a serious threat for commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean. Merchant vessels of many countries pass through Indian Ocean with Indian seafarers in them. Protection and rescue of these sea men in piracy infested waters is also one of the tasks of Indian Navy. Therefore Indian navy has been unable to maximize its efforts towards becoming blue water navy. Unfortunately there are no easy answers for the Indian Navy. Its need for the fleet of future is as real as lack of resources to attain it. There are not many options in present scenario. Either Navy has reassess its vision to match its capabilities and Indian Maritime Doctrine or it can actively take support of keen nations like France to overcome some of the shortcomings it faces in Indian Ocean Region.
Avenues of Cooperation
In October 2019 French President Emanuel Macron announced three pronged security partnership with India in Southern Indian Ocean against the backdrop of China’s assertiveness in the region. Macron stated that India and France were sharing the analysis of joint maritime security in the Southern Indian Ocean, working on joint surveillance of the region and a possible deployment of Indian navy maritime patrol vessel in Reunion islands. In early 2020 France and India held a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean. First of its kind the two navies conducted joint patrols from Reunion Islands, the French naval base in the Indian Ocean. India has so far conducted Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) only with its neighbours. The United States had made an offer for CORPAT exercise but India rejected it. It shows the confidence that France enjoys in Indian diplomatic circles is unparalleled. It is also because France is not overwhelming power like USA and as a middle power is more reliable. The divergence in definition of Indo Pacific between US and India and transactional approach of US- India dynamic has led India to search for other reliable partners. Moreover India’s economically driven approach towards ensuring freedom of seas is appreciated by France. France has also encouraged India’s growing role in policing the South West Indian Ocean against pirates. However France has catered to the fact that India acknowledges its legitimate interests in the IOR. India has also accepted France as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. At the 2019 Shangri –La dialogue, French defence Minister Florence Parly articulation of new strategy of Indo Pacific emphasized on building links and joint actions under the umbrella of shared security. She also talked about engagement with ASEAN and IORA nations to expand and consolidate France’s alliance system in the Indo Pacific. India and France are on the same page when it comes for concern and challenges in the region.
India’s maritime presence in the Pacific islands is limited as the eastern fleet of Indian Navy is in Vishakapatnam. India has operations up to the Malacca Strait but not as far as Pacific islands. It would need another fleet in the Andaman and Nicobar islands to extend its reach to Pacific. At present India does not have presence in Pacific but diplomatically it has shown interest in South Pacific affairs by participating in Pacific Islands Forum since 2002. India also provided foreign aid to islands in the South Pacific by offering soft loans for infrastructural projects. France has extensive presence in South Pacific. The logistics agreement signed between India and France could prove fruitful for India in Pacific as France could help India in expanding its base in Pacific, culturally and strategically.
Benefits of the Alliance
France can truly benefit from evolving strategic relations with India. With a transactional dynamic with US and colonial hangover with UK, India would prefer France to be its long term ally. Closer relations with India and increased involvement in Indian Ocean will pave the way for France entry into ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) through which it would be able to access Southeast Asian economies. This would help France diversify its relations and attain a special position in Indo Pacific as the only European power to do so. It would give France greater legitimacy in the ASEAN and hence strengthening Indo Pacific.
India on the other hand will benefit from ties with France as it’s a partner that shares the values of multilateralism, pluralism and deterrence based policy. It also gains an ally which shares the same geographical construct of Indo Pacific. Relationship with France is also devoid of any domestic burden as since 1998 France support for India has bi partisan consensus. The joint patrols will prove to be additional security for India’s maritime sphere. In addition a commitment to build a maritime surveillance system represents a practical and promising measure towards enhancing security in the Indian Ocean. It can help position India as a security leader in the region. India’s decision to cooperate with France in the Indo Pacific would address its security needs and also fulfill security architecture for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
France comes to the region with the claim that it is a resident power. Many experts in France believe that France has been giving away its influence in Indian Ocean to India. India’s activism in the Western Indian Ocean is seen as encroachment on France’s traditional sphere of influence. It tries to retain its influence and hence would be a little apprehensive about India’s expansion in its overseas territories. It could turn out to be as transactional relation as of India’s with US. France would like to retain its dominance in the South Pacific and might work on set principles to oppose China in the Indian Ocean. Secondly it is difficult for France to deal with Indian Civil- military bureaucracy. It has caused hindrance in the defense engagement of two nations. The amount of time taken by Indian establishment to conclude a treaty or arrangement baffles France. It could happen that France engages itself with other middle powers like Australia, Indonesia and form an equally formidable alliance. India had to take pro active role in the affairs of Indo Pacific to keep France as its major security partner.
