What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A true talib, and guardians and guards of vicious circles of mutual harm

A review of Abdul Salam Zaeef’s book, My life with the Taliban (Hurts and Co., London, 2010; eds.: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn)

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef (pictured with an iPhone, talking to the Associated Press, to the right; photo by Rafiq Maqbool, AP, February 25, 2009) was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan and the Afghan Emirate’s face to the world in 2000-2001. The one to complain to, the one to demand from, the one to lecture, the one to be lectured by in return, and occasionally the one to try and make a deal with. He was also one of the early organisers of the movement of the taliban in 1994; one who put his life at risk again, in a dire moment of Kandahar's history, teaming up with old comrades from the jihad of the 1980s, to radically transform the situation in their land for the better. Now he tells us the story of his life with the mediation of editors and translators of his personal account, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

Mullah Zaeef is good with words, and the editors have also done a fine job. There is a vast amount of research behind them and they supply the reader with an abundance of additional information. But the subject material needed no particular enhancement to merit interest to start with, either.

Based on mullah Zaeef's background as mullah come diplomat, one could expect two things from him by default. Firstly, that in his book, My life with the Taliban, he would clearly assert that he is not a moderate talib as such but simply a true talib, a “seeker.” The title of the book pretty much makes that clear, right? Secondly, one could also expect that he would demonstrate more pragmatism in his argumentation than many others in his movement, having been a diplomat. He might have had it in him before, or he might have learned it, or some of it, on the job. In any case, he might legitimately be expected to have a significantly less parochial outlook than some of his former comrades (perhaps an outlook not parochial at all). And more readiness for a dialogue; why else would he bother to write a book as a call for peace and reconciliation? Last year he even accomplished the hajj (something the reader may learn from the useful background material included in the book, prepared by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn).

Reading mullah Zaeef’s account does leave a mixed impression in the reader, and the end result may fall short of what some would wishfully anticipate from him – Barnett Rubin notes essentially the same in his brief but excellent foreword to the book. This of course should not make mullah Zaeef's account uninteresting. To the contrary! It is a narrative that is important addition to assessing the role of all those involved in it.

Assessing Mullah Zaeef

It is a true talib’s voice we can hear here. He is not playing the tune of someone who is just a step away from transforming into one of “us” (whatever that means). He is not about to shed his identity as a talib, or his deep respect for mullah Omar, as a result of using his iPhone or one more good argument in the name of holy good governance, peace be upon its name. But why should he? An awkward answer to that question could be that he would be better off as a result, because the first instinct of a distant reader, like the one whose comments you are reading, may be to pounce on real or assumed inconsistencies and omissions in his narrative, taking him on as though he would still be the Taliban's face to the world, writing the official history of the Taliban. He is not, of course: he is no longer an official face of the Taliban, and he is not writing its official history, either. Clearly, he should be spared of some of the verbal combat. Trying to get him to account for crimes of comrades and crimes of the friends of those comrades could constitute a symbolic repetition of his earlier lawless treatment in Bagram and Guantanamo; just as seeing a shameless attempt at historical revision in his "frustrating silences" would (borrowing Barnett Rubin's expression).

Still, at first, just that sort of enumeration of possible complaints is about to follow here - but to rub less salt in the wound(s), throughout some caveats shall be highlighted as well, before a substantial debate might make one reconsider even more of the critical observations outlined below. Proceeding like this could perhaps be justified as not shying away from addressing the seemingly obvious points of criticism. Here I am, setting up a strawman, talking.

To start with, there are very rigid aspects to mullah Zaeef's thinking. Among the things that one may find spectacularly objectionable, Mullah Zaeef is a man who, in his own retelling, rather impatiently lectured a Japanese delegation on one occasion, however arrogant or ignorant or unaware of certain sensitivities this delegation may have been, about how Buddhism, someone else’s religion, someone else’s path to a virtuous life, was “void” and “without any basis” (p. 127). Elsewhere he says that “tolerance is the most necessary quality on earth; it can make the world into one home” (p. 224), but in light of what he said before, it may seem like what he really means by this is that the Taliban’s faithful intolerance of deviations should have been uncritically tolerated by others at least in the Taliban’s own, appropriated corner of the world.

