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Why did we lose the war in Afghanistan?

February 25, 2015

Summary: Some US analysts are addressing themselves to this question.  My view is that the war has not yet been lost 

US troops in AfgOver at Foreign Policy, the writer Thomas Ricks is hosting on his blog the challenge to write 500 words or less (I guess it could be much less) on the issue of why the US lost the war in Afghanistan.  Just in case they do not post my contribution, I post it here.  Shame to waste it.

Why did we lose the war in Afghanistan?

The question is flawed. The original phrasing made it too specifically about US Army tactics and COIN doctrine. Aside from the definitional issues of who is “we” and what does “lose” mean, I am not sure I accept the premise of the question. The battle has not been lost yet. This fact (I really think it is a fact) has been due in large part to the efforts of the US, however confused and ill-informed these actions were. It is now being fought in a different way – yes, possibly in the way it should have been fought in the first place – but it is not over.

If Afghanistan did not, in 2015, have a functioning government and had imploded back into civil war, or the Taliban had returned to conquer, 1990s-style, major cities and provinces, including the capital, then you could perhaps be making the judgement that the war had been lost. Losing a war is surely not the same as prosecuting it in a very clumsy, protracted and costly fashion.

We now live in the era of globalisation, Al Qaeda, ISIS, information and cyber warfare, highly interwoven conflict causes (narco, ethnic, religious, political, criminal, etc). Conflict is more complex and fast-moving than ever before. We are now adding “hybrid” into the lexicon, although most of the tactics contained within are very old. Maybe “winning” wars in this century is just a really old-fashioned way of looking at things, inevitably replaced by a variety of other terms: solving, resolving, limiting, managing, containing. No fun for the army that wants to stick a flag on a hill, but perhaps many of the wars this century will now offer will be complex, multi-actor, multi-decade, multi-informational, low-intensity, affairs. There will be no real victors and the only time politicians and soldiers can pat themselves on the back is when a country is judged merely to have avoided implosion.

Maybe Afghanistan was always going to be this messy and complex and costly. Almost by definition, this is what will happen when the international community rapidly responds to crises in parts of the world it knows little about. But think how the conflict might be judged by historians in twenty years time. I am still pessimistic in many ways, but there has to be at least a 50/50 chance that Afghanistan will make forward progress, politically and economically, however slow and painful. The war is not lost and the US is still playing a key role.

Reappraise the definitions of winning and losing. But, if you insist on looking at it in black and white terms, George Friedman’s “The Next Hundred Years” puts it nicely:

“The United States doesn’t need to win wars. It needs to simply disrupt things so the other side can’t build up sufficient strength to challenge it…The United States has a huge margin of error…Its not stupid. It simply doesn’t need to be more careful…”.

Maybe the US did win? Maybe the Taliban are asking themselves the same question?

Taliban – planning to talk?

February 24, 2015

Summary: More suggestions that the Taliban might be open for talks with the Afghan government should be treated with caution but some form of “peace with honour” could now appeal to many fighters

Taliban and Afghan government at the same table, Kyoto 2012

Once again some indications that the Taliban might be open to the possibility of talks with the Afghan government. The LA Times points to comments made by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s “chief executive” and, by all standards, a very senior and credible player:

LA Times, 23 Feb 2015: “The government of Afghanistan is close to beginning direct peace talks with Taliban insurgents for the first time, according to senior Afghan officials.  Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in Afghanistan’s unity government, said at a Cabinet meeting Monday that Taliban leaders were willing to negotiate directly with Kabul, raising hope for a settlement to hostilities that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.  Abdullah said he had received assurances from Pakistan, where senior Taliban leaders are based, that the insurgent group was ready to hold face-to-face talks for the first time since a multinational diplomatic effort to engage the Taliban collapsed in 2013. The difference this time, officials say, is the peace process would be directed completely by Afghans.”

Also here:

Business Standard, 23 Feb 2015: “A former top Taliban commander has said that Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership has agreed to start “preliminary peace talks” with the Afghanistan government.  A Taliban leader said that the representatives, who met Pakistani and Chinese officials earlier, had sought time to consult the senior leadership, which has now given a “green signal,” reported The Express Tribune.

