“The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights” (Mohammad Asif Mohseni, senior Afghan cleric and legislator, 11 April 2009)
“I hope that we have elevated in the hearts and minds of people in our own country just how important having a robust military is. That includes peacekeeping but it also includes to do the business when called upon, whether it’s been in Afghanistan, or as it has been in past conflicts in Korea or Yugoslavia or in places around the world like Haiti.” (Peter MacKay, Canadian Minister for National Defence, source.)
“Epic Fail” for NATO
One normally does not find the name Hamid Karzai and the word “genius” together in the same sentence (one can check). Yet if the passage of the new Shia marriage law to appease leaders of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority before national elections was intended to castrate NATO’s public relations war, to create a domestic lose-lose situation for NATO governments seeking to ever re-justify their long and growing war in Afghanistan, as perhaps a parting shot by an increasingly unruly henchman of the West facing the possible end of his career, then yes this was genius. In virtually every position taken by Afghan women who have spoken out, whether they be Shia women who support the law (see the video below), those protesting against the law, and those who think the law is partly bad and partly good, the loser of the situation is NATO. Whichever exit the NATO narrative seeks is marked with the word “FAIL.”
NATO’s “Master Narrative”
NATO has a “master narrative” as a formal and official fact, this is not an academic construction. One of the documents released to Wikileaks, and shared here, comes from the Media Operations Centre (MOC) of the Press and Media Service of NATO headquarters in Brussels. The document is titled, “NATO in Afghanistan: Master Narrative as at 6 October 2008.” The title itself suggests that master narratives, as constructed by NATO, are subject to further revision, due in part to the fact that is not actually a master narrative in a grand sense, so much as it is plainly a set of momentary propaganda talking points oriented toward the domestic mass media (indeed, evidence of the deployment of some of the specifics of this narrative is to be found on this very blog with an American posting from Afghanistan).
In Section III, “Key Political Messages,” item 31 speaks of “Legitimacy” (p. 24):
NATO is in Afghanistan at the express wish of the democratically elected GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and is widely supported by the Afghan population.
• NATO/ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is in Afghanistan to support the legitimate Afghan authorities.
• As demonstrated in all opinion polls, there is strong support from the Afghan people for NATO/ISAF.
Remember that: democratically elected, widely supported by the population, legitimate, and Afghans love NATO (quote some polls, say, by The Asia Foundation, an arm of the CIA, the National Security Council, and the U.S. State Department).
Then on page 30 of the same document, NATO points out, concerning women, democracy and legitimacy,
“Presidential, Parliamentary and Provincial elections have taken place and women are now sitting in the Afghan Parliament. 28% of the MPs of the Lower House are female. Legitimate and representative government is now in place.”
Failed States Are the Ones that Fight Failed Wars
Yet, suddenly, all of the above is abruptly put into reverse gear by the heads of some of the leading NATO governments. The democracy and self-determination of a liberated people now enjoying sovereignty — according to the NATO narrative — now gives way to another instance where western powers take this line: if it’s Muslim, it’s a problem.
Otherwise, is it now NATO’s goal to stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes Afghans to stop being Afghans? That is one question, from one perspective, and the prospect of a war of resocialization that lasts generations is troubling, not least for its lack of realism. Another question, from another perspective as we will see below, is: If this is the kind of democracy that NATO swore by, and in which it actively invested itself and helped to create, should it not take the responsibility for its consequences?
At the recent NATO summit at Strasbourg, France, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer asked:
“How can I defend — or how can the British government defend, the Canadian government, the Dutch government — that our boys and girls are dying there in the defence of universal values.” [See “Rape law hurting efforts to sell NATO role in Afghanistan: NATO chief,” CBC News, Saturday, April 4, 2009.]
Similar statements were heard from Canadian Ministers:
“This [marriage law] is extremely alarming and it’s troublesome for a lot of the allies,” Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said….Cannon questioned whether any such Afghan law “was adopted in the legitimate way and manner” of Afghanistan’s national assembly….the [Afghan] ambassador to Canada has been called in for an explanation. [“Rape law hurting efforts to sell NATO role in Afghanistan: NATO chief,” CBC News, Saturday, April 4, 2009.]
Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “That said, let me be very clear on this…there is going to remain enormous pressure on the government of Afghanistan on this question. This goes fundamentally, directly, to the heart of the reasons for allied engagement.” [“Controversial women’s law to be reviewed: Karzai,” CBC News, Saturday, April 4, 2009.]
“If these reports are true, this will create serious problems for Canada,” said International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who fielded questions in the House of Commons. “The onus is on the government of Afghanistan to live up to its responsibilities for human rights, absolutely including rights of women. If there’s any wavering on this point from the government of Afghanistan, this will create serious problems and be a serious disappointment for us” Day said. [“New Afghan law forcing sex draws outrage from Canada,” CBC News, Tuesday, March 31, 2009.]
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed to lead the condemnation of the Shia marriage law:
“I phoned the president immediately about this because anybody who looks at Afghanistan will be worried if we are going to see laws brought in that discriminate against women and put women at risk,” Brown said.
“I made it absolutely clear to the president that we could not tolerate that situation. You cannot have British troops fighting, and in some cases dying, to save a democracy where that democracy is infringing human rights. [“Karzai bows to international calls to scrap Afghan ‘rape’ law — Gordon Brown tells President Hamid Karzai that British soldiers could not die defending regime that oppresses women,” by Jon Boone, The Guardian, Sunday 5 April 2009.]
The statements by NATO politicians hardly improve the situation for NATO, either at home or abroad. They provoke the following questions to say the least:
- Did the NATO Secretary General remember to inform the Afghan people that the right values for them had been decided by NATO?
- If the values are universal, then why are so many Muslims oblivious to the fact, or are they not a part of the universe that is behind the universal?
- When did the war become one of universal values, and how is it that such values can only be defended, through violence, in one select state?
- Since NATO has decided to operate well beyond the geographic confines of the North Atlantic — or at least it has extended the concept of the Atlantic World to encompass all of Asia now — when did this military pact decide that it would also intervene in marriage issues?
- Which citizens knowingly and consciously authorized their governments to commit troops to die for “universal values,” when some of these values are in peril at home?
- Should we also use deadly violence at home against our government if we feel that universal values are not being upheld?
- From an anthropological standpoint, who decided which values are the universal ones, and what makes them universal?
Last but not least, given that Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay, Lawrence Cannon and Stockwell Day are ministers in a minority Canadian government that won no more than 22% of the votes of registered Canadian voters — exactly when did they decide that they could speak for any Afghan constituents, when they hardly speak for any Canadian constituents? Then again, this is a minority that rules with absolutism at home, thanks to a supportive and nominal opposition of secondary conservatives known as the Liberal Party of Canada, under the leadership of former Harvard human rights academic, Michael Ignatieff, who also supported the invasion of Iraq and the use of torture. So much for universal values then.
The truly rich irony, of course, is that the newly elected Conservative government in Canada sought, as part of its first legislative goals, to eliminate equal pay for equal work, added to its long track record of previous slaps in the face to women’s rights in Canada (see here, here, and here). It seems that “women’s rights” only matter for Afghan women, in an imperial war of occupation. Now that’s not universalism, is it?
Humanitarianism as Colonialism
What Jaap de Hoop Scheffer does is to betray the master discourse behind the talking points: the colonial civilizing mission that NATO has undertaken as part of its occupation of Afghanistan, that mission intended as the ideological lubricant that facilitates the reconstruction of Afghanistan as a strategic military base. Talking points can be altered daily, but what is slower to change is the master discourse of NATO which has deployed a series of shifting narratives since the U.S. led it to war in Afghanistan.
First, the war in Afghanistan was about “getting Bin Laden” since the Taliban seemingly refused to surrender him or to expel Al Qaida (the Taliban government asked for evidence of Al Qaida’s involvement in the attacks of 11 September 2001, and none was forthcoming from the U.S. at that time). Second, the war then became one to unseat the Taliban, which had itself never attacked the U.S. Third, having accomplished the second stated goal, the U.S. and its NATO partners then sought to remake and reinvent Afghanistan in a process that some call “nation building.” Fourth, as part of the third goal, the mission was now ostensibly to develop Afghanistan, spread democracy, and defeat the Taliban insurgency.
