The great question of America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan was not whether the Afghans were fit for democracy. It was whether democratic values were strong enough in the US to be projected onto a traumatized society seven thousand miles away. Those values include the accountability of the people in power, the consistent and universal application of human rights, a clear understanding of what policies are trying to achieve, the prevention of corrupt financial influence over political decisions, and the fundamental truthfulness of public utterances. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the American republic was fighting, and often losing, a domestic battle to uphold those values for its own citizens.

It is grimly unsurprising that the US could not infuse them into a very foreign country. While the political system of the US was approaching the crisis that culminated in the presidency of Donald Trump and the Capitol riots, its most enduring external adventure could not avoid moving in tandem toward the grim climax of the flight from Kabul. Afghanistan became a dark mirror held up to the travails of American democracy. It reflected back, sometimes in exaggerated forms, the weaknesses of the homeland’s political culture. Critics of the war argued that the US could not create a polity in its own image on the far side of the world. The tragic truth is that in many ways it did exactly that.

The easiest way to cope with the reality that the longest war in US history (longer than World War I, World War II, and Vietnam put together) has ended in defeat and an ignominious and deadly evacuation is to fall back on the belief that the Afghans were never capable of creating or sustaining a modern nation-state. The US, after all, spent $143 billion on “nation building” in Afghanistan. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than it spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. Why did it not achieve similar results? The problem, it is comforting to conclude, must lie with the Afghans themselves: too backward, too poor, too inextricably entangled in medieval tribalism and obscurantist religion.

But even five years after the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, it was clear to those Americans who were paying close attention that the dichotomy between a regressive and recalcitrant people on the one hand and a progressive Western project of liberation and development on the other was entirely false. Sarah Chayes, who went to Afghanistan as an NPR correspondent covering the invasion and then stayed to live among Afghans in Kandahar, wrote in her brilliant 2006 book The Punishment of Virtue:

I have often been asked whether we in the West have the right to “impose democracy” on people who “just might not want it,” or might not be “ready for it.” I think, concerning Afghanistan at least, this question is exactly backward…. I have found that Afghans know precisely what democracy is—even if they might not be able to define the term. And they are crying out for it. They want from their government what most Americans and Europeans want from theirs: roads they can drive on, schools for their kids, doctors with certified qualifications…, a minimum of public accountability, and security…. And they want to participate in some real way in the fashioning of their nation’s destiny….

But Afghans were getting precious little of any of that…. American policy in Afghanistan was not imposing or even encouraging democracy, as the US government claimed it was. Instead, it was standing in the way of democracy. It was institutionalizing violence.

From the very beginning, the problem with the US involvement in Afghanistan lay essentially in the deficits in American democracy. A well-functioning republic makes decisions—especially those as serious as starting a war—by an open process of rational deliberation. It asks the obvious questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What is the human and financial cost? What are the benefits? How and when does it end? The original sin of the Afghan war—one that would never be expiated—was the failure of American political institutions to meet these most basic standards of scrutiny.

The congressional mandate for the war was an “authorization for use of military force” that allowed the president to attack any entity “he determines” to have some connection with the September 11 attacks on the US. Just one member of Congress, Barbara Lee, voted against it. Her plea—“Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment…and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control”—was dismissed as verging on the treasonous. The aim of the US intervention in Afghanistan was, as President George W. Bush put it in October 2001, “to bring al-Qaeda to justice.” Whether this necessitated the defeat and banishment of the Taliban regime that had allowed Osama bin Laden’s network to plan the attacks on Afghan soil, and what government might take its place, were questions never even asked.

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How could a project to create an Afghan democracy be founded on such a patent failure of democratic process? Without scrutiny, there could be no clarity of purpose. As Craig Whitlock puts it in The Afghanistan Papers—a gripping chronicle based on his own tenacious gathering for The Washington Post of hundreds of accounts given privately by American participants to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and on other official testimonies—after the initial phase the war was “waged against people who had nothing to do with 9/11.”