He added that Pakistani officials had urged Taliban leaders to sit “face-to-face” with Afghan authorities and put their demands before them to find a political solution to the problem, reported The Express Tribune.  Another Taliban leader said that a small delegation of Taliban leaders from its political office in Qatar are expected to visit Pakistan soon for further discussions to explore ways for the proposed peace talks and the re-opening of the Taliban office in Qatar.  He said that senior representatives, Qari Din Muhammad and Abbas Stanakzai, will be among the team.

Taliban had long been opposing any dialogue with former president Karzai’s government by arguing that he had no powers to take decisions. They had the same approach towards the government of incumbent President Ashraf Ghani but they now seem willing to initiate dialogue with Afghan authorities.”

In addition, the reported potential Chinese role in brokering talks that I have mentioned before has resurfaced:

LA Times, 23 Feb 2015: “Ghani has urged Pakistan in a series of meetings to put pressure on the Taliban and enlisted the support of China, a key ally of Islamabad.  One Afghan official with knowledge of the negotiations described the involvement of China as a ‘big, important new development.’  There are also suggestions that a senior former Taliban Minister with still strong connections to the Taliban, Motassim Agha Jan, is being considered for a senior post within government, such as leader of the High Peace Council.”

This type of reach-out has been made several times before, but it is at least encouraging that President Ashraf Ghani seems to be moving quickly on this, after the long hiatus of election and government team-building. The Taliban themselves, via their website, have issued strong denials, something they are always quick to do when flurries of talks about talks emerge in the press:

Taliban flagTaliban website, 24 Feb 2015: “It is a crystal clear fact that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not only a promoter of peace and security rather it sprung up for this exact purpose and salvaged its nation from insecurity, displacement and the disintegration of the country. The esteemed Commander of the Faithful, may Allah protect him, has repeatedly declared in his Eid statements (twice annually) that the central goals of the Islamic Emirate are ending the occupation, attaining independence, establishing an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace for our countrymen.

For attaining this purpose the Islamic Emirate, with the help of its believing Mujahid nation, has utilized both military and political mechanisms and will continue to do so in the future. Establishing contacts with world countries, visits, meetings, participation of Islamic Emirate in international conferences and opening a political office in Qatar, which was opposed by anti-peace parties, are clear examples of this.

There have been many rumors swirling around in the media lately about the latest developments in Afghanistan and negotiations with the Kabul administration, these are nothing more than the views and assumptions of these outlets. We have repeatedly declared that every report which is not published or confirmed by the official channels of Islamic Emirate are false and hold no value.

It must be mentioned that if the Islamic Emirate ever takes a step in its Islamic and national interests and towards attaining the above mentioned goals then it will surely announce it to its beloved nation and the world through its official channels.”

This generally doesn’t mean anything either way – they likely remain keen to keep all their sub-commanders and fighters as on-side as possible – even the idea of talks can be very divisive for an insurgency group. Albeit weak, the notion that ISIS might be attempting to push in to Taliban areas in Afghanistan, may be an additional factor that is helping to focus the mind of the Taliban leadership.

But notice that the Taliban do not rule things out in their statement (“…if the Islamic Emirate ever takes a step…) and also what the core Taliban demand is – “the central goals of the Islamic Emirate are ending the occupation, attaining independence, establishing an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace for our countrymen”.  Three out of four demands here are easy and uncontroversial – in fact they are almost completely unnecessary and designed only to surround the “occupation issue”.  This sort of general demand can surely be smoothed and moulded into something that all parties could accept – all Afghans want independence, an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace”.  The concept of “occupation” is certainly the tricky bit.  But again, with some intelligent and sensitive wording, perhaps bolstered with some confidence-building actions and statements from the US,  an international military presence could be something that is “managed out” in a timetable.  The down-sizing and ultimate departure of US troops (economic, development and investment advisors – in Afghanistan only to spend money and rebuild – could remain?) could be sold as lightly conditional on a demonstrable reduction in violence.  Even as early as 2004, there were points where I felt that all it needed was some intelligent wording to give something that everyone could sign up to.  The key to talks now – as it always has been – is to remove all suggestions of humiliation from all sides: no winners or losers, no handing in weapons, no treating ex-fighters like prisoners.  Perhaps the “arrival” of ISIS and the existence of a new, external, security challenge actually gives the Taliban and the Afghan government some common security ground to talk about?