The election Of Macron in France in 2017 brought a lot of enthusiasm in maritime engagement of India and France. After 2017 a number of high level dialogues held along the lines of maritime security. As a result maritime cooperation between India and France is likely to advance along multiple axes. Some of the future actions that could be taken are as follows:
Strengthening maritime domain awareness
In 2017 India and France signed a White Shipping Agreement during the second round of their maritime security dialogue in New Delhi. Such agreements allow nations to exchange information on commercial shipping and create a shared picture of movements at sea. With their respective strength in eastern and Western Indian Oceans New Delhi and Paris can benefit from more intensive exchange of naval intelligence. With the signing of Logistics Support Agreement between respective armies of India and France in 2018, it has become easy for India to access French bases in Indian and Pacific Ocean. It is one of the first steps in India’s entry to the Pacific islands. France can engage India in joint exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in the Indian and Pacific Islands thus expanding Indian Navy’s reach.
Joint Military activity and multilateral cooperation
India and France could embark on Future military engagements in Western Indian Ocean and South Pacific. With coordinated patrols with France, India is now ready to guard sea lanes of communication beyond its reach. India could help France attain a member status in Indian Ocean Rim Association while France can help India in getting membership of various Pacific organizations and strengthen FIPIC.
Developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
As India wants to develop infrastructure in Andaman and Nicobar islands, it could engage with Reunion islands as sister islands of Andaman and Nicobar. Both these islands sit across key choke points: Malacca strait and entire coast of Africa and Mozambique Channel. India can get access to shores of Africa and provide support to French in Malacca strait to maintain free and open navigation and in turn develop Andaman and Nicobar as a hub to keep a check on Malacca Strait.
Delhi-Canberra- Paris Axis
President Macron in 2018 talked about a trilateral alliance to counter China. Delhi and Paris have real opportunity to extend their partnership to other countries and form trilateral. Australia is an ideal candidate for future cooperation in the Indo Pacific. As a fellow middle power Australia alone cannot check the overtures of China and its proximity to Indian and Pacific islands would make it a useful ally in the Indo Pacific. It is also the member of most Pacific and Indian Ocean organization thus helping India gain an avenue to Pacific.
India and France have formed a steady relationship in the past two decades. France has become a close partner of India like Soviet Russia was during Cold War. From supporting India for permanent seat in UNSC to providing India’s nuclear demands France has taken an active role in India’s rise in the region. A rare Anglo Saxon power to be not antagonized in India it has provided a privilege status to India in its imagination of Indo Pacific. As a major power it is accepting its responsibility in maintaining rule based order in the Indian Ocean. With US decoupling with the world France has been ready to be a net security provider in the region with help of other powers. India, an ambitious country with ambitious maritime policy is looking towards allies in deterring China from encroaching in Indian Ocean. For India it is a sovereignty battle of Indian Ocean which it is slowly losing to China. In absence of a strong defense force, collective security is the only way to maintain a rule based Free and Open Indo Pacific. Thus India- France Cooperation is crucial for the success of multilateral cooperation in the Indo Pacific.
- C Raja Mohan, Darshana M Baruah, Deepening the India- France Maritime Partnership Carnegie India( 2018)
- Isabelle Saint- Mezard, The French Strategy in the Indian Ocean and the Potential for Indo French Cooperation, RSIS Policy Report (2015)
- David Scott, France’s “Indo- Pacific” Strategy : regional power projection, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Volume 19 Issue 4 ( 2019)
- Chinmoyee Das, India’s Maritime Diplomacy in South West Indian Ocean, Journal of Strategic Security Vol 12, No 2 (2019)
- Aman Thakker, A Rising India in the Indian Ocean Needs a Strong Navy, CSIS ( 2018)
- Rajeswari Pillai Rajgopalan, What’s behind the rising India- France maritime activity in the Indo Pacific? ORF (2020)
- Rakesh Sood , Why France is a reliable strategic partner of India, ORF ( 2020)
- Abhimanini Sawhney, India and France: A joint step forward, ORF( 2020)
- Darshana Baruah, Sister Islands in the Indian Ocean Region: Linking the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to La Reunion, War on the Rocks ( 2019)
The failure of the great games in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present day
Whenever great powers have tried to make Afghanistan a colony, they have always been defeated. British imperialism and its “civilising mission” towards backward (and therefore terrorist) populations – a mission equal to that of the time when Great Britain established itself as the first drug pusher to the Chinese Empire with the two opium wars of 1839-1842; 1856-1860: an action that was terrorist at the best.
