Posts Tagged ‘taliban pakistan’


The Hawk Some Didn’t See Coming : Obama’s Pakistan Policy

January 26, 2010

Bush & Obama : Identical Policies to Pakistan?

Bush & Obama : Identical Policies to Pakistan?

Similar to his ratings drop at home, abroad President Obama is being accused of not living up to expectations. In DAWN news this week there’s an article entitled: “Obama’s Changing Tone” suggesting our President is reverting to foreign policy reminiscent of the Bush administration on Pakistan, and to an extent, the greater Muslim World. The idea is that Obama’s planned troop surge in tandem with ever toughening rhetoric post the Fort Hood Massacre and the Christmas Bomber, reflects leadership that’s not much different than former President Bush’s.

But on the contrary, our escalating presence in Pakistan is exactly what Obama promised. During the campaign trail, he made clear that his main focus was Al Qaeda and  destroying terrorists in Pakistan (militants having spilled over from Afghanistan into Pakistan). The rhetoric was so hawkish, it actually became a sticking point before the primaries that Republicans and Democrats like Hillary criticized. Also, the media publicized his staunch rhetoric at length, so

Obama really has not changed tone on Pakistan: an intensified war matches his rhetoric from the start.

Plus is it fair to expect something radically different than the previous administration in the first place? Let’s not forget that it is often the political system and circumstances that drive leadership, and not vice versa. The fact is, America was already deeply engaged in two very problematic wars at the inception of Obama’s Presidency. He inherited an intensely worsening situation in Afghanistan that rapidly spilled across the border into Pakistan. President Obama anticipated this and is thus living up to campaign promises: a more hawkish foreign policy to Pakistan.

Which of course then raises the question: is hawkishness the right approach to Pakistan at this time? Pakistani’s certainly don’t think so.  CIA drones have the entire country in an uproar, while Islamabad isn’t taking well to DC’s tacit encouragement of rapidly increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan, and even billions in aid from America is frowned upon with unprecedented magnitude. And it’s not that the Obama administration isn’t aware of skepticism. Rather, toughening policies are a matter of practicality.

My guess is that the President is thinking: we’re already in Afghanistan, the war is deteriorating into Pakistan, what’s the best way to mitigate the situation, secure the region just enough to exit in the next couple years while leaving behind more cooperative players in the region so as to ensure our energy and geopolitical interests in South/Central Asia.

Phew. Now there’s a dilemma. And when looked at from his possible perspective, the Pakistan quagmire is revealed as tremendously complex. It’s such a multifaceted, sweeping, consequential and changing situation that involves so many players who work within the confines of political systems that only history should be the best judge of whether Obama’s stance on Pakistan is constructive or progressive. And that itself is relative. So let’s not be surprised at his hawkishness. It was naive of anyone to expect otherwise in the case of Pakistan.



Enhanced Cooperation Meets Enhanced Concern

October 12, 2009

At the heels of Pakistan’s offensive against militants in South Waziristan, terrorists brazenly staged an attack on military headquarters this weekend. Commandos responded swiftly, taking out 9 of the militants, capturing their ring leader and freeing 39 hostages. Despite success in ending the siege, the incident demonstrates a worsening Af-Pak situation and beseeches a new strategy.

Our administrations new strategy is defined by an increase in troops to Afghanistan, focusing military efforts squarely on Al Qaeda (less focus on Taliban) and expanded funding to Pakistan by way of the Kerry Lugar bill. And while the troop surge and emphasis on Al Qaeda are debated at length in D.C., the Pakistani media is abuzz on the Kerry Lugar bill. There are calls by The Awami League Party (representing the NWFP regions & a predominantly Pashtun population) that the bill allow for an “uninterrupted flow of non military assistance” while other politicians vouch against the legislation altogether. Tehrik-e-Insaaf chairman Imran Khan  said the bill “enslaves” Pakistan and can only benefit the top echelons of government referring to past corruption allegations on senior government officials. Similarly, pundits were all over Pakistani television in the past week, echoing concerns about corruption, lack of support to the military, too many strings attached to funding, and how the bill threatens sovereignty. This morning Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi flew to D.C. to discuss theseconcerns just as rumours that Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States is losing his post becayse of not entirely positive comments regarding the Kerry-Lugar legislation. Suffice to say, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Actmeant to  extend a new strategic hand of cooperation to Islamabad is not off to the positive start intend

In fact, Senator Kerry’s office directly responded to popular skepticism in a recent report.