It is more complicated than this, but if the Taliban were able to look through and beyond their own propaganda (which has really been looking tired, unimaginative and repetitive lately) and make a clear-eyed appraisal of where they are and where they might be going, they would perhaps note:

a) Major political/military gains by the Taliban – taking and holding provinces and cities – are still beyond them
b) The risks of launching their own large-scale conventional military attacks are great
c) The Afghan security forces are powerful, still in the fight and, for the present at least, loyal to the central government
d) Most Afghans still do not support them and are slowly moving on, politically, culturally and economically, without them
e) An international military presence of 10 – 12,000 in a training and advisory role (with airpower and intelligence support as necessary) could be sustained more or less indefinitely, should the US decide to do so. The US is publicly considering an extension of its 2016 withdrawal deadline at present

I have suggested before that, with both the Afghan National Army and the Taliban still very much in the fight and willing and able to contest the key  battlefields of the outlying provinces, 2015 is more likely to see continued fighting than a peace deal.  A peace deal that maintained honour for the Taliban and supported their inclusion in aspects of government will be difficult to achieve and painful for many.  But there is a real possibility that talks could re-emerge, develop and take root. Issues of “defeat” – who won or lost – ought quickly to be abandoned, in order to facilitate this.

Because of my personal age, experience and background, I am slightly minded of the UK miner’s strike in 1984/85. It is not a perfect analogy, but with the miners as the “insurgents”, by the end of their “campaign”, they hadn’t strictly speaking lost, but were really struggling to keep morale up and strike activity sustained.  There was, by early 2005, little prospect of a realistic and decisive victory. In the end, many (most?) of them wanted nothing more than to be able to march back into their towns and villages with heads held high, banners waving and to be able to claim, then, and in the years to come, that they had been “undefeated”, that they had stood up and been counted when faced with an external threat. The practical realities of politics and economics would kick in later.  There was (and still is) much bitter resentment about who was on which side, but, in the end, time smoothed much of this over.

UN on Ukraine: “Any further escalation will prove catastrophic”

February 3, 2015

Summary: As separatists consider large scale mobilisation and US ponder arming Ukraine, the UN warns of possible Ukrainian “catastrophe”.

_80750151_ukraine_rebel_forces_debaltseve_624_v3There seems to be nothing good coming out of the Ukraine at present, with casualties now well in advance of 5,000.  Talks are being abandoned, spurned and generally ignored.  Some observations from the UN as a result of the latest surge of fighting in the central (Debaltseve) and southern (Mariupol) contested areas of eastern Ukraine are bleak.  Debaltseve – with a population of around 26,000 in 2013, appears to be virtually cut off, raising prospects of more humanitarian trauma.  The UN highlights the rise in civilian casualties recently:

GENEVA (3 February 2015) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Tuesday urged all sides to halt the dangerous escalation in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. He called on States and all those with influence in the region to take measures to ensure full compliance with the Minsk accords, which have a direct bearing on the human rights situation in the east of the country.

“Bus stops and public transport, marketplaces, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and residential areas have become battlegrounds in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine – in clear breach of international humanitarian law which governs the conduct of armed conflicts,” High Commissioner Zeid said.

“The death toll now exceeds 5,358 people, and another 12,235 have been wounded since mid-April last year. In just the three weeks up to February 1, at least 224 civilians have been killed and 545 wounded. Any further escalation will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

In particular, there has been a high civilian death toll from the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas in both Government-controlled territory, such as the towns of Avdiivka, Debaltseve, Popasna and Shchastia and the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, as well as the cities of Donetsk and Horlivka controlled by the armed groups. In the single most deadly incident involving civilians, at least 31 people were killed and 112 wounded in Mariupol, following two attacks by multiple launch rocket systems.

“The protection of civilians by all parties to the conflict must be of the utmost priority,” Zeid said. “All violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law must be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators must be promptly brought to justice.”