US troops entered Afghanistan on October 19, 2001, in alliance with the indigenous warlords whose chaotic misrule had been ended by the triumph of the Taliban in the late 1990s. By the time the Taliban was overthrown in December 2001, there were only 2,500 Americans serving in all of Afghanistan. When the last US soldiers left Kabul on August 30, 2021, 775,000 of them had served there and 2,300 had been killed. Throughout this time, Congress allowed the mission to become unmoored from its stated purpose of rooting out Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and to drift into waters that the administrations of neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama even managed to chart.

There was almost no understanding that the US was inaugurating what would turn out to be the second half of a civil war that has now lasted for more than forty years. On September 11, 2001, Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, by his own account cut off General Mahmood Ahmed, the head of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence, who was trying to explain to him who the Taliban were: “I said, ‘No, the history begins today.’”

This was the US version of Year Zero. There were two blank slates: Afghanistan and the official American mind. The SIGAR testimonies are remarkably frank in their admissions of near-total ignorance. “We did not know what we were doing,” says Richard Boucher, the Bush administration’s chief diplomat for the region, as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia with responsibility for Afghanistan policy between 2006 and 2009. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” says Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the White House “war czar” in both the Bush and Obama administrations.

To grasp the depth of the institutional ignorance from which this undertaking sprang, it is necessary merely to recall that not much more than a year before the US-led invasion of 2001, President Bill Clinton had decided that it would be a good idea to encourage Russia, whose occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 had turned it into a failed state riven by civil wars and drowned in blood, to launch a bombing campaign against the Taliban. As Roy Gutman wrote in How We Missed the Story (2008), a study of US Afghan policy in the years immediately before the invasion, “for the United States to endorse another Russian-led armed intervention barely a decade after the debacle that caused such suffering begged credulity.” But in a mindset in which “history begins today,” even the very recent Afghan past could be wiped from official American consciousness.

When the US took control of the country, the literal terms of engagement—the language used to define the entire project—were fuzzy and shifting. Was it a war? The answer would seem to be obvious, but the word itself was slippery. Some of the NATO armies involved in the mission were authorized only to take part in peacekeeping operations, so they were anxious that the idea of war be avoided. (It was not until 2010 that the German chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that her country’s troops were indeed at war in Afghanistan.) Whitlock quotes a senior NATO commander: “We checked with the legal team and they agree it’s not a war.” To bridge the semantic divide, the US commander of Afghan operations Stanley McChrystal added a line in an official report to describe the conflict as “not a war in the conventional sense.”

Was it then “nation building”? No and yes. Ryan Crocker, who briefly served as the US ambassador in Kabul after the defeat of the Taliban, explained to SIGAR that the mindset of Donald Rumsfeld and the other neoconservatives in the Bush administration was that “our job is about killing bad guys, so…we’re not going to get involved in nation-building.” As early as June 2002, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden (who has recently claimed that nation building “never made any sense to me” even though he consistently supported it) reported that an aide to Bush had asked him, after a meeting with the president, “You are not going to mention nation-building, are you?”

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Biden insisted at the time that the administration’s reluctance to use the phrase was “an incredible hang-up.” Yet in 2009 Barack Obama, whom Biden was then serving as vice-president, stressed that he opposed a drawn-out nation-building project while announcing the surge of US troop numbers to 100,000. And six months after that, when the then US head of Central Command David Petraeus was asked by the House Armed Services Committee whether the US was engaged in nation building, he replied, “We are indeed.” He added that “I’m just not going to evade [the question] and play rhetorical games.” This was an implicit acknowledgment that rhetorical games had become almost compulsory in official parlance. The US was spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that dared not speak its name.

This linguistic obfuscation attained the zenith of sinister absurdity in 2015 when Obama changed the name of the Afghanistan mission from Operation Enduring Freedom (the Bush administration’s term) to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Behind this shift lay what Whitlock calls “among the most egregious deceptions and lies that US leaders spread during two decades of warfare”—the illusion that American combat operations were ending when in fact they were carrying on pretty much as before.