The Russian Empire and its exporting the orthodox faith and the values of the Tsar towards the barbaric (and therefore terrorist) Afghans. The Soviet Union and its attempt to impose secularisation on Muslim (and therefore terrorist) Afghans in the period 1979-1991. The United States of America that thought it could create parties, democracy, Coke, miniskirts, as well as gambling and pleasure houses by bombing the Afghan terrorists tout-court.
In this article I will try to explain why Afghanistan won 4-0, and in 1919 – thanks to its rulers’ wise skills – was one of the only six actual independent Asian States (Japan, Nepal, Thailand and Yemen), so that at least the barroom experts – who, by their nature, believe that History is just a fairy tale like that of Cinderella and stepmother with evil sisters – reflect on the nonsense we read and hear every day in the press and in the media.
In his book I luoghi della Storia (Rizzoli, Milan 2000), former Ambassador Sergio Romano wrote on page 196: “The Afghans spent a good part of the nineteenth century playing a diplomatic and military game with the great powers – the so-called “Great Game” – the main rule of which was to use the Russians against the Brits and the Brits against the Russians”.
In the days when geopolitics was a forbidden subject and the word was forbidden, in the history textbooks of secondary schools it seemed that the United States of America and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had fallen from the sky as large as they were on the atlases. I still remember that in the dialogues between professors and high school students, it was stated that the two powers could not be called colonial, since they had something messianic and redeeming in themselves (therefore anti-terrorist).
It was only thanks to western movies that the young people of the time understood how the thirteen Lutheran colonies had extended westwards into lands that we were led to believe had been inhabited by savage villains to be exterminated (hence terrorists) and by uncivilised Spaniards, as Catholics, to be defeated. Moreover, we did not dare to study Russia’s expansion eastwards and southwards, at the risk that the high school students – unprepared, pure and enthusiastic – would understand that the homeland of socialism had no different assumptions from all other imperialisms.
Sometimes the students heard about the great game or, in Russian, the tournament of shadows (turniry teney). What was the great game? Today it is mostly remembered as the epic of freedom of the unconquered Afghans, but in reality its solution meant the alliance between Russia and Great Britain, which lasted at least until the eve of the Cold War. A key position that is sometimes too overlooked, and not only in scientific and classical textbooks, but also in many essays by self-proclaimed experts.
British aversion to the Russian Empire – apart from the “necessary” anti-Napoleonic alliances in the Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Coalitions – dated back to the 17th century and worsened considerably in the 19th century. Although Russian exports of grain, natural fibres and other agricultural crops were made to Great Britain – because the Russian landowners were well disposed to good relations with the Brits in order to better market those products abroad – there were no political improvements. The opposition came more from Great Britain than from Russia.
Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1825-55) – in the late 1830s, during his trip to Great Britain in 1842, and later in 1850-52, i.e. just before the Crimean War (1853-56) – often tried to bring about normalisation, but due to British suspicions and doubts (the Russians were considered to be terrorists) this did not occur.
What worried the Foreign Office – created in March 1782 – was Russia’s fast march eastwards, southwards and south-westwards. Great Britain could feel Russian breath on it from the three sides of India. The Russian goals with regard to Turkey, the successes in Trancaucasia and the Persian goals, not to mention the colonisation of Central Asia, initiated by the aforementioned Tsar Nicholas I, and conducted vigorously by his successor Alexander II (1818-1855-81), were – for Her Britannic Majesty’s diplomats and generals – a blatant and threatening intimidation of India’s “pearl”.
