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Roundtable with Secretary Gates from London, United Kingdom

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
September 18, 2008
            SEC. GATES: I have no opening statement.
            So Jeff, are you going to call on people?
            STAFF: Why don't we alternate as we try to do, and let's start, if you don't mind, with our host from the U.K. How about Mr. Blitz (ph).
            Q     Thank you very much. You'll be discussing, I think, this evening at the dinner for the first time NATO's response to the Russia-Georgia conflict. I wonder what your thoughts are about NATO's operational posture towards Russia. It will be the first opportunity to discuss that. Do you think there is a need now to have some kind of reconfiguration for that posture to underpin the Article 5 commitment to the East Europeans and particularly the Baltic states in terms of planning and exercises?
            SEC. GATES: I think we need to proceed with some caution because there clearly is a range of views in the Alliance about how to respond from some of our friends in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states to some of the countries in Western Europe. And I think that there is a middle ground in which that I will suggest where we do some prudent things that are consistent with the kinds of activities NATO has been engaged in for nearly 60 years in terms of planning, in terms of exercises and so on that, at the same time, are not provocative and don't tend to draw any firm red lines or send signals that are unwanted at the same time that it provides some assurance to the allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states that we're mindful of their concerns.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, in light of the Georgia-Russia situation, do you think that this will make it more difficult to keep the European members of the Alliance committed in Afghanistan, let alone ask them to do more, given that they now have a potential for defense challenges closer to home?
            SEC. GATES: No, I don't think so. It's hard for me to imagine. I won't put words in anybody else's mouth, but it's hard for me to imagine that those who are currently in NATO feel a real military threat coming from Russia. I think this is, to the degree there is a sense of concern, my guess is it has more to do with pressure and intimidation than it does any prospect of real military action. So I think it will have very little, if any, impact on Afghanistan.
            Q     Let me just ask just two very brief questions, Mr. Secretary. Would you accept perhaps that, as far as Georgia is concerned, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have now gone, that they will never get it back? Is that a fait accompli that the U.S. is prepared to accept?
            SEC. GATES: Let me answer that question as no.
            Q     You think Georgia will get it back at some state.
            SEC. GATES: I didn't say that. I said we're not prepared to accept.
            Q     And what measures can the U.S. take to make sure that Georgia gets back -- (inaudible)?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the key is continuing to subscribe to territorial integrity of Georgia, continuing to pursue that. I think what has been important here is the unity of the United States and Europe in addressing what Russia has done. I think that the French and President Sarkozy's leadership in this matter has been very constructive and very positive. And I think that continuing to stress the importance of the territorial integrity of Georgia is an important point of principle for all of us.
            Secretary Rice will say in a speech today that the approval of Daniel Ortega and Hamas is not exactly a diplomatic triumph for Russia. And it would be good to keep it there.
            Q     Quickly supplement on Afghanistan. Have you discussed with General McKiernan how to streamline the situation now with 40 countries having a say in military operations and NATO forces being hamstrunged by the caveat that some of the countries like Germany and Italy operate under?
            SEC. GATES: What's the question?
            Q     The question is, is there any plan for the new commander to have a more streamlined chain of command?
            SEC. GATES: Well, there is a plan for a more streamlined chain of command. But the problem has not been the NATO allies and our other partners. The problem has been the division of command over U.S. forces. And so with that, we have in front of the Congress a proposal to confirm General McKiernan not only as the commander of ISAF but as commander of U.S. Forces -- Afghanistan. 
            We are not going to merge the missions of ISAF and OEF. The missions remain exactly the same. But it will allow him to be better able to coordinate all of what the U.S. is doing. And let me give you an example. The whole training mission CSTC-A under General Cone for the Afghan national army is actually subordinated to the commander of Central Command in Tampa. General McKiernan doesn't have any authority over that.
            At the same time, much of what that training mission is doing is out in the field in operational activity. And so there's a major line of activity in Afghanistan that neither the current U.S. commander nor General McKiernan have any authority over. And so what we're trying to establish is better unity of command for what the U.S. is doing so that we can better coordinate our work. And frankly, it will make coordination of what the U.S. is doing and what ISAF is doing, I think, smoother and better.