The degradation of language hollowed out one of the most important words in the lexicon of the Western mission in Afghanistan: progress. The nation-building exercise was cast above all as progressive, and in certain respects—the rights of women and girls, rising life expectancy, improved levels of education, the flourishing of independent media and urban civil society—it was. But “progress” was also the word that, after the first flush of triumph, replaced the idea of military victory. The resumed war against the Taliban, which quickly regrouped in Pakistan before infiltrating rural Afghanistan again, was never being won; it was always “making good progress.” In 2003 Rumsfeld boasted that “signs of progress are everywhere.” Three years later Major General Robert Durbin, the commander in charge of training the Afghan security forces, told reporters that they “continue to show great progress each day.”

In 2007 Bush reassured Americans that “over the past five years, we’ve made real progress.” John Walters, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Bush, boasted of the “enormous progress” being made in the elimination of opium poppy cultivation. “We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2011. And so ever onward in a progress that was going nowhere except around in a circle. There was in this a contagion of meaninglessness: when the same word was used to disguise military failure as to hail real and tangible improvements in the lives of many Afghans, even justified claims about the latter could come to seem doubtful.

But progress was America’s party line, and it was rigorously enforced. Just one of the fifteen US generals who commanded in Afghanistan (that number itself a mark of the inconsistency of leadership) crossed that line. In May 2009, at a press conference in Kabul, General David McKiernan said, truthfully, that the war was “stalemated” in the south and a “very tough fight” in the east. Hours later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told him that he was being fired. McKiernan had earlier remarked dryly to one of his regional commanders that “we may have done too good a job explaining how bad it is over here.” His mistake, according to Whitlock, was that “unlike other commanding officers, he did not deceive the public with specious language.” His sacking made it clear to other US officials, both military and civilian, that mastery of speciousness was part of the job description. The mobilization of “alternative facts” that came to be associated with the era of Trump was already well underway in US statecraft, and it was heavily deployed in Afghanistan.

The misadventure may have begun in ignorance, but it morphed into something more complex—a deliberate unknowing. It is commonplace to characterize US policy in Afghanistan as self-deception. But whoever was being deceived, it was not those who were running the war. The Afghanistan Papers shows that, certainly after the first two years, very few of those at the top of the military and diplomatic establishments were deluded. They knew well that the Taliban was not defeated; that the Afghan national and local governments, police, and army were deeply corrupt; that military gains were fragile and often temporary; and that vast amounts of American money were being wasted and stolen. They knew that the Afghan state they were supporting was never any closer to being able to sustain itself independently.

But for two decades they all carried on regardless. In his SIGAR interview Crocker, who returned to Kabul as US ambassador in 2011, said of a vastly expensive dam project outside Kandahar that “I made the decision to go ahead with it, but I was sure it was never going to work.” The statement could stand for the entire US project in Afghanistan. Cognitive dissonance was not pathology—it was policy.

Afghanistan was not, of course, a blank slate. Nor, however, was it a timeless world of ancient and unchanging tribal allegiances. As a polity, it had in fact undergone radical and traumatic change since the Communist coup of 1978, the invasion by the Soviets, and the hideous civil war among the mujahideen that defeated them. Under all that pressure, traditional structures of authority had largely been replaced by the mandate of the gun.

In his rueful and melancholy The American War in Afghanistan: A History, Carter Malkasian, who worked closely with General Joseph Dunsford when he was US commander in Afghanistan and then, from 2015 to 2019, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, points out that the new tribalism was not at all the same as the old version. The tribal and religious leaders who came to power during and after the war against the Soviets were “not the old nobility or revered scholars,” but rather

commanders who had gained their position through military prowess, guns, and money…. Within the religious leaders, younger scholars trained in Pakistani madrasas or militarized in the war, filled the role of older scholars who had fled or died.

Chayes, writing in 2006, eloquently evoked the results of this process:

All the invisible bonds that weave a country together into a single polity had been dissolved. All the renunciations of personal sovereignty in exchange for the comforts and protections of a joint destiny had been retracted. Anyone claiming the allegiance of a few armed men felt entitled to strike out for himself. Scores of petty commanders fell to preying on their countrymen. This version of [Afghanistan] was a metastasized cancer; it had grown beyond the capacity of traditional tribal structures to contain it.

