Change Of Command

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Stars And Stripes

August 26, 2014

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Army Gen. John F. Campbell became the final commander of the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan during a ceremony Tuesday.

The former infantry officer and Special Forces commander takes over from Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who will become Commandant of the Marine Corps. The ceremony, at a military base in Kabul, was attended by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Campbell assumes control of the International Security Assistance Force as it finishes withdrawing from bases across the country in preparation for the end of its combat mission later this year. Close to 44,000 troops from 48 countries serve in the coalition, nearly 30,000 of them American. More than 100,000 troops were stationed in the country at the height of the coalition’s surge in 2010.

The challenges facing the general include planning for a post-2014 NATO and U.S. training and advisory role in the country. That task is complicated by the lack of formal agreements with the Afghan government and political uncertainty due a presidential election that is still undecided.

An entrenched insurgency, meanwhile, threatens stability in some parts of the country, testing the abilities of Afghan security forces, who were developed, trained and equipped by the coalition at great cost. Those forces lack many of the tools that gave ISAF the upper hand against insurgents, such as air support, medical evacuation and surveillance capabilities.

Managing dwindling troop numbers to continue to provide that assistance in the most critical areas of the country will be another test. Plans call for U.S. troop numbers to fall to 9,800 by year’s end.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged those challenges while expressing confidence in Campbell.

”John’s leadership comes at a defining moment, as Afghanistan undertakes a historic political transition, and the United States and our coalition partners transition from combat to training and support for Afghan forces,” Hagel said in a statement.

The continuing election crisis could add further complications, with some parties threatening civil unrest. On the same day Campbell assumed command, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah threatened to withdraw from the election review process unless officials meet several technical demands that could change the process.

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http://www.stripes.com/news/campbell-becomes-final-isaf-commander-1.300015

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Afghans Clear Sangin Valley

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Story by Cpl. Joshua Young

1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Regional Command Southwest

February 8, 2014

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CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Afghan National Army soldiers with 2nd and 3rd Brigades, 215th Corps, teamed with the Afghan Uniform Police and other Afghan National Security Forces to conduct a completely Afghan-led operation called Oqab 144, with only advisor-related help from coalition forces.

The operation, which took place Jan. 27 – Feb. 4, means “Eagle 144,” in English. It is a process to eliminate hostile threats from the Sangin Valley, Helmand province, Afghanistan, prior to the upcoming national election in order to offer a better environment for potential voters and the local populace.

The operation was conducted weeks before the Afghan presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place April 5. The current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is not eligible to run for re-election due to term limits, making this the first transfer of the presidency since his inauguration in 2004 and the first democratic transition of power in the history of Afghanistan.

“They’re sharing stories about the election and belief in their government,” said Col. Christopher Douglas, the team leader of Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215. “I believe this gives people the opportunity to see that the future is bright because these operations are being executed for Afghans by Afghans with no coalition presence visible to them during the operation.”

The ANSF partners are working together to build trust within the local populace to achieve a more stable and secure environment for the election as well as the future of Afghanistan, Helmand province, and Sangin Valley.

“This shows that it’s an Afghan election process,” said Douglas, whose team is stationed out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. “We’re not driving it. It shows faith in the system, now they’re gaining more of that confidence. We can’t force them to do something, so it comes down to inspiring them.”

During May 2012, the Afghan and U.S. governments agreed a contract needed to be created to establish how many, if any, American forces would remain in Afghanistan following the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in 2014. Without such a contract, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, the U.S. must pull all forces out of the country by the end of the year.

The two governments began working on the agreement Nov. 15, 2012, which would allow a contingent of U.S. troops to stay in the country in an advisory role.

Despite the approval of the Loya Jirga, or “grand council” on Nov. 24, 2013, and increasing support from Afghanistan and the international community, President Karzai has yet to sign the agreement.

Due to the hesitation from President Karzai, the next president of Afghanistan may be responsible for signing the agreement. This places the fate of the BSA in the hands of the voters —the people of Afghanistan — as they choose their next leader.

“It’s a very exciting time,” said Maj. Paul D. Tremblay, deputy team leader, SFAAT 2-215. “It’s an election where the people can choose a leader who’s going to take them the rest of the way.”

The operation to clear the Sangin Valley of hostile threats was met with resistance and casualties, but also several milestones of success.

Seeing only Afghan uniforms during the operation helped build the locals’ confidence in the ANSF. In turn, some locals provided the forces with information on insurgent movements and known locations, as well as locations of improvised explosive devices and explosives labs.