  • Addressing concerns that the bill would invade state soveriegnty: Senator Kerry explains the bill funds “schools, roads, energy infrastructure and medical clinics” and that “those seeking to undermine” a US/Pakistan in that endeavor are doing so to “advance narrow partisan or institutional agendas“.
  • Regarding the idea that the legislation comes with too many strings attached, Kerry emphasizes that the $7.5 billion annual pledge is for “unconditioned non military aid” and comes with “strict measures of financial accountability” referring specifically to Executive Branch oversight on the use of these funds.

This is contentious to Pakistan because it’s maybe the first time external oversight is imposed on assistance from the United States. And while the bill does a great job of outlining funds for social infrastructure intended to find it’s way to everyday citizens, on the issue of sovereigty, the real sticking point is regarding a potential subversion of the Pakistani military. Senator Kerry insists that the bill’s:

  • focus is on nonmilitary assistance to the people of Pakistan” and military aid is contingent to “cooperation on nonproliferation“. However, the bills funding is rooted in “significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups” and the “Pakistani military not subverting the political or judicial process” to ensure “common goals” of “security and democracy“.

This irks Pakistani’s for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s ambiguous wording. “Cooperation on nonproliferation” is vague enough to translate as potentially linking funds to Pakistan giving up their right to maintain armaments comparable to neighboring India. Similarly, “significant efforts toward combating terrorism” gives no reference for how this will be measured.

On the Pakistan side, the worry is that  “significant efforts”, according to their definition might not match a U.S. definition of success. Plus there might continue to be a disagreement on the idea of “combating terrorism”. It’s a contention we’ve seen play out as D.C. repeatedly called for heightened efforts on combating the Taliban, quitely but surely opposing Pakistan’s attempts at negotiating with those groups rather than employing just a military offensive, (a policy we’re now reverting).

Also, delinking assistance from the military is unprecedented and freightening to some because while it is necessary to develop schools, and social, democratic infrastructure for long term development, in the immediate term there are widespread security breaches with weekly suicide attacks, an ever growing incursion from Afghan militants on the northern border and drone attacks that result in collateral damage.

So Pakistans concerns echo a need for both immediate security and long term development, but not at the expense of one another.

Keep in mind, the widely held, and all but true notion that Pakistan is perhaps the only place where the military controls a country, and not vice versa. That idea is rooted in that their military is historically the strongest, most stable and legitimately accepted institution. Let me emphasize that last part: it’s historically the most legitimately accepted institution in Pakistan in an absence of stable democratic institutions never having developed. Meaning, in times of economic, social and political uncertainty, the military has historically responded most efficiently in alleviating situations since 1947. Whether one accepts the idea that the military creates a perpetual cycle of uncertainty within which to assume power periodically, or the military responds to the shortcomings of civilian governments in the absence of democratic instiuttions (chicken & egg argument), either way, the military’s been relatively effective in handling crises in Pakistan in comparison to civlian regimes. So given the current enviornment of insecurity, people are weary of a hopeful promise for “long term” moves toward “democracy” that might comes at the expense of insufficient assistance to their military who has a capacity to alleviate immediate security concerns.

I think democracy is the ultimate route to security for Pakistan, but despite Executive branch oversight and our “long term” commitment defined by only 5 years of funding, Pakistan’s concerns are understandable. Given a long history of cooperation, Pakistan is more used to US assistance through bilateral relations with a Republican government in DC (think General Zia/Raegan, General Musharraf/Bush, Ayub Khan/Eisenhower, Yahya/Nixon) and the Kerry Lugar bill is a staunch reverasal of our foreign policy with Islamabad. Perhaps finding value in previously crafted policies to Pakistan in combination with our current legislative proposals is an optimal solution to quelling the enahanced concern of our enhanced cooperation.