Now that the various missions have obviously failed, with a resurgent and stronger Taliban, a semi-autonomous Taliban regime governing a large chunk of neighbouring Pakistan, and hatred mounting for NATO forces, the only sustenance NATO could draw, in political terms, was from public opinion on the home front.
What was there to save NATO’s public relations war against citizens of NATO states? Marriage. The marital affairs of Shia Afghans now became a subject for NATO deliberation and intervention.
In the U.S. barely a majority think it was right to invade to Afghanistan. In Canada, only a small minority think so. In most NATO countries in western Europe, the public is strongly opposed to the war in Afghanistan — if NATO thought the imposition of universal values in Afghanistan would win hearts and minds at home for ulterior strategic motives, then this is another epic failure.
No Love for US/NATO
If one tosses aside the motivated play with meanings and numbers of surveys by the disreputable Asia Foundation, and instead turns to the polls commissioned by the BBC, ABC and ARD (Germany) — see here — we get the following picture:
- A majority of Afghans in the east of the country oppose the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, as do nearly half of respondents (46%) in the south and (48%) in Kabul.
- 72% of respondents in the east of Afghanistan, and 52% in the south, oppose the NATO presence in Afghanistan. In the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar (where Canadian forces operate), and Nangarhar, an overwhelming majority oppose the NATO presence.
- Foreign aid organizations are opposed by majorities in in Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, and are opposed by large minorities elsewhere.
What do Afghan Women Say?
If NATO thought it would win the hearts and minds of Afghan women, having rapidly recast an imperial mission as one allegedly out to defend women’s rights, then they won no support from any side of the spectrum of opinions.
Malalai Joya, elected to and expelled from the Afghan parliament, is a vigorous defender of women’s rights in Afghanistan, and nearly paid with her life on several occasions for her opposition to fundamentalists and warlords. Joya does not for a moment mistake the political system in Afghanistan as a democratic one, and she condemns the Shia marriage law, but without any deference to NATO. She spoke in an interview with Derrick O’Keefe of rabble.ca on 20 April 2009:
The nature of the fake democracy ‘donated’ to Afghanistan by the U.S. government, which was trumpeted by mainstream Western media as an achievement, stands exposed before the world.
Obama called the new law “abhorrent,” but I think the U.S. government backing the fundamentalist warlords and imposing them on the Afghan people should be called “abhorrent” first.
I think the new policy of Obama will put our people and the whole region in a more dangerous situation than before. It shows clearly that the U.S. government is not interested in stability and peace in the region, and only wants a permanent military base in the region to threaten China, Iran, Russia and other Asian powers.
Other women, as we saw in the video, support the new law, and oppose Western attempts to dictate what is appropriate in marriage. Even Shia women of the Hazara minority, studying at university in Kabul, who oppose the law tend to oppose Western intervention in the matter even more. Nor do they oppose the law in its entirety:
“This is not a good law. Women should be allowed to do what they want,” said Hamida Hasani, 18, a Hazara architecture student at Kabul University….”But we do not want total freedom. We wanted it to be limited and to be within Islam.”
“They don’t know anything about us and our problems,” she said. “If they faced what we have faced with hunger and war, they’d realize what is most important to fight for here. Before they come here they should . . . experience our difficulties.”
“But westerners want to change Afghanistan for their benefit, not for ours. They have a bad view of our culture. Some of our women imitate their clothes and their ways. Our freedom must come within Islam.” [“Afghan women want West to back off ‘rape law’,” by Matthew Fisher, Canwest News Service, 13 April 2009.]
So what has NATO reaped from the new Shia marriage law? NATO has lost the potential to convince voters at home that the war in Afghanistan is really all about human rights and democracy. NATO has failed to win the support of Afghan women, including those opposed to the new law. NATO’s “master narrative” now reads like outdated lies, and it will need to find a new set of talking points having demolished the credibility of its current set. Most importantly, there is now agreement that the war in Afghanistan is about wider geopolitical strategic ambitions, and that part of the war has been fought against the hearts and minds of those at home. As an imperial strategy to pretend to civilize the Afghans by entering into a false civilizational dialogue by force of arms, NATO has produced failures for itself on all fronts, revealing its phony promises, its hypocritical premises, its ultimate resort to violence, thereby turning all of us into targets. All of this, without even the basics of a debate at home, and we let it happen.
