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The Pentagon's Secret Plans to Secure Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal
By hiding its nuclear weapons from Washington, Pakistan has made them much more vulnerable to jihadists. In response, the Pentagon has devised secret plans to secure the Pakistani arsenal -- by force if necessary (see GSN, Nov. 8).
Shortly after Navy SEALs raided the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May and killed Osama bin Laden, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani chief of army staff, spoke with Khalid Kidwai, the retired lieutenant general in charge of securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Kidwai, who commands a security apparatus called the Strategic Plans Division, had been expecting Kayani’s call.
Kayani, the most powerful man in a country that has only a simulacrum of civilian leadership, had been busy in the tense days that followed the bin Laden raid: He had to assure his American funders (U.S. taxpayers provide more than $2 billion in annual subsidies to the Pakistani military) that the army had no prior knowledge of bin Laden’s hideout, located less than a mile from Pakistan’s preeminent military academy; and at the same time he had to subdue the uproar within his ranks over what was seen as a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by an arrogant Barack Obama. But he was also anxious about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and he found time to express this worry to Kidwai.
Much of the world, of course, is anxious about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and for good reason: Pakistan is an unstable country located at the epicenter of global jihadism, and it has been the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea. “The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short term, medium term, and long term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon,” President Obama said last year at an international nuclear-security meeting in Washington. Al‑Qaeda, Obama said, is “trying to secure a nuclear weapon -- a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”
Pakistan would be an obvious place for a jihadist organization to seek a nuclear weapon or fissile material: It is the only Muslim-majority state, out of the 50 or so in the world, to have successfully developed nuclear weapons. Its central government has serious trouble controlling the many corners of its territory. Its security services are infiltrated by an unknown number of jihadist sympathizers; a number of jihadist organizations are headquartered there and have relations with the government. And the weapons are stored on bases and in facilities spread across the country -- possibly including one within several miles of Abbottabad, a city that, in addition to having hosted bin Laden, is home to many partisans of the jihadist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen.
“There are three threats,” says Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear weapons who directs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. The first is “a terrorist theft of a nuclear weapon, which they take to Mumbai or New York for a nuclear 9/11. The second is a transfer of a nuclear weapon to a state like Iran. The third is a takeover of nuclear weapons by a militant group during a period of instability or splintering of the state.”
Pakistani officials adamantly defend the safety of their nuclear program. In times of relative quiet between Pakistan and India (the country that would be the target of a Pakistani nuclear attack), they say that their weapons are “de‑mated” -- meaning that the warheads are kept separate from their fissile cores and their delivery systems. This makes stealing, or launching, a complete nuclear weapon far more difficult. In an interview this summer in Islamabad, a senior official of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the Pakistani military’s spy agency, told National Journal that U.S. fears about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were entirely unfounded. “Of all the things in the world to worry about, the issue you should worry about the least is the safety of our nuclear program,” the official said. “It is completely secure.” He went on to say, “It is in our interest to keep our bases safe as well. You must trust us that we have maximum and impenetrable security. No one with ill intent can get near our strategic assets.”
Like many statements made by Pakistan’s leaders, this one contained large elements of deceit. Militants have already targeted at least six facilities widely believed to be associated with Pakistan’s nuclear program. To hide weapons from the prying satellite eyes of the United States, Pakistan moves warheads around in unmarked vans with low security profiles down busy roads. In fact, Pakistanis see jihadists as less threatening than Washington, which they believe wants to seize their nuclear weapons. After the Abbottabad mission, Kayani wanted to know what additional steps Kidwai was taking to prevent an American raid on their nuclear arsenal. Kidwai promised to redouble efforts to keep his country’s weapons far from the long arms of the Americans.
What that means, in essence, is this: In a country that is home to Muslim fundamentalist groups -- al‑Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (which conducted the Mumbai raid that killed nearly 200 civilians in 2008) -- nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads. And Pakistani and U.S. sources say that since the raid on Abbottabad, the Pakistanis have increased the pace of these movements. In other words, the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadists simply to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget. In response, the Pentagon has devised secret plans to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, amplifying Pakistani fears.