Tolerating the Taliban

October 9, 2009

After months of consideration on how to deal with our escalating engagement in the AF-Pak region, Obama’s administration has decided:

“the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a political or military movement”

An article in the Washington Post today cites the administrations re-vamped goal of mitigating a Taliban capacity to interfere in the establishment of a stable Afghan government while assuring us that Al Qaeda is the primary threat, and our strategy will focus squarely on eradicating them.

It seemed news on Pakistan in the past year revolved around Islamabad not doing enough to eradicate the Taliban; equating the group to Al Qaeda in terms of importance in the War on Terror. But today marks a clear departure from such criticism. Distinguishing Al Qaeda from the Taliban is a huge step forward for the United States. Because connecting our goals to eliminate both immediate security threats and major elements of Afghan society that are unpalatable to our values, has proven counter productive. Having lived in Pakistan to experience the ill effects of hyper conservative religious factions, I know we mean well in trying to uproot extremism, but it just hasn’t worked in tandem with our military offensive. And I’ve mentioned the importance of a distinction between these groups previously:

The Taliban is historically distinct from militant groups like Al Qaeda. Unlike the Taliban, Al Qaeda is directly responsible for 9/11. Simply put, the Taliban was an ideologically fundamental group, while Al Qaeda is a militant, terrorist group. Both are dangerous as such, but the Taliban has national interests in controlling Afghanistan under strict ideological rules while Al Qaeda is a militant organization with international ambitions.

It’s not a novel contention, but only just being reflected in policy, and I think it has potential for success. As an ideological force, the Taliban foster an ultra conservative brand of Islam, but are not necessarily a threat to our security interests. Plus, if General McChrystal’s goal is defined as establishing a sustainable, democratic Afghan government, in order for it to be considered legitimate, it must be rooted in Afghan values and according to Afghan preferences. Such preferences might seem backward, or entirely unpleasant to us, but so long as our interests are being protected, impressing our brand of democratic values should take a back seat for the time being. I think the Obama administration has taken a wise step in revamping the Af-Pak strategy and hope it yields lasting success.



Defeating Terrorism with Development

September 25, 2009

kerry lugar

Senate unanimously passed a bill authorizingappropriations to promote an enhanced strategic partnership with Pakistan”. The legislation is likely to receive similar support in the House later this week before being sent to President Obama for final approval. Initial versions of legislation were presented as the Biden-Lugar bill last year led by democrats Joe Biden and Senator Kerry, and supported by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Currently, the bill is coauthored by Republican Senator Dick Lugar making it widely bipartisan which reflects our growing desire to engage Pakistan ensuring stability and ultimately our interests in the region.

The Legislation triples foreign aid to our major non NATO ally” allowing up to $1,500,000,000 for their cooperation in “counterterrorism/counterinsurgency describing Pakistan’s ongoing struggles and successes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It cites assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Islamabad and Mumbai hotel attacks last fall among other suicide bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of which involved deaths of US citizens to underscore an immediate need to assist Pakistan at this critical time. As we face mounting deaths in the War on Terror, send additional troops to Afghanistan and President Obama works closely with generals to revamp our strategy there, the bill is meant to forge a new relationship with Pakistan.

It extends diplomatic rhetoric directly to the people of Pakistan by describing the daily plight of citizens who are “especially hard hit by rising food and commodity prices and severe energy shortages” with 2/3rds of the population living on less than 2.25 and 1/5 of the population living below the poverty line”.  It further mentions “Compatible goals of combating terrorism, radicalism and promoting economic development through building of infrastructure and promoting social and material well being for Pakistani citizens through development of public services”. And most interestingly, the bill cites Pew opinion polls finding:

Pakistan has historically viewed the relationship between the United States and Pakistan as a transactional one characterized by a heavy emphasis on security issues with little attention to other matters of great interest to citizens of Pakistan”.