The High Commissioner also expressed concern about the implications of the harsh winter months on civilians in conflict-affected areas, with shortages of food and water and power cuts. The plight of these civilians has been compounded by Government decisions that have resulted in further restrictions on the freedom of movement and socio-economic isolation. The prolongation of the conflict would make the humanitarian situation untenable for millions of people, Zeid stressed.

“The public declarations by representatives of the armed groups, rejecting the ceasefire agreement and vowing to scale up the offensive are extremely dangerous and deeply worrying,” Zeid said. “They add to the terrifying predicament of the civilians who are trapped in the areas, and the total breakdown of law and order. I urge all States with influence to work together to ensure that parties to the conflict immediately cease hostilities and abide by earlier ceasefire decisions.”

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISISThe BBC have this report:

BBC, 3 Feb 2015: Up to 16 civilians have been killed and dozens more injured in the space of 24 hours in fighting in eastern Ukraine, as the UN warns that the fresh surge in violence is proving “catastrophic”.  Government and rebel representatives reported the latest deaths in locations across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  Ukraine’s army also said five soldiers had died fighting pro-Russian rebels near the strategic town of Debaltseve.  Civilian casualties have risen sharply in recent weeks amid a rebel offensive.

The latest deaths were in the city of Donetsk, Debaltseve and several villages under government control in the Luhansk region. The exact numbers could not be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile, the separatist rebels talk of a mobilisation of 100,000 troops (although where from is unclear) and there appears to be discussion in US government circles on providing weapons to the Ukrainian army:

Daily Telegraph, 2 Feb 2015: The spectre of a deepening proxy war in Ukraine involving both Russia and the United States has raised its head after reports that the White House is considering supplying weapons to Kiev.

Washington has so far refused to supply weapons to the pro-Western Ukrainian government but reports suggest that a growing number of President Barack Obama’s advisors are now warming to the idea.

According to the New York Times General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s military commander, supports providing arms and equipment to Ukraine’s hard-pressed forces, which are struggling to quell an uprising led by Russian-backed separatists.

Other senior officials including John Kerry, the US secretary of state, are also said to be open shifting American policy and beginning to send weapons to Kiev.

Summarising Afghanistan’s neighbours

February 2, 2015

Summary: constructive, pragmatic, but often unhelpfully self-interested – a summary of the possible impact of Afghanistan’s neighbours in the coming years.

Afghan map outlineI was asked this question by a Wikistrat colleague, on the issue of Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Do you see any regional players getting more involved in the rebuilding process and maintaining stability (i.e. Pakistan, India)? What kinds of roles would they play?

I produced a paper in 2010 entitled “Afghanistan’s Neighbours: Great Game, Regional Approach or Limited Liability Opportunism?”:

I really need to redevelop some proper thoughts since this paper, but I think the key themes are still broadly where we are now, so thought I would race through a few lightly updated “headlines” for the key neighbours. A recurring theme has been the unexploited but massive economic potential in and around Afghanistan. “New Silk Road” studies regularly point at trillions of dollars of minerals, gem, natural resources, transport and trade opportunities. Every time this gets publicity, it seems to come to nothing as a result of security and corruption issues…

Pakistan: a confused and conflicted relationship with their Afghan brothers. The assertion by many analysts is that Pakistan is engaged in a “double game”. Pakistan seeks a passive “client” state in Afghanistan that has polices favourable to Pakistan. To preserve all options, Pakistan is covertly retaining links with, and providing support to, the Taliban. There has been some small scale economic and political reach-out, but the border between the two countries is fluid allowing insurgents of all sorts to come and go and smuggling to bypass regular trade, tax and economic process. Until the two countries sort out their security issues – their relationship will be fraught. Development and stability opportunities will underachieve for the next few years.

Iran: Iran remains concerned about instability in Afghanistan leading to more refugees coming to Iran. Its engagement with Afghanistan has been a mix of constructive – yes to investment and reconstruction, including a railway, in western Afghanistan – but also unhelpful. NATO has certainly complained quite bluntly about weapons and IED technology coming in from Iran and ending up in the hands of insurgents, although this might slacken now NATO has more or less gone.