In the north-west of the Indian subcontinent the British possessions bordered on the Thar desert and on Sindh (the Indus River delta) which constituted a Muslim State under leaders residing at Haidarābād, conquered by the Brits in 1843. To the north-east of Sindh, the Punjab region had been amalgamated into a strong State by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji (1780-1801-39) who, as a simple Governor of Lahore (Lâhau) on behalf of the Afghan Emir, Zaman Shah Durrani (1770-93-1800-†44), had succeeded not only in becoming independent, but also in extending his power over Kashmir and Pīshāwar, creating the Sikh Empire in 1801, which was overthrown by Great Britain during the I (1845-46) and II (1848-49) Anglo-Sikh wars; the region became what is known as the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the North-West Frontier Province).
Given the British expansion into the neighbouring States of Afghanistan and Persia, Russia’s influence was trying to creep in; hence the Brits were paying close attention to what was happening on the border of the great Northern “neighbour”.
Russia had long been aiming to make its way to India through Western Turkestan, but that steppe region was inhabited by the Kyrgyz in the north-east and the Turks (Turkmen) in the south-west.
After unsuccessful attempts at peaceful penetration, the Russian Governor of Orenburg, Gen. Vasilij Alekseevič Perovskij (1794-1857), prepared an expedition against Chiva: it involved crossing about a thousand kilometres of desert and was thought to be easier to make during the winter. The expedition left from Orenburg in November 1839, but the cold killed so many men and camels that the Commander had to give up the venture and turn back (spring 1840). For a long time, the Russians did not attempt any more military infiltrations there.
In Persia, instead, Russian influence was strongly felt: Tsar Alexander II pushed the Shah, Naser al-Din Qajar (1831-48-96), to undertake an enterprise against the city of Herāt (which dominated the passage from Persia and Western Turkestan into India): it had detached itself from Afghanistan and had been a separate State since 1824. The Persian expedition began in the autumn of 1837: Herāt resisted strenuously, so much so that in the summer of 1838 the Shah had to renounce the siege and accept Britain’s mediation for peace with the sovereign of that city. That diplomatic move was therefore also detrimental to the influence of St. Petersburg. Even the first relations established by Russia with the Emir of Afghanistan did not lead to any result.
In those years, Russia was busy quelling the insurrections of the mountain populations in the Caucasus, where the exploits of the alleged Italian sheikh, Mansur Ushurma (Giambattista Boetti, 1743-98), in the service of the Chechen cause, still echoed.
Through two treaties concluded with Persia (1828) and Turkey (1829), Russia had become the master of the region; however, it found an obstinate resistance from the local populations that still persists today.
The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) was one of the most important military conflicts of the great game and one of the worst British defeats in the region. The Brits had started an expedition to Afghanistan to overthrow Emir Dost Mohammad (1793-1826-39, 42-63), the first of the Barakzai dynasty, and replace him with the last of the Durrani dynasty, Ayub Shah (17??-1819-23, †37), who had been dethroned in 1823, but he renounced. Not wanting to cross the Sikh country in order not to arouse mistrust among the Sikhs, the British entered Baluchistan, occupied the capital (Qalat), then penetrated into Afghanistan and advanced without encountering serious resistance as far as Kabul, where on August 7, 1839 they installed their own puppet, Shuja Shah (1785-1842), formerly Emir from 1803 to 1809.
Dost Mohammad was caught and sent to Calcutta. A the beginning of 1841, however, one of his sons – Sher Ali – aroused the Afghans’ rebellion. The military commander, Gen. William George Keith Elphinstone (b. 1782), got permission to leave with 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 non-combatants to return to India. In the mountain passes near Kabul, however, the expedition was taken by surprise and annihilated (January 1842). The commander died as prisoner of the Afghans (on April 23).
The Brits obviously wanted revenge: they sent other troops that, in September of the same year, reconquered Kabul: this time the Brits – intimidated – did not deem it advisable to remain there. Convinced they had reaffirmed a certain prestige, they withdrew and, since the Emir they protected had died on April 5, 1842, they agreed – helplessly – to Dost Mohammad’s return to the throne. He conquered Herāt forever for Afghanistan.