The recreation of a functioning state out of this implosion of nationhood was thus not primarily a matter of rooting out ancient and backward traditions. What it demanded, rather, was a confrontation with this new system of gangster fiefdoms. The Taliban, ironically, did this job very well. It created a state—albeit a viciously repressive and misogynistic one—that could take power back from the predatory warlords. It established a powerful notion of a “joint destiny” based on resistance to foreign invaders, the violent repression of internal ethnic minorities (especially the Hazara people, who allegedly descend from the Mongols), and an extremist version of Islam.

If the US was to succeed in creating for Afghans a similarly powerful idea of shared national enterprise, it had to do what the Taliban had done, except with democratic values as its binding force. It had to show that it was at least as capable as the Taliban had been at fending off the predators. That it utterly failed to do. This was, in a sense, a failure of faith. The Taliban believes passionately in its own worldview. The US did not really believe in the democratic virtues it espoused. It did not tell the truth. It was not committed to preventing corruption. Instead of breaking the power of the warlords, it restored them to power.

As Chayes pointed out, just five years after the US-led invasion there was already a contrast in the minds of ordinary Afghans between life as it had been under the Taliban and as it then was under the new regime. The Taliban was seen, undoubtedly, as more oppressive, but also more predictable. Its rules were outlandish and stultifying—everything from playing chess to cheering at sporting events to flying kites was banned—but everyone knew what they were. Under the American-backed government, by contrast, everything seemed arbitrary. A governor might be a decent public servant, or a thief and a thug.

An army checkpoint might be a genuine security operation, or it might be merely a shakedown in which anyone who wished to pass had to pay a bribe. In 2010 the United Nations estimated that Afghans were paying $2.5 billion every year in bribes—almost a quarter of the country’s official GDP—to soldiers and militia, to judges and government officials, even to doctors, nurses, and teachers. For Afghans, arbitrary government—by definition the opposite of republican democracy—was not a theoretical evil. It was a daily experience of random rapacity.

The US enabled this sense of the unpredictability of power by giving wildly different answers to the question at the center of the whole modernizing project. That question was wrapped up in another slippery word: culture. Was it or was it not okay for powerful Afghan men to own the bodies of others on the grounds that this was “their culture”? In relation to the rights of women, the Western powers decreed that it was not. The moral case for the occupation rested largely on the insistence that organized misogyny could not be tolerated just because it was deeply rooted in indigenous cultural practice.

The Taliban’s assault on women’s autonomy had been an all-out war. In her 2002 memoir The Sewing Circles of Herat, Christina Lamb has a long list of the laws that erased women as public beings, including: any woman showing her ankles must be whipped; no woman is allowed outside the home unless accompanied by a close male relative; women must be fully covered by the burqa; windows must be painted over so women cannot be seen from the outside; any woman with painted nails should have her fingers cut off. There was a “ban on laughing in public. No stranger should hear a woman’s voice.” Girls were prevented from attending even elementary school. Women were removed from all jobs outside the home.

To free women from this brutal gender apartheid—and to prevent the return to power of those who had imposed it—was undoubtedly a noble aim. But it always stood on shaky ground. Firstly, it was, as Malkasian acknowledges, a “moral cause for Americans” but “not an explicit strategic goal.” This goes to the heart of the difficulty: the moral argument for an open-ended American presence was never the same as the strategic purpose of the mission. Indeed, it is well to remember that, under the Clinton presidency, the US was prepared to recognize and work with the Taliban, vicious misogyny and all. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, the US drew up seventeen “talking points” for negotiations. As Gutman laconically noted, “The talking points omitted any mention of the sudden loss of women’s rights.” The establishment and defense of those rights were collateral effects of a counterterrorism operation. They were never defined as the primary goal of long-term American engagement.

Equally shaky was the American commitment to the principle underlying its insistence on equal dignity for Afghan women. That principle had to be instituted against the traditions of the rural Pashtun heartlands: men could not do what they pleased to women merely because that was part of an established way of life. But organized pedophilia was also a traditional practice, and the Americans tolerated and enabled it.