It does not seem that I, or anyone else, has been able to find an actual text of the Shia marriage law. Countless newspaper articles, wiki summaries, and statements by various UN and human rights agencies refer to specific provisions, without providing exact quotes from the law. I am especially concerned by what appears to be a recycling of an interpretation that the law legalizes marital rape — I would be very surprised if the law actually said anything like that. So the reader should beware that one of the key documents at the centre of this debate, a necessary primary source, is entirely absent.
27 thoughts on “NATO and Afghanistan’s Shia Marriage Law: The Collapse of a Master Narrative”
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larry c wilson
No individual person or state has the right (universal or otherwise) to impose its values on another individual or state by force. However, since homo sapiens has been busy doing this since the beginning of history, complaining about it is a waste of time and breath.
No, I disagree. Clearly the complaining in Afghanistan has been neither a waste of time nor breath, and it has real consequences for the NATO mission. I think you are making a “resistance is futile” argument, and while some will agree with you and resign themselves, others certainly do fight back, and not necessarily without success if you know of how many insurgencies have succeeded just in the past 100 years.
This does not mean there has always been “progress” of course, as if the insurgents had ushered in earthly paradises. What it does mean is that the struggle should never cease, or one deserves the situation that one is made to live with.
larry c wilson
Which insurgencies have brought about a change in the nature of homo sapiens?
I’m sorry, I misunderstood you: I did not realize that this would be a debate on the nature of homo sapiens. I don’t think that homo sapiens, our classificatory designation, has any inherent nature, and certainly not one that is immutable since this homo sapiens is itself a mutation, or a bundle of mutations.
I think the argument of “human nature is inherently evil” is THE argument for the “resistance is futile” argument. I actually heard it from my mother many times. The clucking of the tongue and the “what can we do.. What can we do… it is war, after all” as if war was unavoidable. As if there’s nothing to be done about war. As if the guy that cast the first stone just couldn’t fucking help himself.
Knowing the repercussions of what we do is a good start to avoiding “errors of human nature”. If one speaks out (thanks Max), then whomever listens knows about it and spreads the word- soon enough you have a bunch of people that agree (or rather unanimously disagree) on something (Dawkins called it memes).
Examples of insurgencies that had and still have an effect? The Vietnam war, woman’s lib movement, the green movement, the civil rights movement, PeTA, Amnesty International, I could go on…
Larry, is it your contention that whatever human nature may be, it is not conditional, situational and in “dialogue” with a given social context? Would the argument then be that all humans, everywhere, and at all times, exhibit the kind of behaviour that you referred to? You don’t see that there have been changes in much more than degree over time, or do you know of evidence of mass genocide dating back to the earliest time that homo sapiens emerged?
Also, if any of this matters — because this could be the perennial default discussion for anything involving violence among humans, and I am not sure that it explains anything — what is your ultimate conclusion?
Feel free to share your ideas. In the meantime, I forgot to say thanks for visiting.
You are quite right to question the primary source here: as far as the reportage I’ve seen knew, it hasn’t even been published in Afghanistan. It’s enacted law, though now under revision, which isn’t publically available. I don’t even know how that works. However, in the light of that absence I think it’s important that the place where I read about this, the Guardian newspaper in the UK, followed the quote from Gordon Brown that you give with one from Karzai:
I think that possibility of misrepresentation is very important, and the article goes on to say that Karzai claimed the law is not finalised until it is published, so we can expect it to change. Given that, I think I prefer to see Karzai using a loophole in the legislative procedure to appeal to a fundamentalist misogynist demographic without actually enacting laws that would clearly put him into (further) international danger. I think your analysis of NATO’s mission creep and mission failure is spot on, meanwhile.