Russia did not just stand by and watch and asserted its power in the Far East. In the years 1854-58 – despite its engagement in the Crimean war: the first real act of the great game, as Britain had to defend the Ottoman Empire from Sarmatian aspirations of conquest – it had established, with a series of expeditions, its jurisdiction over the province of Amur, through the Treaty of Aigun – labelled as the unequal treaty as it was imposed on China – on May 28, 1858. Shortly afterwards the fleet arrived at Tien-Tsin (Tianjin), forced China into another treaty on June 26-27, thus obtaining the opening of ports for trade, and the permanence of a Russian embassy in Peking. Moreover, in Central Asia, Russia renewed its attempts to advance against the khanates of Buchara and Kokand (Qo’qon), and had once again led the Shah of Persia, Mozaffar ad-Din Qajar (1853-96-1907), to try again the enterprise of Herāt (1856), which had caused again the British intervention (Anglo-Persian War, 1856-57) that ended with Persia’s recognition of the independence of the aforementioned city. The Anglo-Russian rivalry thus continued to be one of the essential problems of Central Asia, for the additional reason that Russia gradually expanded into West Turkestan, Buchara and Chiva between 1867 and 1873.
After the Russian conquests in West Turkestan, Dost Mohammad’ son and successor, Sher Ali (1825-63-66, 68-79), came under the influence of the neighbouring power, which was trying to penetrate the area to the detriment of Britain. On July 22, 1878 St Petersburg sent a mission. The Emir repelled a similar British mission at the Khyber Pass in September 1878, thus triggering the start of the war. The Brits soon opened hostilities, invading the country with 40,000 soldiers
from three different points.
The Emir went into exile in Mazār-i-Sharīf, leaving his son Mohammad Yaqub (1849-79-80, †1914) as heir. He signed the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26, 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country.
Once the British First Resident, the Italian Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari (b. 1841) went to Kabul, he was assassinated there on September 3, 1879. British troops organised a second expedition and occupied the capital. They did not trust the Emir and raised a nephew of Dost Mohammed, Abdur Rahman (1840/44-80-1901), to power on May 31, 1880. He pledged to have no political relations except with Britain.
The former Emir, Mohammad Yaqub, took up arms and severely defeated the Brits at Maiwand on July 27, 1880, with the help of the Afghan heroine Malalai Anaa (1861-80), who rallied the Pashtun troops against the attackers. On September 1 of the same year Mohammad Yaqub was defeated and put to flight by Gen. Frederick Roberts (1832-1914) in the Battle of Kandahâr, which ended the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
This brought Afghanistan permanently under British influence, which was secured by the construction of a railway from the Indus River to the Afghan city of Kandahâr. Since the railway passed through Beluchistan, it was definitively annexed to British India. In 1880, Russia began the construction of the Transcaspian Railway, which alarmed the Brits who extended the section of their “railroad” to Herāt.
It was only with the accession to the throne of Imānullāh (1892-1919-29, †60), on February 28, 1919 (Shah from 1926), that Afghanistan took its foreign policy away from Great Britain through the Third Anglo-Afghan War (6 May-8 August 1919), by which the Afghans finally threw the Brits out of the picture (Treaty of Râwalpindî of August 8, 1919, amended on November 22, 1921).
As early as 1907, the Russian government had declared it considered Afghanistan to be outside its sphere of influence, and pledged not to send any agents there, as well as to consult the British government about its relations with that country.
Indeed, Britain soon gave up direct control of the country, given the fierce fighting spirit of its people, who had humiliated it many times, and contented itself with guarding and keeping the north-west Indian border under control.
In reality, the great game has never ended. As Spartacus Alfredo Puttini stated (La Russia di Putin sulla scacchiera, in “Eurasia”, A. IX, No. 1, January-March 2012, pp. 129-147), upon his coming to power Vladimir Putin found himself grappling with a difficult legacy. Gorbachev’s policy of katastroika had dealt a lethal blow to the Soviet and later Russian colossus.
Within a few years, Russia had embarked on a unilateral disarmament that led, at first, to its withdrawal from Afghanistan and then from Central and Eastern Europe. While the State was heading for collapse and the economy was being disrupted, it was the very periphery of the Soviet Union that was catching fire due to separatist movements promptly subsidised by those who – in the great game – replaced the Brits. Massive US aid to the heroic anti-Soviet patriots, who were later branded as terrorists.
In a short time the real collapse occurred and the ‘new’ Russia found itself geopolitically shrunken and morally and materially prostrated by the great looting made by the pro-Western oligarchs in the shadow of the Yeltsin Presidency.