“As (the operation) went on through the Sangin area with 2nd and 3rd Brigades, they were approached by some locals who advised them they missed some IEDs during the clear,” Douglas said. “That was a great surprise. It showed confidence in the ANA’s ability to work with the locals and them feeling comfortable enough to come up to members of the ANA or the police and work with them to create a more secure environment in their community.”

When they first entered the Sangin Valley in 2006 after the resurgence of the Taliban, the coalition forces had the lead role in all combat operations. During the course of the campaign, the lead has steadily been turned over to Afghan forces as the coalition took on an advisory role.

Oqab 144 marks one of the first operations in the region during which the populace hasn’t seen a coalition force presence. Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215 played a silent role in the operation, offering only advisory assistance and minimal relief in casualty evacuations.

“They’re in the lead,” Douglas said. “We’re here and able to watch through some of our assets, but the big thing is seeing their excitement for how well things are going for them and hearing their stories of sharing a big success together. Now they’re out there doing it.”

“We’re kind of like father figures, and we’re watching our children grow and flourish,” Tremblay said. “They have it, you can see it in their eyes. They just need to continue to grow and mature. Once they get in the highest leadership positions, they’ll be unstoppable.”

“They have an incredibly capable staff,” Tremblay said. “They have all the enablers and they’re learning each and every day. This operation is certainly demonstrating their capacity to take independent action and learn and grow as they progress.”

“It’s one of the most complex problems I’ve ever seen in my 18 years in the Marine Corps,” Tremblay said. “It’s fascinating to study and the more you do, the more you learn about the intricacies at play here and what can potentially be done in the future.”

The SFAAT considered the operation to be a success and is dedicated to helping the ANA in the region become completely sustainable and self-sufficient.

One of the obstacles the SFAAT and the ANA face in the region is the annual fighting season, tied to the weather and poppy harvest.

The Sangin Valley is known by many as a hotbed for nefarious and illegal activities. It’s strategic in its relevance to major corridors such as Route 1 and Route 611.

Drug runners and insurgents often use Route 1, which runs all the way through Afghanistan from Pakistan to Iran. The two routes are a crossroads for both trade and drug trafficking. Much of the Taliban’s funding comes from the profits of the poppy harvests. Black-tar heroine is extracted from the poppy plants and the drugs are shipped all over the world.

The Taliban control much of the heroine trade and are dependent on the industry. When the weather cools off, the insurgency turns toward facilitating the poppy planting. When planting begins, fighting almost instantly ceases.

“It’s a constant disruption mentality,” Tremblay said. “Whether it’s Marines, British or Afghans, their ability to consistently disrupt the activity of the insurgents by projecting combat power prevents the insurgent from feeling comfortable enough to go in and interact with the populace, plant an IED or set up a firing position.”

The progress that has been made since the coalition first entered the Sangin Valley can be measured by the success of Oqab 144 and the relationship building between the ANSF and the local populace.

“Without this group we would not have reached this stage,” said Col. Abdul Hai Neshat, executive officer, ANA 2nd Brigade. “Due to the Marines’ hard work along side us, we can lead our units. They’re very helpful and useful.”

Success in the region did not come easily. Many service members from coalition forces and the ANSF have paid the ultimate price to bring stability to the war-torn area.

“I don’t think we could ever put a number on the blood, treasure and heartache that has been poured into this area,” Tremblay said. “The blood, sweat and tears, the brothers we’ve lost, the horrific injuries sustained and the invisible ones that keep you up at night are beyond description. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to capture what has been sacrificed to get us to this point. Especially when you read in the media what’s going on in certain areas in Iraq, it’s hard not to question: ‘Has it been worth it?’ In my opinion, the answer is absolutely, ‘Yes.’ All of that sacrifice has led to an opportunity we’re seeing start to grow and gain momentum today.”

With all the progress that has been made in the past eight years, there is still more to be done.

“I’d like to say, on behalf of my personnel and soldiers, thank you to the Marines and the U.S. in a common (effort) for helping Afghanistan,” Neshat said. “Without U.S. support, we would not be able to stand as a country. Hopefully in the future the U.S. will continue the support and help Afghanistan and not leave. All people in Afghanistan want peace in this country and to live a normal life. It’s very important to help us. These are the wishes of all of Afghanistan.”

Following the operation, Maj. Gen. Sayed Malook, commanding general, 215th Corps, traveled to Camp Leatherneck via Route 611 to show his confidence that the Sangin Valley had been cleared, said Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller, commanding general, RC(SW). “Every day is a step in the right direction.”