Then referring to the current civilian government as an “opportunity to place relations on a new and more stable foundation”. The bill’s ‘statement of policy‘  identifies the following objectives:

  1. Support the consolidation of democracy, good governance & rule of law in Pakistan
  2. Support economic growth & development to promote stability/security
  3. To build a sustained, long term, multifaceted relationship with Pakistan
  4. Expanding bilateral engagement with Pakistan
  5. To work with Pakistan and bordering countries to facilitate peace (a possible reference to mediating the Kashmir issue. President Obama mentioned doing so during his campaign run for President)
  6. Expand people to people engagement between US and Pakistan through increased educational, technical and cultural exchanges (possibly in the form of more student/professional visas. Envoy Holbrooke mentioned this in visits to Karachi in July)
  7. Work with government of Pakistan to:
    • prevent Pakistani territory from being used as a base/conduit for terrorism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India or elsewhere
    • Coordinate military, paramilitary & police action against terrorist terrorism
    • Help bring peace, stability and development
      • (this might entail counterinsurgency/counterterrorism assistance and cooperation through intelligence sharing, arms development/trade and training of Pakistani forces)

Pakistan is aptly described as a major non-NATO, long-standing ally. But cooperation has been dominated by security issues generally in the form of military dictators supported by the States in exchange for Pakistan’s military assistance throughout the Cold War and current War on Terror resulting in the Pakistani mindset of solely “transactional” relations. This bill is a fair attempt to shift that context to a more positive tone with the aforementioned objectives and diplomatic rhetoric.

However, certain specificities such as timetables and solid oversight must be transparently accessible to the Pakistani and American public to ensure more positive relations are achieved. Already experts are weighing in with concerns. Despite the commitment to development in addressing the plight of daily Pakistani’s, Foreign Policy Magazine mentions that the bill doesn’t say exactly how much of these funds are to be allocated toward military assistances. And although senator Kerry insists “Clear, tough minded accountability standards and metrics” are contained in the bill, Dawn News cites Rand Corporation expert Dr. Christine Fair raising the issue of “greater transparency” and wanting to ensure international accounting standards are applied in allocating these funds. Such concerns are equally felt in Pakistan, where past commitments of economic development have not always found their way to alleviating the plight of daily citizens for whom funding is supposedly intended.

For this reason a concerted conviction to improving the daily lives of Pakistani’s is required by Pakistani politicians who have ultimate control over how these funds are applied. I hope that President Asif Zardari along with Parliament works closely to ensure monies are responsibly allocated to a “sustainable” development the bill calls for.



Considering the ISI

September 23, 2009

In a recent report, General McChrystal explains Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are aided by international intelligence agencies, referring specifically to Iran’s Quds Force and Pakistan’s ISI. This is perhaps the first time a top ranking official cites a current, and direct link between the state run ISI and Taliban. McChrystal says the insurgency in Afghanistan is supported by way of aid given through “some elements of Pakistan’s ISI”. That is alarming, and definitely runs against our interests. However, most reporting on this news leaves out details that elucidate the situation and might help maintain productive, progressive work with Pakistan during this critical period.

Most importantly, the Taliban is historically distinct from militant groups like Al Qaeda. Unlike the Taliban, Al Qaeda is directly responsible for 9/11 and the reason President Obama refers to our engagement in Afghanistan as a “war of necessity”. Before, our invasion the Taliban were not as violently inclined against international targets. Simply put, the Taliban was an ideologically fundamental group, while Al Qaeda is a militant, terrorist group. Both are dangerous as such, but

distinctions between Taliban and Al Qaeda are increasingly blurred and both spilled over into Pakistan in a security vacuum created since our invasion. A security vacuum allowed both groups to find safe haven in an economically and politically volatile Pakistan, while we simultaneously face mounting casualties in Afghanistan and send more troops there now.

Effectively addressing the security vacuum and ISI links involves a look at history. In a nutshell, during the 1980’s in cooperation with the United States, Pakistan’s ISI was funded to train ideological extremists and militant groups who could defeat the Soviets in a long, costly engagement, ultimately ushering a fall of the USSR. Once this was achieved, redevelopment efforts for Afghanistan were missing, and neighboring Pakistan became home to one of the worlds largest refugee problems. What happened to the battle hardened extremist and militant groups who fought the Soviets? Some found there way into Pakistan, along with their Klashinkovs, others stayed in war torn, perpetually unstable Afghanistan. Eventually one extremist, well armed group, the  Taliban garnered control:

“The Taliban emerged as a force in Afghan politics in 1994. They gained an initial territorial foothold in the southern city of Kandahar, and expanded their influence through a mixture of force, negotiation, and payoffs. In 1996, they captured the capital, and took control of the national government”