To the west, the country had returned to the borders of the 17th century; to the south, it had lost Southern Caucasus and valuable Central Asia, where the new great game was soon to begin. In other words, the process of disruption would not stop, and would infect the Russian Federation itself: Chechnya had engaged in a furious war of secession that threatened to spread like wildfire to the whole of Northern Caucasus and, in the long run, called into question the very survival of the Russian State divided into autonomous entities.
This was followed by the phenomenon of “orangism” in 2003-2005 (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan): the various caricatures of oxymoronic “liberal” revolutions aimed at moving certain governments away from Russia’s influence.
Ultimately, the central power had been undermined on all sides by the policy of Yeltsin and his clan, aimed at granting extensive autonomy to the regions of the Federation. Public property, the glue of State authority and the instrument of its concrete activity to guide and orient the nation, had been sold off. Over time, Putin put things right, and the rest is condensed into the restoration choices of the plebiscitary vote in his favour.
In the end Afghanistan also saw the US failure, which I have examined in previous articles.
The Asian sense of freedom is summed up in the expulsion of foreign aggressors from their own homelands and territories. Someone should start to understand this.
The Post-US Withdrawal Afghanistan: India, China and the ‘English Diplomacy’
The recent developments in Afghanistan, the impatient Tri-axis and the emphatic India at SCO, with the ‘English Diplomacy’ at display that tends to blunt the Chinese aggressiveness in South China Sea mark a new power interplay in the world politics. It also shows why the US went for AUKUS and how it wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific.
Afghanistan has turned out to be the most incandescent point of world politics today deflecting the eyes from the South China Sea and Gaza Strip. What is more startling is the indifferent attitude United States has shown to the other stakeholders in the war torn state. While Brexit appears to have created fissure in the European Union the AUKUS effects further marginalisation of France and India against the US-British and QUAD understandings. The vacuum that US have created in Afghanistan has invited several actors willing to expand their energy access to central Asia and Afghanistan provides an important bridge in between. The TAPI economics (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline) and huge Indian investments are endangered by the Afghan security question and make it imminent for India to stay in Afghanistan as a reckoning force.
The Taliban and the Troika
While the Russo-Chinese and Pakistani engagement with the Taliban’s takeover was visible the US exit has invited the wrath of other stakeholders like India, Saudi Arabia and Iran. India is significantly affected because of its huge investments of over 3 billion dollars over two decades in Afghanistan that would become target of the orthodox retrogressive Taliban regime. The government of India’s stand on Afghanistan is that an ‘Afghan peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. Any political settlement must be inclusive and should preserve the socio-economic and political gains of the past 19 years. India supports a united, democratic and sovereign Afghanistan. India is deeply concerned about the increase in violence and targeted killings in Afghanistan. India has called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire’(MEA).
However, the takeover by Taliban that endangers India’s strategic and capital interests has made it pro-active in the state. Probably for the first time in Afghan history, India has shown aggressive tones against the militant government which may create problem for Kashmir in the longer run. The Pakistani air force’s engagement over the Panjashir assault by Taliban has unravelled the larger plans of destabilisation in South Asia.
In the meantime China has unequivocally expressed its willingness, as was expected to work with Taliban. The visit of Taliban delegation, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar who also heads the office of Taliban at Doha, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in Tianjin, on July 28, 2021. The visit followed the Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Kureshi’s visit to Beijing and unravelled how the two states have been supporting the Talibani cause. Although, China has its own perceptions about Xinjiang and Mr. Wang even told the Taliban “to draw a line” between the group and terror organisations, specifically the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has carried out attacks in Xinjiang. Russia too has shown interest in Taliban and it didn’t plan to evacuate its embassy at Kabul. Its foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said that Russia will carefully see how responsibly they (Taliban) govern the country in the near future. And based on the results, the Russian leadership will draw the necessary conclusions.