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Quotes from The Outpost

Enduring Freedom

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…They suspected that however loudly the 1-91 Cav officers may have tooted their own bugle about their counterinsurgency accomplishments, their fifteen months’ worth of effort wasn’t about to undo decades’, if not centuries’, worth of habits and traditions of self-preservation.  (p.392)

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af10_16832683

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…The United States had gotten itself in the middle of a variety of blood, land, and tribal feuds, Brown believed, and the government of Afghanistan itself had very little, if any, interest in making serious efforts in that region.  The insurgency was actually gaining strength, especially in the remote rural areas of eastern Afghanistan.  (p.408)

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us-drone-strikes-kill-18-in-north-waziristan-1372853795-4131

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…On May 21, 2012, President Obama and the NATO allies announced that in the summer of 2013, Afghan government forces ~ ready or not ~ would take the lead on providing security throughout the country, and that U.S. combat forces would see their mission end come midnight, December 31, 2014.  (p.608)

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Jake Tapper

The Outpost

2012

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Two Marine Generals Fired For Security Lapses In Afghanistan

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~~~                                                                                             U.S. Marine Harrier Jets

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post

September 30, 2013

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The commandant of the Marine Corps on Monday took the extraordinary step of firing two generals for not adequately protecting a giant base in southern Afghanistan that Taliban fighters stormed last year, resulting in the deaths of two Marines and the destruction of half a dozen U.S. fighter jets.

It is the first time since the Vietnam War that a general, let alone two, has been sacked for negligence after a successful enemy attack. But the assault also was unprecedented:

Fifteen insurgents entered a NATO airfield and destroyed almost an entire squadron of Marine AV-8B Harrier jets, the largest single loss of allied materiel in the almost 12-year Afghan war.

The commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, said the two generals did not deploy enough troops to guard the base and take other measures to prepare for a ground attack by the Taliban. The two, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan at the time, and Maj. Gen. Gregg A. Sturdevant, the senior Marine aviation officer in the area, “failed to exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank,” Amos said.

“It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence,” Amos said.

The incident brings into stark relief the unique challenges of waging war in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops over the past two years has forced commanders to triage, sometimes leading them to thin out defenses. The U.S. military also has been forced to rely on other nations’ troops, who often are not as well trained or equipped, to safeguard American personnel and supplies.

The attack occurred at Camp Bastion, a British-run NATO air base in Helmand province that adjoins Camp Leatherneck, a vast U.S. facility that serves as the NATO headquarters for southwestern Afghanistan. Because Leatherneck does not have a runway, the Marines use Bastion as their principal air hub in the country. Several hundred Marines live and work on the British side, and dozens of U.S. helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are parked there.

The British are responsible for guarding Bastion, which is ringed by a chain-link fence, triple coils of razor wire and watchtowers from which sentries can scan the horizon for any potential attackers. British commanders had assigned the task of manning the towers to troops from Tonga, which has sent 55 soldiers to Afghanistan.

On the night of the attack, the Tongans left unmanned the watchtower nearest to the Taliban breach, according to an investigation by the U.S. Central Command.

Other aspects of the U.S.-British security plan were “sub-optimal,” the investigation found, with no single officer in charge of security for both Bastion and Leatherneck. The security arrangement created command-and-control relationships “contrary to the war-fighting principles of simplicity,” Amos wrote in a memo accepting the investigation.

Troop reductions also affected security measures. When Gurganus took command in 2011, about 17,000 U.S. troops were in his area of operations. By the time of the attack, in September 2012, the American contingent had dropped to 7,400 because of troop-withdrawal requirements imposed by President Obama.

In December 2011, 325 Marines were assigned to patrol the area around Bastion and Leatherneck. In the month before the attack, that number was cut to about 110.

Gurganus did seek permission in the summer of 2012 to add 160 troops to protect Bastion and Leatherneck, but his superiors in Kabul rejected the request because the military had reached a limit on forces set by the White House.

Even so, Amos said Gurganus should have reallocated troops from elsewhere to protect the encampments. “The commander still has the inherent responsibility to provide protection for his forces,” Amos said. “Regardless of where you are in a [troop] drawdown, you’re required to balance force projection with force protection.”

Despite the overall troop reduction, several officers stationed at Leatherneck at the time said that many Marines with idle time could have been assigned to guard duty. Instead, some of them took online college classes and others worked out in the gym twice a day.