Another seemingly telling illustration of his thinking could be mullah Zaeef’s attitude towards the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. That attitude is also remarkable for some potentially telling inconsistency. In general, Mullah Zaeef derides the ISI for its constant meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs, and even likens it to a cancer spreading, one that eats you or may even spit you out. Yet he notes, with what appears to have been approval in the given context, how General Mahmud Ahmed, the head of ISI, referred to Pakistan’s interior minister Moinuddin Haider as a “silly donkey” once, because of the latter’s attempt to argue in the defence of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan and because of his attempt to warn the Taliban of the threat of a future American attack “over the Osama issue” (p. 125). Mullah Zaeef finds it fitting that both Mahmud Ahmed, just back at the time from Washington where he had been staying in the morning of 9/11, and the legendary old Afghan hand „Colonel Imam,” shed tears, on separate occasions, over the fate of the Afghan Emirate (see pp. 148 and 154). However, inconsistency of attitude towards ISI is something that ought to be viewed in a context in which, for mullah Zaeef just like to a number of other observers, there seem to be two or more different ISIs sometimes, including one that wanted very specific things from mullah Zaeef upon the fall of the regime of mullah Omar – things which he would not do (see p. 153). Having an ambiguous attitude may thus be simply the result of a reality check.

Mullah Zaeef’s more negative feelings about the ISI also stem from what he says was Pakistan’s support to the Emirate’s enemies, „even while it maintained a close relationship” with the Taliban, as he puts it. There is truth in claiming that the ISI (just like many other intelligence services) was always playing several options at the same time. For example, Hamed Karzai, generally no fan of Pakistan-the-state, either, could get along quite well for a while over on the other side of the Khyber Pass, till not long before 9/11 (on one occasion back in 1994, Karzai was allegedly beaten up by Mohammed Qasim Fahim personally, on suspicion of conspiring with Pakistani intelligence). But of course there might be a big difference between "close" and "very close" relationships, and the closeness of any particular relationship tends to change over time... Was the ISI playing all its options with the same enthusiasm?

How close (or vital) the relationship between the Taliban and the Pakistani leadership and the ISI happened to be in general is probably something that mullah Zaeef could not exactly assess, even if he wanted to. One might assume this in light of how his appointment to the post of Ambassador to Pakistan occurred (see p. 102). The innermost workings of the Taliban regime were at times apparently unfathomable even to someone like mullah Zaeef (as unfathomable as the interagency process in Washington can be for an observer). But altogether the lack of truly sufficient explanation regarding how the Taliban movement could expand so fast beyond its original area is striking to such a degree one may be forgiven for thinking that there must have been more external assistance in the process than what mullah Zaeef was prepared to discuss. Equally telling is the absence of a reasonable narrative of how the Taliban could sustain their operations after major losses in northern Afghanistan. Telling a detailed account of that campaign was no aim of the author, but still this is something that people could easily call for.

Other things missing from mullah Zaeef’s narrative, things that are likely to be missed by some future readers, also include the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001. It would be interesting to know how he felt when he learned of what had happened. Did he feel it did not bode well, at the time? Or were his first impressions different? But this sort of pondering is only relevant if mullah Zaeef learned of the assassination before September 11, and so far one can only speculate that this may have been the case.

There are yet more possibly conscious omissions, too. Women, Hazaras and others are not treated the way they were, in mullah Zaeef’s narrative. Although, of course, mullah Zaeef did not personally affect the general treatment of women, and he had no personal involvement in the rather "enemy-centric" campaign in the Hazara areas (to use a military euphemism fashionable in Western discourse nowadays).

Compared to a lack of elaboration on a number of relevant issues, his repeatedly voiced, albeit cautious and unaccusing, wish for a careful investigation by the United States into what happened on 9/11 seems naïve. If many among the Taliban really believed that bin Laden’s organisation was not capable and willing to prepare and carry out the 9/11 attacks, or even the East African embassy bombings, regarding which doubts are also voiced in the book, only another major, alleged miscalculation by mullah Omar can match this in terms of the enormity of unforeseen consequences: namely that mullah Omar might have believed there was less than 10 percent of a chance that the U.S. might carry through with its threats against the Emirate.

