Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way

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In October 2001, NATO forces invaded Afghanistan. Their initial aim, to topple the Taliban regime and replace it with a more democratic government aligned to Western interests, was swiftly achieved. However, stabilizing the country in the ensuing years has proven much more difficult. Despite billions of dollars in aid and military expenditure, Afghanistan remains a nation riddled with warlords, the world's major heroin producer, and the site of a seemingly endless conflict between Islamist militants and NATO forces.

In this timely and important book, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall offer a panoramic view of international involvement in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011. Tackling the subject matter as a whole, Bird and Marshall weave together analysis of military strategy, regional context, aid policy, the Afghan government, and the many disagreements between and within the Western powers involved in the intervention. Given the complicating factors of the heroin trade, unwelcoming terrain, and precarious relations with Pakistan, the authors acknowledge the ways in which Afghanistan has presented unique challenges for its foreign invaders. Ultimately, however, they argue that the international community has failed in its self-imposed effort to solve Afghanistan's problems and that there are broader lessons to be learned from their struggle, particularly in terms of counterinsurgency and the ever-complicated work of "nation-building." The overarching feature of the intervention, they argue, has been an absence of strategic clarity and coherence.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Feckless nation building snatched defeat from the jaws of a resounding military victory, argues this mordant retrospective of the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan. War historians Bird (King's College, London) and Marshall (University of Glasgow) focus on a lack of strategy: from the start of the invasion in 2001, the American government and its NATO allies had no clear idea of their goals in Afghanistan beyond skimping on soldiers and money. The result, the authors note, is a chronically undermanned occupation force unable to secure the countryside and overreliant on airstrikes that regularly kill civilians; trifling aid packages that leave Afghanistan's basic needs unmet; a lazy policy of backing both a corrupt central government and despotic rural warlords; an unpopular counternarcotics program that has failed to stem the booming heroin economy; and a resurgent Taliban due to inept Western counterinsurgency initiatives not improved by Obama's appointment of General McChrystal. None of these criticisms are new, but the authors integrate them into a telling panorama of clueless policy making. (In one vignette, British development experts reach out to baffled desert tribesmen with a nature documentary on whales.) Although they don't quite pinpoint the right strategy for Afghanistan, the authors present a lucid, devastating critique of the road taken. Photos. (June)
The Spectator

“Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s brisk, broad survey of the war is drily un- impressed by American strategy. It is sub- titled ‘How the West Lost its Way’, and its authors, who are academics — King’s College, London and Glasgow University respectively — imply that western policy has been based on a Micawberish view that, with sufficient persistence and perspiration, something will eventually turn up to solve, or at least pacify, the Afghan Question. It hasn’t.”—Alan Massie, The Spectator

— Alan Massie

History News Network

“Bird and Marshall provide a valuable historical overview of the war in Afghanistan from the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 to the recent Obama troop surge.”—Jeremy Kuzmanov, History News Network

— Jeremy Kuzmanov

The Spectator - Alan Massie

“Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s brisk, broad survey of the war is drily un- impressed by American strategy. It is sub- titled ‘How the West Lost its Way’, and its authors, who are academics — King’s College, London and Glasgow University respectively — imply that western policy has been based on a Micawberish view that, with sufficient persistence and perspiration, something will eventually turn up to solve, or at least pacify, the Afghan Question. It hasn’t.”—Alan Massie, The Spectator
History News Network - Jeremy Kuzmanov

“Bird and Marshall provide a valuable historical overview of the war in Afghanistan from the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 to the recent Obama troop surge.”—Jeremy Kuzmanov, History News Network
Kirkus Reviews

Books explaining America's botched war in Afghanistan are catching up with those doing the same for Iraq; this lucid account by two British military historians will keep readers gnashing their teeth throughout.

Bird (Defense Studies/King's College, London) and Marshall (History and War Studies/Univ. of Glasgow) stress that righteous anger drove the American invasion in October 2001, and the U.S. military followed a clear strategy—remove the Taliban, destroy al-Qaeda and eliminate Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism. After an apparently easy victory, clarity vanished. By early 2002, troops were departing for Iraq, leaving free Afghans to build a modern society which was assumed to mean a strong central government and free elections. This was disastrously naive because traditional Afghan tribal networks treat government as a winner-take-all arena in which those in power enrich themselves and their tribe to the exclusion of others. Preoccupied in Iraq, five years passed before the U.S. administration noticed that a revived Taliban was thrashing the incompetent Afghan army, predatory police and kleptocratic local warlords. A corrupt, ineffectual central government relied on foreign assistance and the flourishing drug trade, which now supplies nearly 90 percent of the world's heroin; taxes provide less than 10 percent of Afghanistan's budget. Always conscious that its major ally, Pakistan, supported the Taliban, the American government grew uncomfortably aware that billions in aid had not bought its loyalty. Despite revived efforts, the authors conclude that competent central government and victory over the insurgents remains unattainable. Despite the Obama administration's optimistic rhetoric, it is likely that most of its energy is aimed at a politically acceptable exit strategy.