The little Indo-Russian engagements over Afghanistan have minimised the scope of cooperation over the decades now. Although, Russia has been trying to follow a balancing policy between India and Pakistan yet its leanings towards the latter is manifest from its recent policies. “The extent of Russia-Pakistan coordination broadened in 2016, as Russia, China, and Pakistan created a trilateral format to discuss stabilizing Afghanistan and counterterrorism strategy. In December 2016, Russia, China, and Pakistan held talks on combating Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which were widely criticized in the U.S. for excluding the Afghan government.” (Ramani). The deliberate neglect of Afghan government and Indian role reveals the neo-Russian policy in South Asia that de-hyphenates India and Pakistan and sees Pakistan through the lens of BRI and at the cost of North-South Corridor. The Chinese and Russian belief that by supporting Taliban they will secure security for their disturbed territories and escape from terrorism appears to be unrealistic keeping in view the Taliban’s characteristics which are chameleon like i.e. political, organizational and jihadi at the same time looking for appropriate opportunities.
Is it the Post-Brexit Plan?
The Brexit ensures a better space for Britain; at least this is what Brits believe, in international politics following the future US overseas projects. However, it for sure annoys some of its serious allies with the new takes. The announcement of the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) pact, a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific to contain China is an important step in this direction. The Brexit and the US-withdrawal seen together mark a shift in US policy perception of Asia that aims at Asia Pacific more as compared to Central Asia. It has not only betrayed India in Afghanistan but also France through AUKUS which sees an end to its multibillion dollar deal with Australia. France now shows a stronger commitment to support India in its moves against Taliban and Pakistan’s interventions.
President Macron recalled French ambassadors for consultations after the AUKUS meet that dropped France deliberately from the major maritime security deal. The French anguish is not about its absence in the deal by the Canberra, Washington and London but being an allied nation, its neglect in the secret deal. “The announcement ended a deal worth $37bn (£27bn) that France had signed with Australia in 2016 to build 12 conventional submarines. China meanwhile accused the three powers involved in the pact of having a “Cold War mentality”(Schofield 2021). It also reminds one of the Roosevelt’s efforts at truncating French arms in Asia, especially in Indo-China and the consequent sequence of betrayals by the US. AUKUS also symbolises the ‘English diplomacy’ of the English speaking states just like the Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence alliance consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Started around 1946 the member countries are parties to the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence. Recently there have been voices for taking India, Japan and South Korea also into its fold to strengthen the contain China job.
The Wildered QUAD
While the first ever in-person QUAD summit approaches near, the announcement of AUKUS shows haze that prevails over the US decision making. President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga meet at the White House for the summit on September 24, 2021. This follows the virtual meet held in March 2021. How apposite it would be to declare a maritime deal at a time when the QUAD meet is about to take place with the same motives and plans, notwithstanding the fact that QUAD has a wider platform for discussion like climate change, cyberspace, pandemic and Indo-Pacific. Is there an uncertainty over the realisation of QUAD? However, AUKUS unravels the US intentions of first line preferences and second line associates in its future projects that will further marginalise its allies like France, Germany and many other states in future.
At SCO meet at Dushanbe India has unequivocally announced its view of the situation that takes Taliban as a challenge to peace and development in Afghanistan and South Asia. Prime Minister Modi remarked that the first issue is that the change of authority in Afghanistan was not inclusive and this happened without negotiation. This raises questions on the prospects of recognition of the new system. Women, minorities and different groups have not been given due representation. He also insisted on the crucial role that UN can play in Afghanistan. India’s investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar and the International North-South Corridor along with TAPI are central to its argument on the recent developments in Afghanistan. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar had also remarked in July 2021 that the landlocked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with the huge market of India and the future of Afghanistan cannot be its past and that the world must not let the new generation of Afghans down (Hindustan Times). The Indian message is clear and received huge support at Dushanbe and India is poised to play a greater role in Afghanistan, where the US and Russia have failed miserably.
The Internal Dynamics
The internal dynamics in Afghanistan presage a government by uncertainty in the coming months as Sirajudin Haqqani of Pak supported Haqqani network, captures Mulla Baradar, the man who settled the deal with US at Doha. It appears from the Pakistani backed government of Haqqani that Baradar has been dumped for his commitment for inclusive government expected to be pro-west against the Sino-Pakistan expectations. The US reluctance to remain engaged in the troubled region marks a shift in US foreign policy but the exclusion of its allies from Indo-Pacific plan are bound to bring new engagements in world power politics. While US dumped Afghans France and Israel appear as new hopes for Indian led moves against the undemocratic terrorist forces in Afghanistan.
Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions
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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