Taliban thus had national interests in controlling Afghanistan under strict ideological rules while Al Qaeda is a militant organization with international ambitions. Both however developed in opposition to Soviet invasion:

In 80s, the Services Office, a clearinghouse for the international Muslim brigade opposed to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—run by bin Laden—recruited, trained, and financed thousands of foreign “holy warriors”, from more than fifty countries. Bin Laden wanted these fighters to continue “holy war” beyond Afghanistan and formed al-Qaeda around 1988″

Pakistan’s ISI has no present, or past link with this group, explains Steve Coll of the New Yorker in a PBS interview:  there was not a strategic partnership between ISI and Al Qaeda, certainly not prior to 9/11. There were also sources of tension between ISI and Al Qaeda”. The Taliban on the other hand, with de-facto control of Afghanistan and limited by only national aims, bound Islamabad to dealing with their neighbors as best they could. Plus given training Pakistan offered in the 1980’s, some ISI inevitably have associations with the Taliban until today. But that does not necessarily mean those associations are defined by cooperation.

The ISI is a vast institution with over “25,000 active men on staff, not including informants and assets”.

I speculate the latter group of “informants and assets” is the “aid” Genearl McChystal refers to in speaking of links to the Taliban. Plus Pakistan’s amplified offensive in the War on Terror, especially this year is yielding far too many blows to the Taliban in capturing top level leaders. And in Pakistan without full ISI support such successes are not achievable.

So, General McChrystal’s analysis is useful in drawing out history which can help craft more pin-pointed strategies in dealing with the Af-Pak quagmire . To avoid mistakes from the Soviet Afghan war to our current War on Terror wherein extremism has not subsided, but increasingly inflamed this region, considering historical realities is key. Because pin-pointed, more effective policies require a comprehensive understanding of recent history and beckon amplified social and developmental efforts in addition to our troop increase.



Balancing News on Pakistan

September 16, 2009

CNN refreshingly shifts the context of current discourse on Pakistan by reporting on female recruitment to the Pakistani Air Force. A story published this week highlights Ms. Ambreen Gul’s experience with the Pakistani air force as “one of seven women trained to fly Pakistan’s F-7 supersonic fighter jets”. Gul describes her experience as both positive and productive. Air Force cadet Ms. Sharista Beg also explains:

“To tell you the truth I’ve been given equal opportunity or I suppose more than men have been given,”

I refer to the story as refreshing because given that news is largely focused on macro level, security issues dealing with the war in Afghanistan and how it relates and spills over into Pakistan, the image we have of Pakistan is imprecisely bleak.

Of course macro level security issues in which our troops are directly engaged rightfully take priority over other news stories on Pakistan, but the unintended consequences of viewing this country as such and simply in terms of the “War on Terror”, “Taliban”, “fundamentalism” or “militancy” is a reduced understanding of what we are dealing with in our engagement there.

So I applaud CNN for balancing information with their story on Fighter Pilot Gul. Hopefully news outlets will continue to publish reports that allow a more accurate picture of what is a largely moderate Pakistan. Because a more accurate picture can only help us understand our situation there. In fact, the article concludes well, citing specifics of how the Pakistani air force works in line with our objectives:

“They’re training in counterinsurgency, collecting aerial intelligence and targeting militant strongholds in the treacherous mountains of Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border”

The nebulous Afghan-Pakistan border has become the front lines in our War on Terror making it easy to forget that Pakistan, just like us fights diligently against fundamentalism and militancy with their resources, troops and morale. We want to uproot terror to bring our troops home and secure interests in the long run, likewise Pakistan shares this long term goal and in addition, has an immediate interest in obliterating militancy for actual day-to-day security. The CNN article does a fine job of reporting in this instance and prompts us to realize that cooperation is key.