A gloomily convincing portrait of American misadventures in Afghanistan.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300154573
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2011
  • Pages: 303
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Tim Bird is a lecturer at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and the Defence Studies Department, King's College, London. He lives in southern England. Alex Marshall is Lecturer in History in the War Studies Department of the University of Glasgow. He lives in Glasgow. 
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Read an Excerpt


By Tim Bird Alex Marshall


Copyright © 2011 Tim Bird and Alex Marshall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15457-3

Chapter One

THE GREAT ENIGMA: Afghanistan in historical context

There is a strange fascination in living among the Pathans. One secret of the hold of the North-West frontier is to be found in the tremendous scenic canvas against which the Pathan plays out his life ... The weft and warp of this tapestry is woven into the souls and bodies of the men who move before it. Much is harsh, but all is drawn in strong tones that catch the breath, and at times bring tears, almost of pain. Sir Olaf Caroe, The Pathans (1958)

Had Sir Olaf not died twenty years earlier, he would doubtless have offered strong words of advice to the coalition that began to be assembled in 2001 on the dangers of interfering in the affairs of the 'Pathans'. However, a perception that the security of powerful external actors was again threatened by policy decisions made in Kabul compelled outsiders to intervene once more to try and impose their will. The prospects for 'success' came burdened with, and were directly shaped by, the bleak lessons of Afghanistan's own very particular modern history. What retains the capacity to surprise, even ten years after the initial intervention, is the degree of historical illiteracy evident in many of the initial pronouncements on the likely challenges awaiting the intervening powers. This chapter aims to provide a broad historical and social context for the challenges the intervening coalition has faced. It explores both the conditions that led to the rise of the Taliban, and why the Afghanistan of 2001 had come to be such a singularly unforgiving environment for foreign forces seeking to impose their will.

When coalition forces first arrived in Afghanistan to avenge the attacks on America carried out by Al Qaeda on 11 September 2001, academics and journalists the world over speculated wildly about the final outcome – this being, as many commented at the time, only the latest in a long line of foreign military interventions in that country. Most international commentators recalled the relatively recent long war fought by Soviet forces in support of a native Afghan Marxist government, the PDPA (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan) between 1979 and 1989; far fewer were aware that this had in fact been the second Soviet intervention in that country, the first being a failed covert operation in 1929. The British, meanwhile, among America's keenest allies in 2001, had already formally intervened in Afghanistan on no fewer than three separate occasions. The first Anglo-Afghan War of 1838–42, a second war in 1878–80 and a third conflict in 1919 each helped to shape Afghanistan's modern history, with the last conflict culminating in the emergence of a fully independent Afghan state.

None of these earlier military interventions into Afghanistan had covered themselves with glory. The Soviet intervention of 1979–89 was widely perceived internationally as a disaster, and one that many believed contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. The three wars that Britain fought in the country had each been marked by varying degrees of tactical failure, the costliest being the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1838–42, in the course of which an entire Anglo-Indian army of over 4,000 men, alongside some 10,000 civilian camp followers, was lost. On each of these three earlier occasions, Britain had quickly taken revenge for initial military reverses and won the final battles of the war, but, suitably intimidated, had then held back from attempting the full-scale military–political administration of the country. Afghanistan between 1880 and 1919 instead became a classic political 'buffer state' between the British and Russian empires, with the most prominent Afghan leader of that period, the 'Iron Amir' Abdur Rahman (r. 1881–1901), receiving a hefty subsidy in return for ceding control of Afghan foreign policy to the British.

Historically, Afghanistan had, therefore, already earned itself a formidable reputation for severely challenging foreign intervention forces. Indeed, in Pakistan in late 2001, pro-Taliban elements, aware of this past, proudly waved banners declaring that Afghanistan was a proven 'empire-killer', a challenge against which America's own current global hegemony would likewise founder. On at least one level, however, this reputation embodies a profound paradox: namely, that Afghanistan's formidable reputation rests not upon the difficulties presented to would-be invaders by its formal military capability, but upon its long political-economic record of profound ungovernability. Overthrowing whatever elite had established itself in Kabul has always proved relatively straightforward – as indeed was the case in 2001. Shaping the behaviour of the Afghan people to the will of the invader, however, has always been far more difficult. Afghanistan, throughout its modern history, has been a structurally weak state; it was this very weakness which had periodically contributed to drawing in foreign intervention forces, the geopolitics of the region rendering neighbouring states unable to tolerate a power vacuum. Afghanistan's main deterrent throughout history has lain not in the massed ranks of its armed forces, but in its formidable natural terrain and proudly independent and warlike people, conditions that greatly favoured classic unconventional 'guerrilla' tactics.