It is true that the Strategic Plans Division is considered to be a highly professional organization, at least by Pakistani-government standards of professionalism. Kidwai, its leader, is well regarded by Western nuclear-security experts, and the soldiers and civilians he leads are said by Pakistani spokesmen to be screened rigorously for their probity and competence, and for signs of political or religious immoderation. The SPD, Pakistani officials say, keeps careful watch over behavioral changes in its personnel; employees are investigated thoroughly for ties to extremists or radical mosques, and for changes in their lifestyle and income. The SPD is also believed to maintain “dummy” storage sites to divert attention from active ones.
Pakistani spokesmen say that the SPD is vigilant in its monitoring of the civilian scientists working in the country’s nuclear complexes. There are as many as 9,000 of them, including at least 2,000 who possess “critical knowledge” of weapons manufacture and maintenance, according to two sources in Pakistan. The watchfulness was deemed necessary after disclosures that two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists with pronounced jihadist sympathies had met with bin Laden in the summer of 2001. “I think it’s overstated that the weapons can get into bad hands,” Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president, who created the SPD, told National Journal.
But some U.S. intelligence experts aren’t so sure. First, there is the simple matter of competence. When Navy SEALs penetrated Pakistani air defenses, landed in helicopters streets away from a prestigious military academy, killed the most-wanted fugitive in modern history, and then departed, the Pakistani military was oblivious for the duration. Pervasive derision followed. A popular text message in the days after the raid read, “If you honk your horn, do so lightly, because the Pakistani army is asleep.”
Americans also question Pakistan’s nuclear vigilance. Thomas Fingar, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council under President George W. Bush, said it is logical that any nuclear-weapons state would budget the resources necessary to protect its arsenal -- but that “we do not know that this is the case in Pakistan.” The key concern, Fingar says, is that “we do not know if what the military has done is adequate to protect the weapons from insider threats, or if key military units have been penetrated by extremists. We hope the weapons are safe, but we may be whistling past the graveyard.”
Some near misses have already occurred. In November 2007, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying workers to the Sargodha air base, which is believed to house nuclear weapons. The following month, a school bus was attacked outside Kamra air base, which may also serve as a nuclear storage site. In August 2008, Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers attacked what experts believe is the country’s main nuclear-weapons assembly depot in Wah cantonment. Recently, militants invaded a major Pakistani naval base near Karachi, blowing up two P‑3C Orion surveillance planes and killing at least 10 people. Pakistani security forces required 15 hours to regain control of the base. In a series of interviews, several Pakistani officials told National Journal that investigators suspect the militants had help inside the complex. Experts believe that nuclear-weapon components were stored nearby.
Pakistani leaders say their military and security organizations are immune to radical influence. “I have seen no significant radicalization of any of our men in uniform,” said the Inter-Services Intelligence senior official National Journal interviewed in Islamabad. “This is simply a lie.” But the evidence suggests otherwise. Sympathy for jihadist-oriented groups among at least some Pakistani military men has been acknowledged for years, even inside Pakistan; recently a brigadier, Ali Khan, was arrested on charges of maintaining contact with a banned extremist organization. A retired Pakistani general with intelligence experience says, “Different aspects of the military and security services have different levels of sympathy for the extremists. The navy is high in sympathy.”
If jihadists are looking to raid a nuclear facility, they have a wide selection of targets: Although Pakistan is very secretive about the locations of its nuclear facilities, satellite imagery and other sources suggest that jihadists could find warheads or other nuclear materials at a minimum of 15 sites.