            Q    Mr. Secretary, on Afghanistan, essentially, you --
            STAFF: Sorry. Let's alternate, please, if we can. (Inaudible.)
            Q     Okay. In recent days, Secretary Mullen has talked about the need for a joint Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. The military commanders we heard from in Afghanistan talked about the importance of doing more to solve the sanctuary problem on the Pakistan side of the border. Do you think that the recent stepped-up unilateral action by the United States on the Pakistan border, predator strikes, commando raids, how is that complicating efforts by the Defense Department to get the Pakistan military to do more in the tribal areas to form a joint -- is that going to be a roadblock for forming a kind of common strategy?
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think that the Pakistanis themselves are increasingly under the weight of the fact that what is going on in the northwestern part of their country is a threat to them as well as a concern for us and for Afghanistan. And so as I said in Kabul yesterday, we've been very pleased to see the stepped-up Pakistani military activity in the west and, I would say, with some considerable effectiveness.
            I think the important thing is for us to stay in very close contact with the Pakistanis and work very closely together in terms of how we address this common threat. And I think that that's one of the benefits of Admiral Mullen's regular trips to Islamabad. And as you know, he was just there yesterday.
            So I think this ongoing dialogue and a sensitivity to Pakistani concerns but at the same time recognition of this common threat does offer an opportunity to work together in going after this threat. I don't know that there's a need for any formal arrangement or any formal joint campaign plan. But clearly, the kind of close dialogue that we have going on with Pakistan is very important.
            Q     Do you make anything of these statements by the Army spokesman that they would shoot at U.S. forces coming across the border? Was there anything to that from what you've been told?
            SEC. GATES: I didn't even see those -- (inaudible).
            Q     Mr. Secretary, British -- (inaudible) -- Afghanistan obviously have 8,000 troops deployed there. They're doing a reasonable job.
            SEC. GATES: Actually, they're doing a very good job.
            Q     There's a lot more to be done. I mean, they're ignoring the whole drug issue there. Is there more that you think the Americans can contribute or more that the British can do in the (coming year ?)? It's getting quite important to tackle -- (inaudible) -- and not letting it get away from them. We have big issues with numbers. We also have issues with -- (inaudible). Is there more Americans can do? Is there more that the British can do to take it off?
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, there is clearly more that we are doing. The president has announced that we will backfill against the 2nd of the 7th Marines with the 3rd of the 8th in November. We are re-missioning a brigade combat team that was going to Iraq to Afghanistan. And it will probably arrive in January. The president in Bucharest pledged additional forces in 2009 for Afghanistan. And I expect his successor will meet that commitment. I'd be quite surprised if not, given the statements of both of the candidates in the U.S.
            So I think there is a lot more going on. We've seen recent, fairly substantial increases in the contributions of other allies -- the Poles, the French, the Germans. My understanding is the U.K. may increase the size of its force there.
            Q     By how much?
            SEC. GATES: I don't know. Maybe I'll find out today. And truthfully, I don't know whether a final decision has been taken on that.
            But the point is that there is a substantial increase in the commitments that have been made in addition to support what is essentially a doubling of the size of the Afghan national army. And one of the issues that I'll be raising during the meetings today and tomorrow is we need, as an Alliance and with our partners, to figure out a way to help pay for that increase in the size of the Afghan national army. After all, that is, ultimately, in addition to the governance and development side, the capability of the Afghan army is ultimately the exit strategy for all of us over the longer term.
            With respect to counternarcotics, it's kind of the story is not a good one, but there is a positive side to it. Really, almost all of the narcotics problem in Afghanistan is focused on seven southern provinces. They produce about 98 percent of the poppies. There are several provinces where poppy growth has been driven down almost to zero thanks principally to good governance and very strong governors.
            The most recent U.N. report shows that acreage under cultivation for poppies has dropped over the past year by about 19 percent from something like 193,000 hectors to 157,000 (hectors). All that said, those seven provinces produce more than enough opium for the entire world market. So supply still exceeds demand. And so it's a concern. 