China: China has managed to stay out of the conflict (although worried about the risk that insurgencies might spill across) but snap up investment opportunities where it can, desiring the trade and natural resources that Afghanistan (and Central Asia) offer. China has invested heavily (the Afghan government received around $3Bn for the Aynak copper mine). This month China seemed to be trying to broker talks between the Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan, suggesting new interest in the security side.

Crudely summarising the others: the Central Asian States will have limited impact. India will continue to invest heavily and will enjoy provoking Pakistan as it does so.

NATO hindsight…

February 1, 2015

Summary: What lessons learned for NATO from Afghanistan?

I was asked this question as part of my work at wikistrat:

One of the main obstacles for NATO in Afghanistan was the continued subordination of military forces to national political leaders despite the Alliance’s unified command structure (e.g. caveats about use of force, where they can deploy).  What, if anything, has been learned from NATO’s time in Afghanistan that may help us avoid the pitfalls of these sometimes contradictory chains-of-command in the future?

NATO symbol, flags and HQ

lessons are “identified”, but less frequently “learned”…

Of course, this was a very significant problem for the international operations across Afghanistan.  When I worked inside the Ministry of Defence over 2001 – 2006, in my part of the department we tried to avoid the term “lessons learned”, preferring, instead, to talk of “lessons identified”.  I feel that the nature of NATO is such that it will always have a significant element of these command and control problems in a large-scale or complex combat environment such as Afghanistan.

The members of NATO are quite diverse, more so than in the 1980s, with different historic, cultural and military experiences. Some, such as the (UK and US) have quite extensive combat experience (albeit in specific types of operation).  Others, perhaps more recently NATO members, have a less extensive range of military assets, financial resources or competences.

I am currently working on a study of “hybrid warfare”, in the context of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea by Russia.  The options for initiating and maintaining conflicts are now incredibly diverse: for example the use of cyber-attacks, propaganda, Special Forces, intelligence groups, local militias, etc.  An “obvious” war, in which the conflict is formally declared, protagonists are clearly defined and goals and objectives delimited (the Second World War, in effect) looks less likely than ever before.

As conflicts become more complex – and deniable – I suspect national governments are more likely to wish to exert a tighter control over the nature of the deployment of their national forces and whether they get involved in the first place.  This will likely be exacerbated by a couple of factors:

a) The decreasing “tolerance” for casualties within the populations of NATO countries
b) Advances of information technology which give a much more immediate picture to national audiences and government decision-makers alike

My sense, therefore, is that if there is any lesson learned at all from the Afghanistan experience, it is that national caveats and other forms of direct national control that bypass official NATO command structures are almost inevitable.  NATO force commanders may have to get used to the idea that a certain amount of tactful negotiation will be necessary.  The price of having an extra national flag flying in the “coalition of the willing” will be the acceptance that some not all members are the same.


Afghanistan: “Marg” force to confront Islamic State and Taliban?

January 28, 2015

Summary: curious reports of a new armed group intending to confront Taliban and ISIS should be treated cautiously. Might old school warlords be manoeuvring post NATO…?…

cropped-19thc-afghan-map-8.jpgTrying to follow the “IS in Afghanistan” theme has thrown up another confusing lead.  Khaama Press report that a new force, called “Marg” (meaning death) is forming in northern Afghanistan, with a mission to confront both the Taliban and IS:

Khaama Press, 27 Jan, 2015: A new group calling themselves “Marg” or “Death” announced its existence in northern Afghanistan. Dozens of members of “Marg” group yesterday went to the provincial council of northern Balkh province and announce their readiness to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Taliban in Afghanistan.  Although the group did not carry a flag which has been normal if any group comes into existence in Afghanistan but their clothes were made off three colors which is the flag of Afghanistan, this can be their distinguish from other groups operating in Afghanistan. Marg Group claims that more than 5,000 people have announced their allegiance with them to fight ISIS and Taliban.  Marg Group says there is no difference between ISIS and Taliban and that all of them are enemies of Afghanistan. Marg Group also called on Afghans to join their group for defense of their country and people.