Terror Ties: Pakistan’s Costs Run Deep

August 29, 2009

News on the Mumbai Atrocities is largely focused on the perpetrators and their links to Pakistan. The media is buzzing with startling information on Lashkar-e-Taibba, the group with which the perpetrators were tied. A recent headline on this story from the New York Times reads: “Terror Ties Run Deep in Pakistan, Mumbai Case Shows”. A Reuters piece goes so far as to exclaim that the group is a “potential threat to the west given its strong base and global reach”. Without evidence to support this other than an also unsubstantiated supposition that “Al Qaeda does not command” those kinds of resources any more”, the piece implies that Al Qaeda is now a secondary threat to Lashkar-e-Taibba and has usurped a supposed terrorist power vacuum that now exists. It is an idea that does not come across as entirely sound, but is shocking and well timed nonetheless. Because with South Asia and China at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy at the moment, Pakistan is geopolitically poised as a strategic ally in the War on Terror and our future interests in Asia.

What is interesting, and perhaps underreported though, is how our interests run parallel to Pakistani interests against these groups. Which is what makes these headlines problematic: they can be misleading. If one takes a closer, more comprehensive look at both the history and current events in Pakistan, there is little reason to speculate on Islamabad’s interest in ensuring these groups are uprooted and immediately contained from executing terrorist activity, within, and beyond its borders.

Post 9/11, Pakistan officially severed ties with Lashkar-E-Taibba, who were initially founded to fight against the Soviets during the Cold War. Like Al Qaeda, they exploited religion by way of branding a fundamental, extremist distortion of Islam to achieve political ends that were suitable to their own and ironically, our interests at the time in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. However, Pakistan and the U.S. unfortunately, are now paying an immeasurable price for that victory. Not having a viable (or, perhaps any) long term, adequate exit and reconstruction strategy for employing these tactics is proving dangerously expensive.

History aside however, fact is, these groups exist, are a threat to the region and need to be dealt with. As Pakistan suffers the brunt of terrorist activity and bears the moral, military, economic and social costs of rooting out these factions and remain committed to the War on Terror for the long haul, they demonstrate a strong dedication to uprooting these groups. In fact, Interior minister, Rehman Malik, explained that the Lashkar-e-Taibba’s infrastructure is “no more intact”. And According to the New York Times piece, current experts in the Obama administration see three possibilities with Lashkar-e-Taibba:

• They remain a lever of the Pakistani state;

• The group has realigned themselves behind the interests of Pakistan and could be used covertly;

• The group has broken away from the official security apparatus and are running independently

The article cites a senior Pakistani official as reinforcing the third view and how a “lack of control of these groups could have devastating consequences” for Pakistan. It further cites a “senior American official as stating:

“My guess is, the army did not have command knowledge” of the Mumbai attacks”

But the article continues and concludes with the implication that the Pakistani army maintains ties with the group for not the third explanation, but possibly the former two. I am skeptical of this though given reality of what it would entail for Pakistan: nothing but more costs as Pakistani’s suffer firsthand the dangers of these groups. Whether in the form of a radically distorted Islamic ideology that stifles society into regression, military and economic expenditures that could in a more stable climate otherwise be devoted to social development or the very real, global condemnation and dishonor that comes when these groups engage in illegal activity, Pakistani’s suffer.

So I maintain that Islamabad is committed to uprooting groups like Lashkar-e-Taibba  and if anything, their own interests in securing Pakistan motivates the unprecedented offensive we’re seeing in cooperation with the United States. And although relations with Pakistan are not perfect, this upswing is worthy of note. The L.A. Times reports, a “high ranking U.S. Government official” as finding that cooperation is the best he has ever seen. And Army Col. Kevin Fagedes similarly sees:

“great progress coming in the next six months. The spirit of cooperation is out there. The Pakistanis have had very good success at what they are doing”

So this month we have diplomats and military officials in vociferous agreement on progress with Pakistan. But, this is an alliance that has spanned 60 years with many instances of diplomatic and military cooperation and we are currently engaged in a costly war in the region there. So to ensure that this cooperation spurs lasting results, we should employ long-term assistance with Islamabad in the costs of uprooting these groups. That means continued social, economic, military and intelligence support with particular emphasis on diplomatic backing. Unfortunately, headlines like today’s run counterproductive to this support by overlooking the fact that progress in the War on Terror in Pakistan comes gradually given the aforementioned history and current economic circumstances. So without a balance that disseminates ample information on positive steps for change at difficult instances like today’s news on Lashkar-Taibba, overtime we might miss a range of opportunities to solidify our alliance with Pakistan.


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