Having listed these real or presumed inconsistencies in mullah Zaeef’s account and inevitably alienating from his narrative to a degree (just like one should from anyone’s narrative, in any case), it could also be argued that men like mullah Zaeef are among the potentially least harmful prospective social leaders in Greater Kandahar's area, the following two counter-factual conditions permitting (this will be complicated but I will try to put this into exact terms): firstly, if Western-led state-building can really only be the botched peace-building in-name-only, or the “quagmire-building,” that it can seem to be, and/or if one assumes that the situation could and would be quickly spoiled from Pakistani sources in any case; secondly, if in the absence of a committed Western-led state-building effort one could only have the devastating feuding of the militias (the "men with the guns," the topakiyaan) that Kandaharis were witnesses to in the early 1990s... Which brings us to the almost obligatory, inconclusive rambling about the Taliban's prospects, others' prospects with the Taliban in mind, and prospects without the Taliban.

Assessing the taliban, the neo-Taliban, and the topakiyaan

If we accept the above counter-factuals, the hypothesis could be that there would be an inevitable role for taliban like mullah Zaeef in southern Afghanistan. (Along with the ulema, perhaps... Notably, many of the Kandahari Ulemaa Shura's members were assassinated by insurgents since 2001 - around 24 of about 150 of them by one count). Religious sources of authority may seem vital as the glue that could hold society together; to provide social cohesion amongst a well-armed, fractured populace in a resource-scarce environment – to provide this cohesion in the form of an Islamic collective, transcending tribal and other fault-lines and keeping in check a moral vacuum from overtaking even a minimal semblance of order in (dys)functioning, neopatrimonial state institutions.

An important question, if I may ask, is: would the taliban necessarily have to rule themselves, in order to play this role, provided they could, in reality, take over power again? Would this role need to be formalised, normally? Is the legitimacy of a rural Kandahari, Sunni version of a broader wilayat-e faqih automatically established, by the argumentation above, over all parts of Afghanistan that before 2001 used to be controlled (to varying degrees) by the Taliban? This is why the Taliban's uneven but country-wide spread is likely to be a major complication in resolving the conflict with them. Should there be such a deal, how would the Taliban extricate themselves from the politics outside their core areas? Could they do so? Would they be willing to do so?

The early organising of the Taliban in 1994 and the first checkpoint battles, such as the one with Daru Khan’s ragtag forces, were of monumental importance. That was the historical moment when the would-be honest Islamic mediators of disputes and impartial Islamic judges of crimes turned into power-brokers. As such, they became party to conflicts. They no longer played the role of smootheners of justice, peace-makers or mere servants to the cause of a wider jihad. They became stokers of conflict, exploiters of conflict, and makers of conflict themselves. From the sphere of religious morality they stepped into the ugly Machiavellian world called power politics. It was a moment that transformed their cause fundamentally and perhaps irreversibly, and it was all of the legacy of this transformation and its aftermath that mullah Zaeef was unjustly called on to personally account for, above.