Analysis and Outlook

There seems only to be one report, spread over several news agencies.  I would certainly shy away from believing the figure of 5,000 fighters.  As with the reports of IS emerging in Afghanistan, I cannot but help being suspicious. I sense that the same old warlords of the Taliban and non-Taliban type are involved here, exploiting possible new seams of power, influence and money, perhaps perceiving a post-NATO power vacuum. Dostum was apparently recently touting (actually, “re-touting” – he has had this idea for a few years now) the idea of a new 20,000-strong force of fighters, controlled by him – funny enough. This force would be based in the north and go down south to confront the Taliban (and anyone else that might be judged some sort of threat, I guess).

Daily Outlook, 20 Jan 2015: The commander of Afghan National Army Ground Forces Gen. Murad Ali Murad has rejected the plan by first vice president Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum to fight the Taliban insurgents.  The first vice president had earlier proposed to establish 20,000 militia forces for the repression of the Taliban fighters.  Gen. Dostum had proposed that the militia forces should alongside the Afghan National Army forces to fight against the Taliban insurgents.  However, Gen. Murad said Sunday that the establishment of parallel forces and outside the formation of the Afghan National Security forces (ANSF) is not acceptable

Is it too early to speculate on the possibility of new manoeuvrings of regional warlords in the post-NATO Afghanistan? If this new force ,”Marg”, is real, rather than some disgruntled local chief, and coming from Balkh province in the north, this might point towards Mohammed Atta or Rashid Dostum. Anything that looks to bypass central government authority – and the Afghan National Army – even if professing to confront the Taliban, could well undermine the country’s stability.

Changing the message: improving the prospects for conflict resolution in Afghanistan

January 21, 2015

Summary: Peace talks have made little headway towards conflict resolution in Afghanistan and the negative media environment is undermining these prospects by creating distrust, disinformation and hostility. Somewhere between the poisonous and damaging propaganda war and credible political dialogue there is an unexplored area of communication and information dissemination for the international community to investigate in order to make talks more effective when they do take place.

Taliban and Afghan government at the same table, Kyoto 2012

Taliban and Afghan government at the same table, Kyoto 2012

I have just finished a paper for FOI, the Swedish Defence Ministry’s Research Agency. It explores ways in which a better media environment for dialogue with the Taliban might be created. It was based on initial ideas I had in a short paper I produced while in Kabul in 2011.  It was my intention that these ideas might be applicable to other conflict areas as well.  The abstract is here and you can order copies from FOI here.  I shall sketch out some of the main ideas in a little more detail in a subsequent post, but please feel free to drop me a line if you would like to hear a little more about the paper.

A Taliban-led insurgency has grown in strength and confidence from faltering beginnings after the Taliban regime was ejected in late 2001. International efforts to achieve military victory have failed and opposition groups under the Taliban umbrella remain in the field. With the withdrawal of international military forces now well underway and the conflict largely unresolved, there is a high risk of the civil war intensifying in the years to come. Peace talks have made little headway towards conflict resolution and the prospects for a political settlement continue to look distant – with neither side fully ready. The negative environment in media and other public information sources – communications, claims, announcements and propaganda – is significantly undermining the prospects for peace talks and reconciliation by creating distrust, disinformation and hostility. For talks to work, this messaging environment needs to be changed in order to transform the conflict. Somewhere between the poisonous and damaging propaganda war and credible political dialogue there is an unexplored area of communication and information dissemination for the international community to investigate. It involves engaging with the opposition groups, including the Taliban, on political, social and economic themes that might guide, shape, coax and encourage them to engage more constructively. Understanding what the various military and political groups want remains difficult and their communications hard to understand. But there are indicators of “reach out” on occasion and these should be engaged with intelligently and proactively by, for example, the United Nations, but also other neutral organisations. A combination of non-confrontational messages and confidence building measures suggested in this report are intended to act, not as talks in their own right, but as a precursor to talks, to make talks more effective – and sustainable – when they do take place. Public, intelligent and sensitive discourse with the armed opposition groups should aim to guide them away from the language and deeds of violence and to engage more on political, social and economic issues.

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