It is striking that in his history of the war, Malkasian mentions this issue in passing as one of the reasons why many Afghans welcomed Taliban rule, but returns to it as a post-2001 problem only in a single footnote, explaining local hostility to Dad Mohammed Khan, the warlord who was appointed chief of police in the town of Sangin: “The police chief and his men were also rumored to kidnap little boys out of the bazaar.” In fact, as The Afghanistan Papers confirms, the kidnapping and rape of boys by senior Afghan army and police officers was not a rumor. It was well known to American officials as an institutionalized practice. Whitlock summarizes the evidence from the official records:

Afghan military officers, warlords and other power brokers proclaimed their status by keeping tea boys or other adolescent male servants as sex slaves. US troops referred to the practice as “man-love Thursday” because Afghan pederasts would force boys to dress up or dance on Thursday evenings before the start of the Afghan weekend. Although American soldiers were sickened by the abuse, their commanders instructed them to look the other way because they didn’t want to alienate allies in the fight against the Taliban.

In 2015 Joseph Goldstein reported in The New York Times that US soldiers were instructed not to intervene in the kidnapping and rape of boys, even when the crimes were being committed on their own military bases. He interviewed a former Special Forces captain, Dan Quinn, who beat up a US-backed militia commander who had a boy chained to his bed. Quinn was relieved of his own command and sent home from Afghanistan. In response to the story, an army spokesman blithely confirmed that “there would be no express requirement that US military personnel in Afghanistan report” child sexual abuse by allied forces.

Apart from being morally abhorrent, the facilitation of these crimes exposed deep fault lines. One was the idea that it was best not to “alienate allies in the fight against the Taliban.” It suggests that these allies were not seen as the ordinary people of Afghanistan, the families whose children were kidnapped or the villagers who lived under this terror. As early as 2002, Jon Lee Anderson, in The Lion’s Grave, perhaps the most widely read American book about the US-led invasion, wrote that “one of the first things the Taliban did—a popular move—was to punish mujahideen commanders who were accused of rape or pederasty.” If this was known to be a popular move by the Taliban, did it not occur to American policymakers that taking the opposite approach might be unpopular and indeed alienating?

More broadly, the arbitrariness of the decision to disregard child rape undermined the principle of the universality of human rights on which US support for female equality was based. One US officer is recorded in The Afghanistan Papers explaining American tolerance of child abuse by saying, “You have to accept what they do and don’t interject your personal feelings about their culture.” But if this was so, why object to the Taliban’s confining women to their homes or banning music or destroying ancient images? The US, which has never managed to consistently apply human rights and the rule of law to its own citizens, could not do so for Afghans either.

The overlap between the failures of America’s own democracy and of its mission in Afghanistan is nowhere clearer than in the creation of a kleptocracy. One of the most basic functions of a democratic system is ensuring accountability for the use of public money. The Americans knew when they entered Afghanistan that corruption was already widespread. Their main response was to feed it with billions of taxpayers’ dollars. This was not naive or innocent. It too was policy. It was based on an article of faith for conservative Americans: trickle-down economics. If, in the US, you believed that it did not matter if some people became filthy rich by dubious means because some of their wealth would leak out to ordinary folk, why not apply that to Afghanistan?

In his SIGAR interview, Boucher said that it was better to funnel the vast sums of US aid to Afghan power brokers who “would probably take 20 percent for personal use” than to give it to “a bunch of expensive American experts.” He said, “I want it to disappear in Afghanistan, rather than in the Beltway. Probably in the end it is going to make sure that more of the money gets to some villager, maybe through five layers of corrupt officials, but still gets to some villager.”

Particularly striking here is Boucher’s assumption that genteel corruption is as endemic in Washington as the more flagrant kind is in Afghanistan. A democracy that cannot create accountability for the use of public money at home could not do so in a faraway society. This was also, for the entire project of building an Afghan democracy, ruinous. The villager who gets the last drops of aid after most of it has been filtered through five layers of corrupt officials knows all too well that he or she is not an equal citizen.