            And I think one of the issues that the Alliance has to address is the role that we play in the counternarcotics effort. For example, the United States forces don't have as one of their missions a counternarcotics mission. But it seems to me that if we or ISAF encounter the opportunity to take out drug labs or to arrest or take action against drug lords, kingpins, that's an opportunity -- given how tied in it is with all the other issues in Afghanistan, that that's something we ought to be willing to take on in some way. And I think that's something we'll be talking about. 
            Q     You just see the natural progression of going -- British troops drawing down from Iraq, and then drawing up in Afghanistan. Is that the way you see that he's going, because that's the problem now to tackle? 
            SEC. GATES: No, because I don't think that's any more automatic than, sort of, the notion that as we draw down in Iraq, we're building up in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been a dynamic situation, that has changed since the spring of -- since the significant increase in violence beginning in the spring of 2006, the Alliance taking over responsibility in the fall of 2006, and so on. 
            So, I'll let the British government speak for itself, but I don't think it's an automatic, sort of, one-for-one trade-off. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, returning, for a minute, to Admiral Mullen's comments in his Congressional testimony a week or so ago, he said that -- words to the effect that our strategy in Afghanistan is not winning, which leads me to ask what your judgment is about whether we have a strategy in Afghanistan that's winning? 
            There's a broader feeling that if we keep doing what we're doing in Afghanistan, we're going to continue to get the same result, which is -- which is hard to call a victory. So the second question would be, what do you think -- after having been there, we should do differently? What should we augment, what should we do less of? 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think, personally -- and Admiral Mullen and I have a very close relationship, and so I would, the way I'm going to answer that question is not necessarily disagreeing with him, but it's framing the problem or the challenge in a different way -- I think it's actually more complicated than that. 
            For example, there really isn't a significant challenge in the North and the West at this point in Afghanistan. A year ago the East was, essentially, really under control and an example of successful counterinsurgency. The South has been an increasing challenge for the last several years, and there is no question that we face a number of challenges in the South; and increasing challenges in the East. 
            But it's not just the Taliban either. And in the East we face foreign fighters, we face al-Qaeda, we face the Haqqani network, we face Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, and all of these guys are kind of a syndicate operating together. But it's not a centrally controlled Taliban insurgency against the government, it's a number of different challenge against the government. And it is principally focused in the East and, I would say, especially in the South. 
            And so that's where we really are -- if you look at where the most fighting is going on, and has been for some time, it's in the South, with the level of violence going up in the East.  I think the violence in the East has gone up, in part, because of the syndicate that we're facing. 
            I think it's also because there for a number of months -- particularly in the early part of this year when the Pakistani government was trying to make peace deals with some of the tribes, and so on, it essentially relieved all of the pressure on these groups in the -- along the border with Afghanistan, giving them the freedom to come across the border in much larger numbers. 
            What we're seeing now, or just beginning to see, is that as the Pakistanis have once against increased their military activity, we're beginning to see a decrease in the number of people coming across the border. It's still pretty tentative, but that's basically the case. 
            So, I think that, you know, we're all taking a look at the way we're carrying out these efforts in Afghanistan. I think that, clearly, a piece of the problem that is a continuing challenge is governance, corruption -- in substantial measure, fueled by the narcotics trade, the difficulties of economic development in a desperately poor country. 
            You know, another reason for the violence is that with more troops, we've been -- both ISAF and U.S. forces have been going into places they haven't been in a number of years, and turning over rocks. And that has created an increased level of violence as well. And the insurgency has turned to more terrorist types of activities, in terms of trying to undermine confidence in local government.
            So, I think it's a longer term -- it's a long-term challenge in Afghanistan. I think we see some lessons to be learned from Iraq, in terms of the need to establish security as a precondition for economic development and better governance. That means more forces, but I think we are in complete accord with our European allies that the military side of this is only one piece of the solution; that the economic development, governance, corruption, and these others are clearly problems that are going to have to be addressed; and, to be honest, my hopes for better coordination of the civilian side of our assistance to the Afghan government -- provided by the several dozen countries and dozens of NGOs that are there. 
            As I told the House Armed Services committee last week, I've been disappointed that there hasn't been a greater improvement in the coordination of that activity, because I think we're missing some opportunities for great synergy and greater productivity. 