Successive past interventions underlined the purely military challenges of dominating Afghanistan. During the 1980s, Soviet tanks designed for the plains of central Europe or northern Manchuria had struggled in Afghanistan amidst narrow valleys and along poor roads. The story of European-oriented armies experiencing unexpected difficulties had been little different in the nineteenth century, when, during the first Anglo-Afghan War, for example, dense British infantry 'squares', famous for their stoicism in the conventional European conflicts of the day, had simply formed a larger target for the longer-ranged local weapons of Afghan tribesmen. The challenge of actually governing the country was also a testing one, however, even for indigenous rulers. The first truly modern ruler of the country, Amir Abdur Rahman, had advanced the cause of central government after 1881 only by establishing the most savage form of personal dictatorship. Afghanistan, simply, has no historical experience of a central government that couples benign intent and behaviour with an ability to exert control over the disparate provinces.


Although Afghanistan had first emerged during the eighteenth century under the Durrani dynasty, civil war had repeatedly engulfed the country after the death of the founder of the dynasty, Ahmad Shah, in 1772. Afghan monarchs after Ahmad Shah consistently walked a tightrope of maintaining an imperial governmental structure (including an increasingly professional army, seen as essential to free them from an undesirable dependence on irregular tribal forces) on a relatively small base of tax revenues. Adopting Tsar Peter the Great of Russia as his role model, however, Amir Abdur Rahman after 1881 took it as his personal mission in life to reunite and modernize the country, as well as to entrench the power of the royal family. To this end, he combined substantial military reform with savage repression and the importation of foreign technology. Those who resisted the 'Iron Amir' were subjected to horrific punishments, including mass executions by impalement, being pulled in half, or grotesquely turned into human icicles by being chained in a pit below dripping ice-cold water. The amir was particularly proud of this last punishment as an apt cure for rapists, joking of one offender subjected to this torture that he would 'never be too hot again'. The amir also ensured that hills of human skulls were periodically constructed and publicly displayed, as a way of deterring would-be robbers and rebels. This apparently had only limited success, however, since he calculated that during his reign he had executed 120,000 people.

Overall, therefore, the Iron Amir showed a dedication to extreme violence and social engineering that was truly totalitarian, a factor to which his British paymasters turned a blind eye, particularly when it came to the treatment of Afghan ethnic minorities. During his period in office, large-scale compulsory population resettlement occurred, with non-Pashtun nationalities in the centre and north of the country being particularly singled out for punishment. Small numbers of foreign physicians, engineers and geologists came to Afghanistan, and a few factories were established to manufacture soap, candles and leather goods. Nonetheless, even this form of authoritarian 'modernization' encountered severe limitations, largely because the state remained so poor in terms of capital and capacity, but also because the endeavour was coupled with a strong dose of xenophobia, most clearly reflected at this time in decisions made regarding transport infrastructure.

Conscious of the deterrent value to foreign armies offered by the challenging physical terrain of his realm, the Iron Amir allowed internal road building (which, he recognized, was useful for suppressing indigenous tribal rebellions), but barred external railway lines from crossing onto his territory. Relative backwardness in transportation terms remained a conscious defensive policy in Afghanistan throughout much of the twentieth century. Indeed, not until the 1960s would the Hindu Kush mountain barrier between central and northern Afghanistan be penetrated by the Soviet-built Salang road tunnel. Whatever his own internal successes in building up and maintaining his personal power, however, the pact that he made with the British also permitted the Iron Amir no autonomy in the realm of foreign policy. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the actual physical borders of Afghanistan were largely finalized according to British whim, creating a geopolitical legacy that further weakened the already severely challenged Afghan central government.

The frontiers established during the Amir Abdur Rahman's reign in the late nineteenth century were to contribute to Afghanistan's problems after September 2001. As a consequence of the British desire that the British and Russian empires should never at any point territorially meet, the eastern frontier of Afghanistan with China emerged as a long, narrow, utterly indefensible, but symbolic strip of land, the so-called 'Wakhan corridor'. British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand repeated this performance in imperial border-drawing when deciding Afghanistan's southern frontiers. Drawing a line between Afghanistan and what was then British India (now modern-day Pakistan), he cut in half the Pashtun tribes, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, and created at a stroke the so-called 'Pashtunistan' issue which came to dominate Afghan relations with Pakistan, and which remains a vitally important complicating factor in the current intervention.