Yet neither the Pakistani army nor the SPD seems to consider jihadism the most immediate threat to the security of its nuclear weapons. Instead, Kayani’s worry, as expressed to Kidwai, was focused on the United States. According to sources in Pakistan, Kayani believes that the U.S. has the technical means to stage simultaneous raids on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Kidwai promised that the counterintelligence branch of the SPD remained focused on rooting out American and Indian spies from the Pakistani nuclear-weapons complex, and on foiling other American espionage methods. Pakistan’s air force trains its pilots to intercept U.S. spy planes; its military assumes (correctly) that the U.S. devotes many resources to aerial and satellite surveillance of its nuclear sites.
In his post-Abbottabad talk with Kayani, Kidwai also said that Pakistan’s program was sufficiently hardened, and dispersed, so that the U.S. would have to mount a sizable invasion of the country to neutralize its weapons; a raid on the scale of Abbottabad simply would not suffice. But to keep American
and Indian intelligence agencies guessing, according to multiple sources in Pakistan, Kidwai ordered an increase in the tempo of the dispersal of nuclear-weapons components and other sensitive materials. One method the SPD uses to ensure their safety is to shuffle the materials among the 15 or more facilities that handle them. Nuclear weapons must go to the shop for occasional maintenance, and so they have to be moved to suitably equipped facilities.
Nuclear components are sometimes flown by helicopter or driven over roads. But instead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys, the SPD prefers to use civilian-style vans, without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. And, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the “de‑mated” component nuclear parts, but also “mated” nuclear weapons. Western nuclear experts have feared that Pakistan is building small, tactical nuclear weapons for quick deployment on the battlefield. In fact, not only is Islamabad building these devices, it is also now driving them around the streets of Pakistan.
Experts further worry about the accidental launch of a nuclear warhead during a period of high tension between Pakistan and India, or the possibility that rogue elements inside the Pakistani military might take it upon themselves to launch a nuclear attack. On paper, Pakistan’s nuclear command-and-control body, the National Command Authority, is overseen by the civilian prime minister, working in conjunction with the country’s military leaders. But in reality, the military controls the system of enabling and authenticating codes that would be transmitted to strategic forces in the event of a nuclear alert. Pakistan’s nuclear posture is opaque, however, and the U.S. has many questions about how the authority to use the weapons is delegated.
In 2006, Kidwai told an audience at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., that Pakistan maintained for its nuclear arsenal the functional equivalent of two-person control and permissive action links, or PALs -- coded locks meant to prevent unauthorized arming of a weapon. Asked about Pakistan’s PAL protocols, one former U.S. defense official replied, “It has never been clear to me what Pakistani PALs really entail. The doctrine is ‘two people’ -- but is it two people to unlock the box around the warhead, or is it two people to launch the thing once you’ve mated the warhead to the missile?” (India, in contrast, has been more transparent about its nuclear posture; unlike Pakistan, it has pledged not to use nuclear weapons first -- only in response.)
Still, what really frightens American strategic thinkers is not so much the launch protocols as the long-term stability and coherence of Pakistan itself. Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says that if Pakistan were not in possession of nuclear weapons, the problem would be like “Nigeria without oil” -- a much lower foreign-policy priority. But Pakistan is in dire shape. “Its economy has failed, its politics have failed, and its army either fails or looks the other way,” says Cohen. “There are no good options.” For that reason, Washington must keep a tight bond with a nuclear Pakistan.
Few experts believe that Pakistan is in imminent danger of collapse -- but the trends, as Cohen notes, are negative. The government is widely considered to be among the world’s most corrupt (President Asif Ali Zardari is informally known as “Mr. 10 Percent”). Last year, Pakistan’s inflation rate hit 15 percent, and the real unemployment rate was 34 percent. Some 60 percent of Pakistanis survive on less than $2 a day. Nearly a quarter of the government budget goes to the military.
In a country that has made only modest gains in the areas of innovation, science, and education (especially in comparison with its rival, India), the Pakistani nuclear program has played an outsized role in the building of national self-esteem. And so critiques like those are deeply wounding. They produce feelings of distrust.