            (Cross-talk, as reporters jockey to ask the next question.) 
            STAFF: Hold on, I gotta keep -- I gotta keep moving. 
            Q     Could I just -- (inaudible) -- question. Do we have a winning strategy in Afghanistan, or should we be making changes? 
            SEC. GATES: I think you don't -- I'm no career military person, I think you have an overall approach, an overall strategy, but you adjust it continually, based on the circumstances that you find. And we did that in Iraq, and we made a change of strategy in Iraq. And we are going to continue to look at the situation in Afghanistan. 
            FACILITATOR: (Kathryn ?)? 
            Q     Yes, Secretary, I want to address the remarks you made in Kabul about civilian casualties -- if you could clarify a little bit for us. I mean, obviously, this is a huge concern and it's making your work there very difficult, when vast numbers of civilians are being killed, as they were in August, in particular. Are you actually --
            SEC. GATES: Well, I wouldn't say "vast numbers," in a country of 38 million people. 
            Q     Are you actually making any specific operational changes that would lead to less civilians being killed, or is this more about how you handle the situation once these accidents have happened? 
            SEC. GATES: I think it's both. What I have -- on the operational side, I have asked our commanders -- first of all, let me, let me just say, no military in the world takes greater pains at avoiding innocent casualties than does the American military. And one of the briefings that we all got yesterday in Bagram was the procedures that they go through to try to avoid civilian casualties when -- (inaudible) --is called in to help troops that are under attack. 
            That said, I have asked the commanders to go back and carefully examine the targets. And if there is a chance -- if the chances of collateral damage, of harming innocent civilians, is substantial, no matter how carefully planned the operation, to reevaluate whether the potential costs of civilian casualties outweighs the potential benefit. I've also asked them to pay closer attention to Afghan concerns, such as road security and that sort of thing. 
            In terms of how we handle them, I think that we have -- our approach, heretofore, has been, if I may say so, sort of, "typically American," which is, let's find out the facts and then let's make up our minds what we do. But the reality is that often the facts are hard to come by; and the Taliban lies. If there is an incident, they will exaggerate what happened. And sometimes when there isn't an incident, they will say there was one. 
            And so I think we have been on the wrong side of the strategic communications challenge. So, the direction that I gave when I was out there yesterday was they, henceforth, in those rare instances where there are innocent civilian casualties, our approach should be to apologize immediately; compensate those that we -- those families that we know have suffered; and then investigate. And if the investigation shows that we should compensate more people, then we'll do that. If it shows we compensated somebody we shouldn't have, my view is that's an acceptable cost -- in terms of being able to communicate properly that we're in this with the Afghans and that we're the, we are the partners and friends of the Afghan people and not somebody trying to do them harm. 
            STAFF: Once again, we're really -- you guys, we're very, very tight on time, so quick questions, please. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, what is the status of the Status of Forces -- (inaudible) -- of agreement with the Iraqis? I ask because a couple of weeks ago there was an announcement of an agreed, sort of, draft. (It ?) went to the senior leaders; Maliki then fired his negotiating team. So, you just met with them, where does that stand today, sir? 
            SEC. GATES: Our negotiating team was back in Washington for a couple of weeks, and I think that they are returning. They either have just returned to Baghdad or soon will, and will, I think, probably be carrying with them some ideas that perhaps meet both the Iraqi and our concerns on some of them remaining issues. 
            Q     What are the main and outstanding issues?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I think it's no secret that jurisdiction is an issue, and detainee operations. There are two or three. 
            Q     Compromise ideas, is that what you're saying? 
            STAFF: Okay, let's keep going. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, very quickly, what do you expect -- (inaudible) -- out of tomorrow -- tomorrow's meeting, in terms of money and/or equipment promised by European allies -- (inaudible). Do you want specific commitments for Afghanistan, in particular, in terms of money or equipment?  
            SEC. GATES: No, this meeting's really not about Afghanistan. This meeting is about -- this meeting really was, I think, originally the idea -- well, the British defense security Des Browne has, for quite some time, been pressing to devote a substantial amount of time at one of the minister's meetings to transformation of the Alliance: How do we reshape the Alliance, or what changes do we need to make as we look to the future? 