As to today’s movement, the neo-Taliban, as some refer to them, the picture is even more complex. Some NATO sources apparently refer with regularity to how the “small t” taliban mingle among the ranks of the “big T” (neo-)Taliban. Well, at least in a sense, sort of. Thomas Rid writes in The Wilson Quarterly:
‘coalition soldiers see (…) a fissure between what they call “big T” Taliban and “small t” Taliban. The “big T” ideologues fight for more global spiritual or political reasons; the “little t” opportunists fight for power, for money, or just to survive, to hedge their bets.’
While this statement does capture something important, it is also, inevitably, a very distorting way of using the terms “taliban” and “Taliban.” There is no differentiation akin to this in for example mullah Zaeef’s or other Afghans' mind. But back in the 1980s, and based on mullah Zaeef's account, there was conscious self-differentiation from the rest of the mujahedeen in the taliban fronts. The sad irony of this is that in moral terms, the pettier mujahedeen of the 1980s, of whom the taliban clearly stood apart, may still have been, possibly, a class above some of the more distant fellow travellers of even the Taliban insurgency nowadays, after the past decades of devastation and breakdown of basic order and its impact on society. Alluded to here are some of the very many fighters who significantly contributed to the growth of the insurgency, especially outside its core areas, joining it as part-timers in some cases, because of the lack of better opportunities, and/or because of grievances suffered from corrupt institutions and predatory strongmen (and the militiamen of these strongmen, the "topakiyaan" of today, occasionally in ANP uniform, at other times not). To point out some truly extreme examples, one even hears of supposedly “taliban” commanders in some areas with a liking for video messages of dancing boys sent around on mobile phones (a phenomenon thought to be less exceptional among the ranks of strongmen's militias, bandits or, say, corrupt auxiliary police units; while assumed almost beyond plausible, by definition, among the ranks of people referring to themselves as "taliban;" disapproval of the phenomenon could even be read out of rule no. 19 in the Taliban's earlier book of rules, or laheya). Elsewhere, on some occasions in the past, coalition soldiers reported having found syringes in insurgents’ deserted firing positions (signs of heroin abuse that is haraam, banned; of course this, again, cannot be said to be a typical experience with regards to the insurgents). Other, actually widespread signs of major change include the rampant use of IEDs and suicide bombings as a tactic (although frequently with foreign fighters' participation in the case of suicide attacks), and the use of DVD recordings and well-illustrated on-line publications in promoting the insurgency's cause. The Taliban are now flexible enough to co-opt, and thus grow by the inclusion of, even some former opponents of theirs. Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban "brand" took on a life of its own...

But in fact the diversity of the insurgents' background may breed some hope at the same time as at least some observers opine - of course not with the previous extreme examples in mind. That listening to music and other traditional entertainments are now more tolerated within the Taliban's ranks may suggest that they might have become less rigidly ideological and generally more ready for pragmatic compromises, required in the world of politics. But the terror tactics employed against real and symbolic enemies of the movement still make caution recommended in forming such predictions about their potential future character, even if they may have entered a "softening-up" phase. The precarious havens they have in Pakistan where they likely need to watch out for a number of actors' plots and counter-plots all the time, may teach a lot of lessons about survival but not necessarily in more sober, pragmatic governance.

The core Taliban movement is very much there, and this Quetta Shura Taliban would certainly have some legacy of strange camaraderie to deal with, should they come to power again in some form. With the execution of some of the more unreliable commanders acting in their name, as well as with rotation of their commanders from province to province and from district to district, they have in fact always been working on this in their own way. Thus the above observations are certainly not to suggest that overall the Quetta Shura has fundamental authority problems these days in controlling the strategic shape and direction of the southern insurgency. It can be demonstrated, related to a number of issues, that theirs can and does work as a centralised movement. And it provides guidance to other groups as well. Insurgent factions even as far from the south as in the Korengal valley, in Kunar province, are ready to declare acceptance of mullah Omar as Amir ul-Mu'mineen (leader of the faithful); although an observer may reserve some scepticism and assume that such declarations of allegiance could as well be patronage-inspired responses to efforts at building credibility for the Quetta Shura, at a time when deal-making with it is certainly on the agenda. As an effective test of the respect that mullah Omar has, however, his letters are reportedly powerful enough messages to get commanders in most areas, where the Taliban are active, to allow polio vaccination rounds to go ahead. The movement also fares remarkably well in managing revenue flows that stem at the grassroots level, from various sources, avoiding the corruption and the fragmentation often seen in other conflicts where grassroots commanders have potentially autonomous revenue streams.

Thus we could assume that ultimately the Taliban would be able to gain full, practical control of their movement as well as of what is happening in its name, reigning it in, at least in an area around Kandahar, especially in rural Kandahar, where in many places they are providing the actually functioning justice system. Although exactly how much (if more than a minority) of the local population would be really, voluntarily receptive of that is up to anyone to guess, in the absence of truly reliable polls. Regardless, we can also assume that the West would be neither willing nor capable of fighting endlessly to try to annul the Taliban’s chances of any kind of comeback, however, should the possibility not clearly emerge on the horizon soon, as a result of the push effect that the surge inevitably exerts on the insurgents. The question then is whether the Taliban would truly be able to operate on their own, without backing from the sort of sources that they relied on in the past, thus opening up Afghan matters to much destructive foreign influence. Influence that serves the agendas of those whose key interest in Afghanistan is exactly the opposite of letting Afghans sort it out for themselves in a sustainable manner; agendas of those whose agenda itself might draw in the intervention of other parties.