After 1948, the Durand Line created a nightmare new dilemma almost overnight, given the emergence of the independent Islamic state of Pakistan. Non-recognition by successive Afghan governments of the legality of the Durand Line created decades of Afghan–Pakistani political tension, at the same time as Pakistan itself was left with a wild and almost ungovernable Pasht-undominated borderland, in the form of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistani governments would in turn come to see the FATA as both a blessing and a curse, since these territories demanded periodic intervention and stabilization by the Pakistani armed forces, yet simultaneously also served as a potential piedmont of political influence into Afghanistan itself. During the 1979–89 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the already Pashtun-dominated FATA became a territorial safe haven and training zone for the mujahidin, as well as a home for thousands of Afghan refugees sheltered in overcrowded and often unsanitary refugee camps; centres that quickly became the mujahidin's single largest recruiting base.

Afghanistan, as a result of Durand's work, was therefore left with a political–territorial ulcer, one which both sapped its confidence regarding its own territorial integrity, and left an open door to intervention and interference by Pakistani-backed Pashtun political groups further to the south. Against this background, there was no comfort to be drawn from the fact that Pakistan was, if anything, left even more insecure by such colonial-era border settlements, in the form of separatist movements in Baluchistan and the still unresolved Kashmir issue with India. Indeed, Pakistan's strategic contest with India would become the decisive factor over the longer term in shaping Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan, with the Pakistani General Staff in the 1990s advancing the concept that a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul constituted a vital national security interest, since it would provide Pakistan with 'strategic depth' against India.


Ethnicity formed another key area of Afghan weakness during its initial emergence as a state in the modern period. Scholars have often pointed to Afghanistan's great tribal diversity as exacerbating its ungovernable nature and proneness to internal crisis, and even the Iron Amir's efforts at centralization between 1881 and 1901 deepened the gulf between town and countryside (by creating a new political elite of civil servants in Kabul) rather than fundamentally transforming the rural balance of power. The Pashtuns constitute the largest and most powerful ethnic group in Afghanistan, but they themselves are subdivided into an estimated sixty major tribes. Each tribe represents a complex social network of mutual assistance, which is then further subdivided down to the village level by the notion of qawm, a group founded on kinship and patron–client relationships. Qawm networks form dense, informal clusters to provide the social security net that the Afghan state itself never has, via financial loans for start-up investments and small-scale initial running costs. These loans, even in the modern period, are just as liable to be secured by the marrying-off of a daughter in a strategic alliance, or the provision of a young male foot soldier for a local warlord, as by entering into a formal business agreement. During the 1980s, Afghan rural society became effectively atomized by war and forced migration, increasing the relevance of the qawm as a local survival strategy. In Afghanistan, therefore, the qawm constituted not so much a local substitute for the Western notion of 'civil society' as its complete negation, effectively a product of de-modernization.

The Pashtun tribes based on Afghan territory make up five large tribal confederations – the Durrani, Ghilzai, Ghurghusht, Karlanri and Sarbani, all located in the south of the country. The Pashtuns have traditionally been seen as united by Pashtunwali, the pre-Islamic Pashtun tribal code, which demands hospitality and generosity when someone asks for pardon or protection, alongside an absolute obligation to avenge any slights. Tribal politics have also played a frequent role in Afghanistan's internal power shifts. The Durrani dynasty, the traditional founders and rulers of Afghanistan, acquired its name in 1747, with the ascent to the throne of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who renamed his own tribal group (until then designated the Abdali) the Durrani, from the Persian expression 'pearl of pearls'. However, despite close familial ties, the Durrani themselves were prone to frequent internal splits, of which the most famous occurred in 1973, when King Zahir Shah was toppled by his own cousin, ex-Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud. Within the Soviet-backed PDPA, Daoud's successors in government after 1978, tribal politics continued to play a role from the very start, despite the party's ostensibly Marxist nature. The split between Parcham and Khalq factions within the PDPA was also a tribal split between Persian and Pashtun speakers. Nur Mohammad Taraki, leader of the more radically militant Marxist Khalq faction of the PDPA, the group which took the lead in killing Daoud and seizing office in 1978, came from non-elite Ghilzai Pashtun stock. His rival, Babrak Karmal, leader of the more moderate Parcham faction, represented the more overtly royalist Durrani Pashtun. The Ghilzais in Afghan history have, in fact, been traditionally suspicious of the Durranis and have been rivals for power, with Ghilzai representatives seizing control of the state on no fewer than three separate occasions – in 1721, 1978 and again in 1996, when the Taliban leader Mullah Omar came to power.