In 2000, one of the authors of this article met A.Q. Khan, the nuclear scientist known as the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear-bomb program, at a ceremony in Islamabad marking the second anniversary of the detonation of the country’s first atomic bomb. (Khan was also the principal exporter of Pakistani nuclear technology to such countries as Iran, North Korea, and Libya.) The celebration -- complete with a vanilla sheet cake on which the words Youm-e-Takbeer, or “Day of God’s Greatness,” were written in lemon frosting -- was held in the presence of many of the country’s leading nuclear scientists, and of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had recently taken power in a coup.
After the ceremony, Khan told a small circle of admirers, as well as the visiting American reporter, that Westerners resented Pakistan’s admission into the nuclear club. “The West has been leading a crusade against the Muslims for a thousand years,” he said. He went on to assert that the U.S. would do anything in its power to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear assets. One of the scientists in the circle agreed, and said, “Why do the Americans want to destroy Islam?” In a recent interview with National Journal, Musharraf echoed the point: “No one ever speaks of the dangers of a Hindu bomb.”
An American visitor to Pakistan can easily see that a particular narrative has been embedded in the country’s collective psyche: The U.S. favors India, punishes Pakistan unjustifiably, and periodically abandons Pakistan when policymakers in Washington feel the country is not useful. “America is a disgrace because it turns on its friends when it has no use for them,” says Gen. Aslam Beg, a retired chief of staff of the Pakistani army, in an efficient summation of the dominant Pakistani narrative.
This sort of paranoia has spread through the Pakistani security elite -- and it went viral after the Abbottabad raid. Fear of pernicious American designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has combined with people’s anger over their military’s apparent impotence, creating a feeling of almost toxic insecurity across the country. The raid shook the confidence of the army, and its admirers, like no other event since Pakistan’s most recent defeat by the Indian army in 1999. (India and Pakistan have fought multiple wars, all of them won by India.) A Pew poll taken after the Abbottabad raid found that 69 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. as “more of an enemy”; only 6 percent see the U.S. as “more of a partner.”
A retired Pakistani general, who expressed disgust at the military’s performance (“There should have been a try to shoot down the American helicopters”), says that the raid amplified the traditional paranoia. “You can think of this in terms of drones. The Americans are in the skies, where they are invisible, and yet they can kill anyone they want,” he said. “America is a superpower of technology. It would be easy to make a quick snatch of Pakistani strategic assets.”
Pakistanis tend to believe that the United States seeks to seize their country’s nuclear weapons preemptively, simply because the U.S. doesn’t like their country, or because of an ideological commitment to keep Muslim countries nuclear-free. This paranoia is not completely irrational, of course; it’s wise for the U.S. to try to design a plan for seizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in a low-risk manner. “The U.S. tried to prevent Pakistan from becoming a nuclear-weapons state,” said Harvard’s Graham Allison. “It is not delusional for Pakistan to fear that America is interested in de‑nuking them. It is prudent paranoia.”
U.S. War Plans
Though the United States has punished Pakistan in the past for its nuclear program (with sanctions that not only failed to stop the program but also helped to aggravate anti-American feeling among Pakistanis), there is no evidence to suggest that the Obama administration is actively considering “de-nuking” Pakistan in its current state. Officials at the White House and elsewhere argue that the Pakistani military and the SPD are the best tools available to keep Pakistan’s weapons secure. In the recent past, Washington has spent as much as $100 million to help the SPD build better facilities and security systems. (However, according to David Sanger’s book The Inheritance, Pakistan has not allowed Americans to conduct an audit to see how the $100 million was spent.) Although Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, eventually became disillusioned by Pakistan’s double-dealing on terrorism, he always felt his relationship with Kayani had borne fruit on nuclear weapons. “When he would bring up a concern about nuclear weapons in a meeting, the Pakistanis would usually deal with it,” an associate of Mullen’s told us.