            And so it was Mr. Browne's idea that we hold a special session -- and he volunteered to host it here in London, that would focus on transformation of the Alliance. And that's what this meeting is really all about. It's about territorial versus expeditionary capabilities; it's about capabilities for the Alliance; it's about reform of NATO headquarters. It's a -- it's a pretty wide-ranging agenda, but its focus -- it's really not focused on Afghanistan at all, but more on the Alliance itself. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask you about North Korea. Kim Jong Il's health problems raise a prospect of instability there. What are the implications for the United States -- (inaudible) -- it's so heavily tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan? 
            SEC. GATES: Well, frankly, I think, in terms of our military forces, it's irrelevant.  I mean, the way that -- the way that things have evolved in Korea, if there ever should be a conflict, the main American contribution is not ground forces. So, the connection with Afghanistan and Iraq, I think, is irrelevant. 
            We are watching it very closely. We are concerned about instability. I think that all of North Korea's neighbors are concerned about instability, in no small part because of the possibility of large flows of refugees. So, we are looking at that, but at this point it's not entirely clear how seriously ill he is, what the circumstances are. So, I would say we're just -- we, with our friends and probably the neighbors, are just watching the situation at this point. 
            STAFF: The Economist. 
            Q     Just to go back to the point about Pakistan, your defense strategy talks about working through allies, local allies, yet, arguably, ground incursions into Pakistan and civilian casualties, undermine both our allies, whom you would like to support. Can you tell us what, exactly, is your policy, in terms of incursions and missile strikes into Pakistan, and why it's happening -- it seems to be stepped up now; and whether that's likely to change? 
            And, secondly, in terms of Afghanistan, how are Special Forces operations coordinated with General McKiernan's work? 
            SEC. GATES: Well, to answer the second first, because of the nature of ISAF and even under the new double-hatting arrangement, Special Forces will not come under General McKiernan.
            With respect to Pakistan, the only thing that I will say is that we have the tools and we have the authorities to protect our soldiers. I think the most productive way to do that is in partnership with the Pakistanis and with the Pakistanis taking the lead inside their own boundaries, inside their own territory, in dealing with some of these threats.
            And if we can help them, if we can partner with them in some way, if we can enhance their capabilities, the United States is fully prepared to do anything it can in that respect.
            (Cross talk.)
            Q     I'd like -- can ask a two-parter?
            STAFF: No two-parters. Note the time. One part. (Scattered laughter.)
            Q     Just -- you keep giving that answer on the question about Pakistan. And that the attacks have become weekly or more events, how long can the United States continue to wage what I guess amounts to a secret war?
            I mean, there's no public statement on --
            SEC. GATES: The fact that we're all talking about it doesn't make it too secret, does it? (Chuckles.)
            Q     Well, but -- so you're not -- I mean, there's no official explanation of what's going on, who, you know, targets what we're doing there. And I'm wondering how long that can go on.
            And secondly, where today is the central front in the war on terror?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the -- al Qaeda -- I don't know, frankly, what the role or presence of al Qaeda was in Iraq in 2003.  I wasn't in government; I wasn't privy to the intelligence.
            I do know subsequent to that that al Qaeda declared Iraq the central front in the war with the United States and with the West. I think the defeats that they have suffered and setbacks that they have suffered in Iraq have not eliminated the al Qaeda threat in Iraq, but have significantly reduced it. 
            I think that the safe havens that al Qaeda has in the western part of Pakistan are a very real concern for the United States and is a problem that we have talked at length with the Pakistanis about in terms of the danger to the U.S. homeland and the consequences if an attack should erupt out of there.
            And I think that, as I -- I'm really not going to go any further in terms of our operations in Pakistan, except to repeat that I think that the most productive path is one of close cooperation with the Pakistanis.
            (Cross talk.)
            SEC. GATES: And I think that finishing the job in Iraq is important, but if there is a threat to the U.S. homeland posed by al Qaeda at this point, the focal point for that is probably in the safe havens where al Qaeda is located.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, in reference to the strategy in Afghanistan, you made the comparison with Iraq where changes were made. In fact, a fundamental review was carried out of strategy and some fairly fundamental changes were made in terms of the approach in Iraq.