Many thanks Jonathan. I have started to ask different human rights organizations if they have a copy of the draft law — someone has been reading something since they often quote articles in the legislation itself, and I am asking them about where they got their information (no replies yet). Also, while Karzai says one thing (concerning revisions), others are saying revisions are now impossible, that parliament has agreed to the law and the president has signed the law, and any changes seem to promise a further storm. Either way, this story is clearly not concluded yet.
Tali, I have to admit that, like you, I don’t have much time for open ended resignation about “human nature,” especially if human nature is assumed to be one thing only, eternal and universal. Thanks to you I see why I initially read the “resistance is futile” argument in the statement about human nature, thanks for clarifying those issues (as usual, I might add).
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Michael W. Markle
Well Max I’ve been waiting for you to sink your teeth into this one since the ” news broke ” on the whole marital rape issue vs nato involvement in Afganistan … and I actually think you have just missed the most important fact of the whole issue at hand , the one that has Lester Pearsons body spinning in its grave at close to light speed … That ” this ” circumstance Canada now finds itself in is solely A result of rushing in blindly , and by this I mean the pathetic way we were led blindly by the hand by our trusted friends , the Americans , into A ” War ” that we fundamentally knew we shouldn’t be involved in in the first place .
We were ” shamed ” into it by our need to help our neighbour in his time of need after 911 , and though we were wise enough to recognise the base incorrectness of the American aggression toward Iraq , and steer clear , we were not so smart to stick to our fundamentals before the often nebulous blur of circumstance involving the culpability of the Taliban aiding and abetting Bin Ladens boys in hurting so deeply our old and trusted friend .
Its A natural reaction to strike out blindly once struck , and thats exactly whats so wrong with our current cicumstance in Afganistan , we did not look but leaped in passion to defend our friend , regardless the repercussion , because WE … stupid sheep … didn’t take the time to assess after the fact ( 911) of what was really going on there , choosing to ignore our neighbours imperialistic tendancies when we might have just stood back , looked , and understood what we were doing before we rushed to judgement and jumped in with both feet
And now we find ourselves here , plenty of son’s and daughters shorter , bleeding into mud we can’t stand the taste of , and for what …so that some man has the right to rape his wife every three days because the ” democracy ” we thought in our blindness we were helping build might include our Canadian values as well … Who the hell are we kidding ?!?
Ourselves , of course …
“We are all Americans” is what some were saying at the time. We certainly rushed in, and it may have been out of a sense of service to our wonderful neighbour to the south, but I suspect our governments have had their own agendas as well, their own desire for a national security state, their own corporate interests to defend, etc.
I wish I could write more here, I just wanted to say thanks Mike for visiting and commenting.
All Canadians with a shred of conscience must ask themselves of the legitimacy of our intervention in far away states, particularly when those interventions are based on (never uttered, but clearly evident) neo-colonial justifications. It is disappointing, but ever so predictable, that the corporate press in Canada desperately parrots the “we are in Afghanistan to defend women’s rights” mantra, and thereby anaesthetize a (presumably) gullible electorate into not asking why young Canadian men and women are turned into canon fodder to defend NATO’s (read “Americas”) interests in establishing a permanent global network of military bases in strategic areas (e.g. the Balkans, Iraq, and a depressingly long list of other nations that have “benefited” from NATO altruism).
Max makes a fundamentally valid point about the questionable “democratic” underpinning of the Stephen Harper regime: one that garnered less than a quarter of the total vote in the last election. Then again, the alternative is equally depressing: the “humanitarian bomber” that now leads the official opposition in Canada. One can almost be nostalgic for the Trudeau years.
Michael W Markle
I weep for the days …
Alex, what a great surprise to see you “here.” I definitely agree with your comment, and I wish this would become the electoral issue that it needs to be, instead of constantly being buried. I wonder how many recognize the fact that both the Conservatives and Liberals have achieved making Canada a target for potential attacks? I am still wondering how it was that Canada was attacked on 9/11, and why this state felt the need to “respond” (i.e., what is in fact initiating a conflict).