But Pakistanis are correct to believe that the U.S. government -- because it does not trust Pakistan, because it knows that the civilian leadership is weak, and because it does not have a complete intelligence picture -- is worried that the SPD could fail in its mission, and that fissile material or a nuclear weapon could go missing. Concerned that Pakistan’s ethnic rivalries, corruption, and terrorism could one day tear the country apart, the Pentagon has developed a set of highly detailed plans to grapple with nuclear insecurity in Pakistan. “It’s safe to assume that planning for the worst-case scenario regarding Pakistan nukes has already taken place inside the U.S. government,” Roger Cressey, a former deputy director of counterterrorism under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told NBC News in August. “This issue remains one of the highest priorities of the U.S. intelligence community … and the White House.”
From time to time, U.S. officials have hinted publicly that concrete plans are in place in the event of a Pakistani nuclear emergency. For instance, during Senate hearings for her confirmation as secretary of State in 2005, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was asked by Sen. John Kerry what would happen to Pakistan’s nukes in the event of an Islamic coup in Islamabad. “We have noted this problem, and we are prepared to try to deal with it,” Rice said.
Those preparations have been extensive. According to military and intelligence sources, any answer to a Pakistani nuclear crisis would involve something along the following lines: If a single weapon or a small amount of nuclear material were to go missing, the response would be contained -- Abbottabad redux, although with a higher potential for U.S. casualties. The United States Joint Special Operations Command maintains rotating deployments of specially trained units in the region, most of them Navy SEALs and Army explosive-ordnance-disposal specialists, who are trained to deal with nuclear weapons that have fallen into the wrong hands. Their area of operation includes the former Soviet states, where there is a large amount of loose fissile material, and, of course, Pakistan. JSOC “has units and aircraft and parachutes on alert in the region for nuclear issues, and regularly inserts units and equipment for prep,” says a military official who was involved in supporting these technicians.
Seizing or remotely disabling a weapon of mass destruction is what’s known in military jargon as a “render-safe mission” -- and JSOC has evidently pulled off such missions before. In his memoir, Hugh Shelton, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001, recalls an incident from the 1990s in which the CIA told the Special Operations Command that a ship had left North Korea with what Shelton describes as “an illegal weapon” on board. Where it was headed, the U.S. didn’t know. He wrote: “It was a very time-sensitive mission in which a specific SEAL Team Six component was called into action. While I cannot get into the tactical elements or operational details of this mission, what I can say is that our guys were able to ‘immobilize’ the weapon system in a special way without leaving any trace.”
Much more challenging than capturing and disabling a loose nuke or two, however, would be seizing control of -- or at least disabling -- the entire Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the event of a jihadist coup, civil war, or other catastrophic event. This “disablement campaign,” as one former senior Special Operations planner calls it, would be the most taxing and most dangerous of any special mission that JSOC could find itself tasked with -- orders of magnitude more difficult and expansive than Abbottabad. The scale of such an operation would be too large for U.S. Special Operations components alone, so an across-the-board disablement campaign would be led by U.S. Central Command -- the area command that is responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia, and runs operations in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and U.S. Pacific Command.
JSOC would take the lead, however, accompanied by civilian experts. It has been preparing for such an operation for years. JSOC forces are trained to breach the inner perimeters of nuclear installations and then to find, secure, evacuate -- or, if that’s not possible, to “render safe” -- any live weapons. At the Nevada National Security Site, northwest of Las Vegas, Delta Force and SEAL Team Six squadrons practice “Deep Underground Shelter” penetrations, using extremely sensitive radiological detection devices that can pick up trace amounts of nuclear material and help Special Operations locate the precise spot where the fissile material is stored. JSOC has also built mock Pashtun villages, complete with hidden mock nuclear-storage depots, at a training facility on the East Coast, so SEALs and Delta Force operatives can practice there.