What was corrupted in all of this was the sense of an ending. “What,” as Major Joseph Claburn rather plaintively asked in 2011, “does it look like when it comes time for us to leave?” Because the ends being pursued were so ill-defined, the idea of an ending could not be fixed either. Twice—in 2003 and in 2014—the US officially declared an “end to combat operations” in Afghanistan. On neither occasion was this real or truthful or reflected on the ground. Finality, for the US, was something to be declared, not to be accomplished. Those who do not know what the last stage of their mission is will be outlasted, as America has been by the Taliban. It is an iron law that what cannot be concluded will be abandoned. That has been Afghanistan’s bitter fate.

Biden’s fate is to be the one who gave up the pretense of endless progress. It fell to the mournful man of compassion and empathy to deliver a heartless coup de grace. And even that parting shot was botched. It is a bleak commentary on the whole twenty-year episode that the US, on its departure, was almost as much in the dark as it had been on arrival, and no less concerned to keep up appearances. On July 23 Biden told his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani that the critical question was the “perception” that “things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban.” He suggested that “there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”

Less than a month before Ghani fled from Kabul, the US could not break the long-established habit of valuing a positive story more than the realities revealed by its own intelligence reports. This attitude extended even to the plight of Afghans whose lives were known to be in danger because they had worked with the Americans. The White House delayed for months the process of getting them to safety because it wanted to maintain the fiction that Afghan government forces would hold out against the Taliban. The great cloud of unknowing enveloped even the obvious truth that the circular progression of the war was about to close in on itself, forming a great hollow 0.

What is also unknown is how much this failure of American democracy will recoil on the politics of the homeland. Defeat in war has been, for some nations, the beginning of radical political change. It prompts reflection on the nature of the political order that has failed so badly. But the problem with the defeat in Afghanistan may be that, for America, it does not matter enough to make such self-examination imperative. Malkasian concludes that “the bigger story is probably how little the war featured in national life. Failure or success, Afghanistan was unimportant. Less than 0.3 percent of the population, including diplomats and contractors, served there.”

This is not a national trauma like Vietnam. There will be no great Maya Lin memorial to the Americans who gave their lives, still less to the 200,000 or so Afghans and Pakistanis who died. (Whitlock writes that the US started to count Afghan civilian deaths only in 2005, but then abandoned the database “for unspecified reasons.”) The shame and terror of the botched withdrawal has already become mere fodder for the tribal warfare of American politics, with Donald Trump recasting his own abject surrender to the Taliban—when he went over the heads of the supposedly sovereign Afghan government to negotiate an unhindered withdrawal—as Biden’s fault, and moreover as the “dumbest move ever made in US history.”

When it has served its partisan purpose, the collective impulse will be to write the whole thing off as an embarrassment. Since the US was so successful at not paying attention when the war was actually going on, it is hard to be optimistic about its capacity to do so in the long, dark aftermath.

Yet it should reflect, if only for its own sake. The war was not just a projection of American power into a troubled part of Asia. It was a test of the nature of that power. It showed that if war is the continuation of politics by other means, what was continued over twenty years in Afghanistan was a dangerous American nonchalance about the difficulty and fragility of democracy. The prevailing assumption over those years was that a stable democracy could be created and sustained without a commitment to telling the truth, without controlling the distorting effects of money, without standing up to the avidity of the rich, without proper mechanisms for open scrutiny and rational deliberation, without a commitment to moral standards that apply as much to our allies as to our enemies. Democracy without those values and systems has no substance. It will fall—and not just in Afghanistan.

The Americans running the show there were never convinced by the performance. They just could not stir themselves to do much about it. They watched the notion of a democratic republic they had conjured for a suffering people slip away bit by bit until it collapsed catastrophically. They settled into a strange pattern of dazed powerlessness. Successive American administrations, Republican and Democratic, became spectators at a drama in which the follies and dangers of their own domestic polity were played out in exotic foreign costumes. They failed to see that this story was also about themselves.

—September 8, 2021

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October 7, 2021