This is crucial, since latently, in the discourse about Afghanistan, one can often sense the influence of the concept of a potential grand, Faustian bargain that could, in the view of some, be struck with the Taliban. A deal, that the West could perhaps tolerate Taliban rule as a least bad option from a human rights perspective in parts of southern Afghanistan that are usually not specified; in return for which the Taliban would need to exercise positive sovereignty, or effective authority, in these areas, and credibly commit to not letting anyone undermine others’ security from their territory. Some go as far as suggesting that official recognition may need to be extended as part of this deal to the Taliban who could then either be part of the Internationally Recognised Government of Afghanistan, or, at the extreme, such a government themselves. (It is one of mullah Zaeef’s principal complaints by the way that the West made a major mistake in only dealing with the Emirate through Islamabad). But it remains to be seen what the Taliban would content with and when (after all "foreign troops" have already left?) – and any grand compromise could still be spoiled by others not willing to be bound by it.

Assessing America and the West

One also needs to address issues of trust with regards to the West, and definitely not only with the Taliban in mind; although the Taliban's perspective could also be telling illustration of this. Western decision-makers did not care so much about the plight of Kabul or Kandahar in the 1990s, at least compared to how important the country, the plight of the Afghan people, and the cause of the mujahedeen may have seemed to them on the basis of their, or their predecessors,’ approach earlier on. Handing over Osama bin Laden, or even the presenting of truly decisive evidence in a court against him (i.e. against a spiritual and covert financial supporter of terrorism) would have been much more difficult than many diplomats and officials were ready to admit when they demanded bin Laden’s extradition from the Taliban, who were in the end ousted from power because of this (and not because of the dreadful treatment of women, Hazaras or anyone else). The West’s approach to the issue of opium production was generally no less ingenuine, either, than that of the Taliban (tacit encouragement during the jihad, lobbying the Taliban for a ban post-1994, then intermittently tacit ignorance and calls for stepped-up eradication of even ordinary farmers' crops post-2001; it was, by intention at least, a strategic approach in other words).

At the same time, mullah Zaeef’s complaint that the U.S. or Great Britain did not help al-hajji mullah Mohammad Rabbani when he needed medical treatment for cancer will not really strike a chord in most of the Western readership (p. 129). Many injustices were committed against Afghanistan in its history but this is not one of them; although it may very well be the case that the opportunity to gain some trust and goodwill from the Taliban by providing just this sort of assistance was underestimated on the occasion.

Connected to this, one in fact also finds it difficult to understand how a former diplomatic representative of the aspiring-to-be sovereign Afghan Emirate, regularly and genuinely stressing in his discourse the importance of independence for Afghanistan, feels no contradiction between his preference of independence and what he mentions as senior Taliban leaders’ habit of regularly going for medical treatment to Pakistan – or, when the treatment was required for more severe problems, say for Ministry of Defence officials, to the supposedly decadent West (see p. 111). Such dependencies work against independence... And nor does mullah Zaeef feel there to be a contradiction, apparently, between the idea of national resistance against occupation and how thousands of Arab and other fighters poured in for the combat post-2001, in his own account (p. 155). It is not difficult at all to understand why and how he might see welcome warriors of justice in these Arab and other volunteers, faced with, mind you, a whole coalition of opponents. But their activity is not the basis of a really national sort of resistance, either; certainly no more than the Taliban are "anti-Afghan" forces, as in the coalition's rhetoric. Would one be terribly wrong to imagine that in fact many of the foreign fighters themselves would find simply outrageous or at least uninspiring the idea that they are involved in a national sort of war in Afghanistan? Foreign fighters could refer here to both ISAF troops and non-Afghan Pakistanis and Arabs, by the way...