In an interview with The Washington Post this year, Gurganus characterized the attack as “a lucky break” for the Taliban. “When you’re fighting a war, the enemy gets a vote,” he said.

Amos said that when he informed Gurganus that he was being relieved, Gurganus told him, “As the most senior commander on the ground, I am accountable.”

Two Marines, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, were killed trying to fend off the attack. Raible, a Harrier squadron commander, charged into the combat zone armed with only a handgun. Eight other Marines were wounded in the fighting. The cost of the destroyed and damaged aircraft has been estimated at $200 million.

Although Gurganus ordered a review of security on the bases after the attack and a British general conducted a brief investigation for the NATO headquarters in Kabul, the Marine Corps waited eight months to ask the Central Command to initiate a formal U.S. investigation. Amos’s decision followed inquiries from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, congressional staff members and a front-page article in The Post that detailed the unmanned watchtower and the reduction in troops patrolling the perimeter.

Amos said Monday that he wanted to wait for reports from NATO and the Central Command before requesting a formal investigation.

Before seeking the investigation, Amos had nominated Gurganus to receive a third star and serve as the Marine Corps staff director, the service’s third-ranking job. His nomination was placed on hold once the inquiry began.

Since his return from Afghanistan, Sturdevant has been serving as the director of plans and policy for the U.S. Pacific Command.

Amos said the decision to fire the generals was the most agonizing choice he has had to make as Marine commandant. Gurganus and Sturdevant are friends of his, he said, and their collective time in uniform totals almost seven decades.

In a statement Monday evening, Gurganus said, “I have complete trust and confidence in the leadership of our Corps and fully respect the decision of our Commandant.”

Gurganus and Sturdevant will be allowed to retire, but Amos said it will be up to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to determine their final rank. If allowed to retire as major generals, they would be eligible to receive an inflation-adjusted annual pension of about $145,000.

The last two-star general to be fired for combat incompetence was Army Maj. Gen. James Baldwin, who was relieved of command in 1971 following a North Vietnamese attack that killed 30 soldiers at a U.S. outpost, said military historian Thomas E. Ricks.

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Afghan Army Struggles in District Under Siege

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by Azam Ahmed

New York Times ~ September 11, 2013

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SANGIN, Afghanistan — Some days, the Afghan soldiers worry that the mud walls around their headquarters in this embattled district are barely enough to keep the Taliban out. Perhaps more problematic is that the crumbling facade appears to be keeping the soldiers in.

Nolay Base takes direct fire almost every day from the Taliban. With more forces lost here than almost any other district in the country, the Afghan soldiers seldom leave the installation, and mostly refuse to conduct missions — too dangerous, they say. And when soldiers head out to go on brief home leaves, a growing number of them desert rather than return, their commanders say.

“It’s difficult to find local people who are against the Taliban,” said the executive officer of the brigade here, Col. Abdulhai Neshat. “This place is like a prison.”

In this corner of Helmand Province, widely agreed to be the most critical running battle in the country today, Afghan forces are in trouble. Though it does not reflect the broader security situation in Afghanistan, Sangin (pronounced SANG-in) offers a troubling portrait of life where the Taliban decides to make its mark and the Americans no longer fight, a situation that is likely to multiply as coalition forces completely withdraw next year.

Since launching their major offensive in late May, the Taliban have easily weathered the halfhearted attempts by the Afghans to reclaim Sangin, despite aid from international forces. In the past week alone, the Taliban have cleared out several villages, displacing up to 1,000 people and overrunning several security checkpoints, locals and Afghan officials say.

Coalition commanders are quietly growing alarmed, concerned that if the situation gets worse they may have to intervene for the second time this summer in an area officially turned over to Afghan security control.

Since the war’s beginning, the district, in the heart of Afghanistan’s poppy-growing country, has been home to the fiercest fighting in the country. British and American forces struggled here for years, taking heavy casualties to create even just a modest security bubble to free the district center from insurgent pressure.

Those gains have started to evaporate under the Afghans this year, as casualties mount and as a reluctance to confront the Taliban allows the insurgents to broaden their territory.

About 120 soldiers and police officers have been killed this summer, with more than double that number wounded, according to the district governor and others. Among the ranks of soldiers, attrition hovers near 50 percent, counting deaths, debilitating injuries and soldiers who never return from leave, according to the executive officer of the main unit in northern Helmand Province, the Second Brigade of the 215th Afghan Army Corps.

While elsewhere in the country Afghan forces are taking the fight to the Taliban, American commanders complain that their counterparts in Sangin have developed an “addiction to bases” — building new fortified posts instead of leaving the ones they have to attack the insurgents.