            Why not make the same approach in Afghanistan? Conduct a fundamental review and make some major changes?
            SEC. GATES: Well, we are looking at it. And I guess that's as far as I would go. 
            I mean, clearly we are looking for -- we have seen steady increases in the level of violence over the past two years. We have added, between the United States and our European allies over the last couple of years, we've added 20,000 troops. The U.N. has appointed a senior representative to coordinate the civilian side of assistance and try and help the Afghans with governance.
            So I think that the tools are being put in place to be successful. But clearly, in terms of the fact we're now dealing with this syndicate of different players other than Taliban who are working with the Taliban, present an -- present a different kind of challenge than we faced perhaps two years ago.
            And I would say another factor are just the narco-thugs who are responsible for some level of the violence.
            And so we are taking a close look at it, and I don't know whether the results of that will be a significant change in strategy or just some adjustments.
            Q     So is there a formal review underway? (Is it ?) a more informal review of the whole Afghanistan strategy?
            SEC. GATES: I would just say we're looking at it.
            Q     Mr. Secretary, can you say a bit more about the narcotics in Afghanistan? Are you going to make a proposal tomorrow, or is there one on the table? And when do you expect a decision on the U.S. and/or NATO taking on that mission in Afghanistan?
            SEC. GATES: Well, there is -- there has been a proposal on the table for some time for ISAF to -- for counternarcotics to be considered a legitimate part of the mission for ISAF. 
            And as I say, Afghanistan really isn't the focus of the discussions today and tomorrow, but I suspect that we'll perhaps be discussing that issue on the margins, and maybe it'll be addressed when we get together in Budapest next month.
            STAFF: Jim -- (inaudible)?
            Q     Sir, we visited the PRT yesterday in Jalalabad. And that was a pretty well-staffed PRT. I guess it's uneven throughout the country. Are you going to be pressing some of the NATO allies or the folks who are running those other PRTs to staff up -- (off mike) -- want them to staff up?
            SEC. GATES: Well, we have -- I think that most of the U.S. PRTs are pretty well staffed at this point in Afghanistan. There is a continuing need for more of them, just as there is a significant need for more of these operational mentoring and liaison teams, the OMLTs that work with the military and the police.
            So I guess all I'd say is that that's been an ongoing discussion with the allies ever since I got this job, in terms of seeing if they could contribute more in those areas as well. There is an unmet need.
            STAFF: Justin, do you have one?
            Q     Yes. Mr. Secretary, you've made ISR a -- (inaudible) -- for your trip in Afghanistan. I was hoping you could talk to us a little bit about the improvements you'd like to see there in Afghanistan. And are you worried at all that a reliance on this strategy is something that can't be sustained financially by the Afghans once we leave? And --
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think the kind of -- first of all, my basic objective over the last eight to 10 months has been to simply get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities into both Iraq and Afghanistan.
            I think that the fusion of the intelligence they provide and military operations is unprecedented in military history. It makes for significantly enhanced operations and more precisely targeted operations. It helps people go after the IED networks; it helps our people go after the IED networks.
            And it's the diversity. It's not just Predators, but it's a whole range of capabilities that's involved here. We've reprogrammed, I think, $1.3 billion in the FY '08 supplemental for these kinds of capabilities, and another roughly billion and a half in the FY '09 budget for these capabilities.
            And we've made significant progress. When we started -- in terms of kind of full-time surveillance, we started eight months ago with 12 orbits in both theaters. We're now at 27. We hope by the end of next year to double that. So they're providing a capability that --
            And frankly, as we draw down our troops in Iraq, these kinds of capabilities become even more important for our forces and for the Iraqis, and they're clearly important in Afghanistan as well.
            So I think, quite honestly, these are not capabilities that in their -- in the level of sophistication and the depth of the operations that the quantity available, frankly, I don't think very many governments in the world could sustain this. But we certainly --
            My view is we have long-term commitments to help both Iraq and Afghanistan, and these are areas in which I think they would want and expect us to continue to help them.
            STAFF: Thanks. That's all the time we have. Thank you very much.
                THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.

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