But while all the Pakistani and Arab volunteers render it implausible to consider the new Taliban campaign as a national resistance war, what is nowadays also talked of as Obama’s war is in fact more Bush’s or America’s war as such. It resembled, in some of its early aspects, more a targeted revenge campaign and a round of meant-to-be preventive violence (a "signal" as some refer to it) than peace-building or state-building of any kind, and this needs to be remembered. By its legacy, it is thus a war of the Bagram prison guard who took the Qur’an from a prisoner in front of mullah Zaeef’s eyes, to urinate on it. It is by the same token the war of the military barber who slapped mullah Zaeef for complaining about being force-shaved. It is the war of all those who were happy to use the cover of a belief in their own righteousness to relate to human beings in a fundamentally inhumane way, as many of the guards in places such as Bagram or Guantanamo regularly did. Mullah Zaeef's book is an important document of this, being the first-hand account that it is.

And there are not only "isolated moments of inappropriateness" to bring up, on the part of the West. The troubles, in case anyone failed to notice by now, extend to the strategic level. The current Afghan war is by legacy the war of those who launched a war on terrorism making the prime enemy, Osama bin Laden, even more of a legend than what he used to be, right at the outset – allowing bin Laden a somewhat lucky but not altogether unpredictable and spectacular escape from the Tora Bora mountains. It is the war of those who gave the Taliban a new sense of transnational brotherhood by having many of them go through a common ordeal with Arab and other fighters (as well as some ordinary people from several Islamic countries) held in Guantanamo, Bagram and other detention facilities, thus convincing the Taliban and many others of the validity of some of their worst beliefs regarding distant America. It is also the war of those who could only think of setting up the primitive polity of a weak, albeit in provincial affairs quite intrusive, king (President Karzai), a pro-consul of "good global governance," so to say, faced with quarrelling princes (the members of parliament), to thus counter the Taliban’s and al-Qaida’s influence for the future.

Harsh criticism of Western efforts in Afghanistan also brings us to mullah Zaeef’s temptation to identify with America’s indigenous Indians’ plight, however, of which he writes at one point, notably when recounting some of the most desperate moments of his life, during his captivity in Guantanamo (p. 193-194). This could itself be criticised as an exaggerating and overly ideological view of what came to happen (and is happening still). In effect mullah Zaeef is likening the Taliban movement to brutally oppressed native resistance against imperialism. But one perhaps also needs to remember the Taliban’s own history with prisoners at this point. That is nothing that mullah Zaeef was personally involved in, and this shall be remembered - but still there are past events that do matter and that also need to be recounted in this context. Shi’a leader Abdul Ali Mazari’s fate, for example, after he had been captured by the Taliban. Or how Communist leader Najibullah was treated after Kabul had been taken. Or atrocities (in revenge for previous failures) in Mazar-i-Sharif. Taliban counterinsurgency tactics in Bamiyan.

Two or many more wrongs don't make a right, of course. Approaching this from a more constructive point of view, without an interest in manufacturing counternarratives or counter-counternarratives: if there is a trivial but important lesson in what mullah Zaeef and others went through in Guantanamo, it could be that people who think they can righteously cause harm to others are always dangerous. Be they revenge-minded prison guards, overzealous guardians of the true faith, or even cold-headed but ultimately short-sighted Realpolitikers.

Assessing the reviewer

On that note, this reviewer will cease talking. The reader probably ought to have stopped reading by this point, to start reading mullah Zaeef's story instead. It is a well-told story and reading it is a unique chance to inhale Afghanistan's and Afghans' history through the fabric of its narrative, every aspect of which would have been impossible to discuss even in a much more extensive review. And the Epilogue might re-arrange every preceding impression one may develop in a linear reading of the text. Just like this reviewer also had to overhaul his initial approach to it. But I shall really not give away more, or I shall be a very bad reviewer.

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Related material on this blog:

Summary and translation of an interview by Péter Wagner with Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a former fighter of the war against the Soviets and a former member of the Taliban's government who was detained for months at Bagram, but then ran for a place in the Afghan parliament. In 2009, he was even one of the presidential candidates. Just like mullah Zaeef's family, he also hails from among the Suleiman Khel of Qalat/Zabul.

The story of the Uruzgan governorship of Abdul Hakim Munib, another former member of the Taliban government. Ghilzai Pashtun, just like mullah Zaeef and Abdul Salaam Rocketi - a son of the Ali Khel of Paktia.

A trio from southern Afghanistan. Parts of the interwoven stories of mullah Mohammed Omar, Haji Bashir Noorzai and Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil.

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