It does not seem that I, or anyone else, has been able to find an actual text of the Shia marriage law. Countless newspaper articles, wiki summaries, and statements by various UN and human rights agencies refer to specific provisions, without providing exact quotes from the law. I am especially concerned by what appears to be a recycling of an interpretation that the law legalizes marital rape — I would be very surprised if the law actually said anything like that.
I really don’t understand what you’re confused about here. I don’t know if there’s a full text in English anywhere (how many Canadian laws do you read the full text of?) but most newspaper articles about the law have a quote or two, and I don’t think there’s any disagreement over the law’s meaning. Here:
“As long as the husband is not travelling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night,” Article 132 of the law says.
“Unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.”
Right, which is not exactly a convincing argument that it advocates rape — it instead lays out the husband’s rights and what he can expect. It does not state anything about what action he is allowed to take to seek a remedy for the frustration of those expectations.
Beyond that, see my comment below.
Well, if he is allowed it, then it is his right. So if it is refused him, he can take it, or invoke an authority to compel it be given. That is what a law, by nature, effectively is.
To say “well, it’s a law, but nowhere does it say what action he does if the law is broken” is bafflegab of the utmost. If a law is broken, then *enforcement* is – by definition – the next action in the line of events. And enforcement of sexual favours… hmmm… What do you think that would mean?
Let’s not guess about what “we think” that would mean…let’s have some actual facts instead. I am not defending the law here, what I am attacking is the media rushing us to conclusions in the absence of facts, and the hypocritical outrage of people in nations that sent troops to Afghanistan so that such laws could be promulgated and upheld by a parliament we paid for.
Also, there’s still a fair amount of love for US/NATO. The poll you’re citing says that 63% of respondents approve of the US presence and 69% think the invasion (which I’m guessing you opposed) was a good thing for Afghanistan. A narrow majority (51% vs. 45%) want the US to leave in the near future. On the other hand 82% want the current government to be ruling Afghanistan, rather than the Taliban (4%) or some other alternative, and that won’t happen if the the US withdraws. Public opinion is often contradictory and hard to derive clear policy preferences from.
I am not confused about anything concerning the absence of that law from public inspection: it is absent. Who said anything about confusion?
How many Canadian laws do I read the full text of? Any that I want to read. They are publicly available, like laws tend to be in states that call themselves democracies. I don’t think Parliament has yet stooped to the level of slamming the doors shut and passing secret laws.
Most newspaper articles have a quote or two…yes, and that is the problem. I, along with others, need to see what they are quoting to check if their quotes are correct, what the context of the quote is, and then turn to legal and theological scholars to understand the intended meaning. We also need to have the translations checked. That is a lot to be done, I am not buying the word of some journalist who may not even have read any of the law. For example, I do not believe that the intent of the legislators was to put forth a case for “rape.” Prove me wrong: you cannot.
Why do you seem to be advocating for an absence of information and a lack of independent judgment? Do you have something to lose?
As for the statistics, note where NATO and U.S. forces are opposed by a majority: precisely in those provinces where they are most active.
Yes, of course I am opposed to the war, I thought that much was obvious.
Just FYI, almost all polling data from Afghanistan comes from Lucky Five Street:
There is no actual text of the law in english… but from my opinion the law won’t last long…. one of these days they’ll remove it….
i have read the persian version and for those who want too see it here is a downloadable version:
http://www.easy-share.com/1905104547/Qanoon e Ahwal.doc
People will demand the law to be removed…. its totaly against the Islam…..
Pakistan army will be succed,Taliban & Al- qada will be finshed very soon. They are out of date.Its doolers deirty games.The CIA, FBI, MI5,MI6,MOSSAD+ USA,UK,ISRAEL& NATO WILLBE TOTALLY FAILD IN AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN also.There is abig Grave-yard for these ciuntries.Afghan war take more then 20 years, due to this problem AMERICAN ECONOMIC WAR CERISIS IS GOOING, JUST as USSR PROBLEM IN 90s.Its American ends.After this economic war cerisis, American will be finshed.Because they cant servive this cerisis.American are foolish,they have no mind.They work for 15 million jews only.God SAVE P.I.A. PAKISTAN ,IRAN, & AFGHANISTAN. VR1.GOD save earth because of WW3.Its the END OF ISRAEL.
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