At the same time, U.S. military and intelligence forces have been quietly pre-positioning the necessary equipment in the region. In the event of a coup, U.S. forces would rush into the country, crossing borders, rappelling down from helicopters, and parachuting out of airplanes, so they can secure known or suspected nuclear-storage sites. According to the former senior Special Operations planner, JSOC units’ first tasks might be to disable tactical nuclear weapons -- because those are more easily mated, and easier to move around, than long-range missiles.
In a larger disablement campaign, the U.S. would likely mobilize the Army’s 20th Support Command, whose Nuclear Disablement Teams would accompany Special Operations detachments or Marine companies into the country. These teams are trained to engage in what the military delicately calls “sensitive site exploitation operations on nuclear sites” -- meaning that they can destroy a nuclear weapon without setting it off. Generally, a mated nuclear warhead can be deactivated when its trigger mechanism is disabled. So both the Army teams and JSOC units train extensively on the types of trigger mechanisms that Pakistani weapons are thought to use. According to some scenarios developed by American war planners, after as many weapons as possible were disabled and as much fissile material as possible was secured, U.S. troops would evacuate quickly -- because the final stage of the plan involves precision missile strikes on nuclear bunkers, using special “hard and deeply buried target” munitions.
But nuclear experts issue a cautionary note: It is not clear that U.S. intelligence agencies can identify the locations of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, particularly after the Abbottabad raid. “Anyone who tells you that they know where all of Pakistan’s nukes are is lying to you,” Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s first national-security adviser, has said, according to a source who heard him say it. (When asked by the authors of this article about his statement, Jones issued a “no comment.”) Another former official with nuclear expertise says, “We don’t even know, on any given day, exactly how many weapons they have. We can get within plus or minus 10, but that’s about it.”
Pakistan’s military chiefs are aware that the U.S. military has developed plans for an emergency nuclear-disablement operation in their country, and they have periodically threatened to ally themselves with China as a way to undercut U.S. power in South Asia. In a recent statement obviously meant for American ears, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, described the Pakistani-Chinese relationship as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.” But China, too, is worried about Pakistan’s stability, and it has recently alleged that Pakistan has harbored Uighur separatists operating in western China. According to U.S. sources, Beijing has reached an understanding in secret talks with Washington that, should America decide to send forces into Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, China would raise no objections. (An Obama administration spokesman had no comment.)
The United States takes great pains to stress to the Pakistanis that any disablement or render-safe plans would be put into effect only in the event that everything else fails -- and furthermore, that these plans have the primary goal of helping to maintain Pakistan’s secure possession of the weapons over the long term. In fact, some Pakistani officials accept these American plans -- they welcome American technical and military assistance in keeping nuclear material out of the wrong hands. Still, the subject comes up at almost every high-level meeting between U.S. and Pakistani officials.
In the end, though, the policy goals of the Obama administration are focused not on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons but rather on the terrorist groups based there. “Our core goal is to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al‑Qaeda,” one senior administration official says. “This is a very clarifying way to think about what we are doing and why cooperation with Pakistan is important.” In the short term, this issue flummoxes policymakers in Washington even more than nuclear security. Frustration with their dissembling Pakistani counterparts has drawn the countries further apart than at any time since just after Sept. 11.
The United States must, for its own security, keep watch over Pakistan’s nuclear program -- and that’s more easily done if it remains engaged with the Pakistani government. The U.S. must also be able to receive information from the ISI about al‑Qaeda, even if such information is provided sporadically. And Washington will simply not find a way out of Afghanistan if Pakistan becomes an open enemy. Pakistan, for its part, can afford to lose neither America’s direct financial support nor the help that America provides with international lending agencies. Neither can Pakistan’s military lose its access to U.S. weapons systems, and to the trainers attached to them. Economically, Pakistan cannot afford to be isolated by the U.S. in the way the U.S. isolates countries it considers sponsors of terrorism. Its neighbor Iran is an object lesson in this regard. For all these reasons, Pakistan and the United States remain locked in a hostile embrace. There is no escaping this vexed relationship and little evidence to suggest that it will soon improve.
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