Powerful and significant though their role has been in Afghan history, the Pashtuns have often been perceived by Afghanistan's other ethnic minorities as brutal oppressors. Until the rise to power of Abdur Rahman, the very concept of Afghanistan as a nation had been problematic. The British observer Mountstuart Elphinstone remarked in 1809 that 'these people have no name for their country'. Prior to Rahman's accession to the throne, the territory could either be defined in dynastic terms by the Durrani clan, or, from a purely religious perspective, as an isolated Islamic bastion in a sea of infidel kingdoms. Rahman's innovation was to attempt to blend the two world views together by centralizing dynastic power while publicly promoting the importance of jihad. Nonetheless, the dynastic state-building project also bore an unmistakable Pashtun character, one that was unfriendly towards Afghanistan's other ethnic groups, most of which reside in the north of the country. Analyses of the precise ethnic balance in Afghanistan are notoriously unreliable, but a recent CIA estimate, viewed as reasonably credible, calculated the population in 2010 at 29,121,286 individuals, subdivided ethnically into 42 per cent Pashtun, 27 per cent Tajik, 9 per cent Hazara, 9 per cent Uzbek, 4 per cent Aimak, 3 per cent Turkmen, 2 per cent Baloch and 4 per cent 'other'.


Excerpted from AFGHANISTAN by Tim Bird Alex Marshall Copyright © 2011 by Tim Bird and Alex Marshall. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The great enigma: Afghanistan in historical context 9

Chapter 2 9/11 and the response, 11-25 September 2001 47

Chapter 3 'Boots on the ground': From the arrival of the CIA to the emergency Loya Jirga, 26 September 2001-June 2002 73

Chapter 4 'Taking the eye off the ball?' The roots of Taliban revival in Afghanistan, 2002-05 111

Chapter 5 Return to the 'forgotten war', 2006-08 153

Chapter 6 The Pakistan problem 185

Chapter 7 Silver bullets and the search for an exit, 2009-11 217

Conclusion 249

Notes 263

Bibliography 289

Index 299

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  • Posted September 26, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Very sensible study of a war that has lost its way

    Tim Bird, a lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London, and Alex Marshall, a lecturer in history at Glasgow University, have produced a brilliant study. It is thorough, scholarly and fair-minded, and it indicts NATO’s disastrous war on Afghanistan. The initial aim of the war was to disrupt Al-Qaeda – which was done by 2001. NATO’s war should have ended then. This success did not require building a democratic state or a working economy in Afghanistan – neither of which could be achieved. NATO’s nation-building was doomed from the start. As the authors note, “political and economic liberalization in practice generated destabilizing side-effects in war-shattered states, which then actually perpetuated instability.” Further, “the reconstruction effort during this period was underfunded, corruption-riddled and disorganized …” In 2006 the education minister in the province of Uruzgan was himself illiterate. The later war was also bound to fail. This was largely because “the threat was conceptualized as being drawn from a list that included an individual (bin Laden), a group (Al Qaeda), a tactic (terrorism), hostile governments, neutral governments, and a state of mind.” The British 2005 decision to put troops into Helmand was taken casually, without the army top brass even knowing about it. Extending the war to Pakistan was also a disaster. 6 million people have been displaced from its Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province. 7,354 civilians have been killed. In 2009 alone, 3,300 Pakistani civilians were killed, more than in Afghanistan, 2,412. The Brookings Institution estimates that drone attacks kill ten civilians for every militant killed. The authors sum up, “NATO’s decade of strategic engagement in the region had, paradoxically, become notable not only for reinforcing Pakistan’s traditional strategic mindset, but also for escalating violence and instability.” NATO used counter-insurgency, a military approach, when Afghanistan and Pakistan were clearly problems without a military solution, problems that only the Afghan and Pakistani peoples could solve.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2011

    Not for casual reading

    These guys do not make a story out of Afghanistan's history. If you like long, difficult to follow sentences and 75 out of 270 pages devoted to conclusion + footnotes + index, then this is the book for you!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 26, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Detailed look @ Boeing

    The last 10+ years spanned multiple machinist strikes, one engineer strike, one disastrous merger with McDonnel Douglas, and the beginnings of the still-grounded 787 airplane. This book covers this tumultuous period and its effects on the Boeing population. As a new employee, this is a great way to learm about the history of the company. Coupled with FlightBlogger, this gives me insight into the Boeing of the past and the Boeing of the present. As the company continues to struggle, the analysis covered in the book will have implications for Boeing of the future.

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    Posted January 16, 2011

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    Posted January 9, 2011

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