Even then, they are losing ground. Afghan forces have dismantled many security checkpoints they felt they could not defend, and at least six have been captured and held by the Taliban since May. In the past week, more have been taken down, and at least four new posts have been overrun, local officials say.

Desperate to regain momentum, the Afghan Army has been chewing through senior officers here. The commander of the Second Brigade has been fired, as has the battalion commander in Sangin. Casualties have taken a toll on the leadership, too: last month, the Taliban killed the district intelligence chief.

“Right now, Sangin is like an open space for the Taliban,” said the Sangin district governor, Habibullah Shamlanai. “Anyone can enter, and anyone can leave.”

Sangin became the focal point of the fighting season in late May, when the Taliban kicked off their biggest assault of the year. Massing around 600 fighters in a 36-hour blitz, the insurgents attacked about 20 Afghan patrol bases in a strategic area of the district that borders the river.

The Afghans were overrun in some locations, while other outposts were abandoned when the local police staffing them ran out of ammunition. An initial attempt to reclaim the lost ground in the aftermath of the embarrassing assault was somewhat successful, but several bases still remain in Taliban hands.

In July, the Afghans mounted a major counteroffensive, drawing in an entire battalion from the Third Brigade of the 215th Army Corps in Marja and bringing both British soldiers and American Marines onto the battlefield to assist.

But after a strong start, participants say, the Afghans refused to continue. Losses mounted, momentum dissipated, and the mission was left less than half complete, leaving the green zone, a lush strip of foliage that hugs the waters of the Sangin River, largely in the control of the Taliban.

In August, after the end of Ramadan, the Afghan commanders were nervous, expecting another major Taliban assault. To safeguard some of the more remote bases, the brigade sergeant major, Zabiullah Syeddi, assembled a quick reaction force to move farther into the hostile green zone.

As his men prepared to leave Nolay Base, taking up positions beside a row of idling Humvees and tow trucks, a large explosion suddenly shook the ground. Several soldiers ran to see whether they were under attack. Sergeant Major Syeddi, a veteran soldier, swung the door of his Humvee open to investigate.

When he returned, he ran his hand over his face and shrugged. The insurgents, he said, had laid an improvised explosive device on the driveway of the brigade headquarters, in plain sight of the guard towers.

At 2 a.m. that night, the sergeant major began making a series of scheduled check-in calls to three neighboring base commanders. Two responded immediately — all clear. But there was no answer at the third, the Mahmud Agha outpost, several hundred yards away.

His voice grew more desperate with each call, until finally he disappeared out of sight. He reappeared a few minutes later, walking slowly.

“They were sleeping,” he said.

The next morning, on the way home, the convoy drove through the Sangin bazaar, the largest in Northern Helmand. Fabrics, food and electronics lined the shelves of dozens of storefronts as merchants and shoppers stood along the bustling road.

A line of soldiers was on a rare foot patrol in the bazaar, bunched together, guns slung loosely over their shoulders.

Near a central roundabout, the convoy stopped to allow reporters from The New York Times to speak with a handful of residents, who offered bleak assessments.

“I just stay in the shop and don’t go outside,” said one merchant, Hayatullah, standing at the edge of his electronics store. “This is my job, how can I leave?”

A crowd gathered, describing the district as a land divided — the center, which was somewhat secure, and everywhere else, a wasteland.

“There is fighting every day — every day, bullets are flying,” said Hayatullah, 20, who like many Afghans goes by a single name.

Eager to leave, the soldiers returned to their vehicles. They roared past the foot patrol as they pulled out of the market.

Suddenly a loud explosion ripped through the air, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust near the road. A rocket-propelled grenade aimed at the convoy had missed. The turret gunners aimed their weapons in the direction of the boom while the drivers sped off.

Seconds later, the real ambush began — against the patrol left behind at the bazaar. A 10-minute firefight raged in the heart of the market district, claiming at least two soldiers, one shot through the eye. The Taliban, for all anyone knew, suffered zero casualties.

The soldiers visiting the wounded in the brigade hospital, a clean facility manned by a single medic, offered words of comfort to their comrades. But a sense of fatalism had already gripped the base.

Still, Colonel Neshat seemed temporarily jolted from the complacence that has plagued his men. He swore to search and clear the area where the ambush was staged.

“We have to, we have to,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “If we don’t find them my plan is to put a good post in place to disrupt them.”

Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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38 Eagle

Sangin

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