Afghanistan Crisis and Peace Process Explained

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Context:

  • President Biden had announced the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11. A chaotic situation has unfolded in Afghanistan with its President fleeing the country and Taliban taking power in Afghanistan two weeks before the U.S. was set to complete its troop withdrawal after a costly two-decade war. Thousands are trying to leave the country. What are the implications of the move for the Afghan govt, the Taliban, and neighbours India, Pakistan and China?

Relevance:
Mains: 
GS II-

  • India and its neighbourhood- relations.
  • Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.
Afghanistan Crisis

Historical Background

  • The Saur Revolution had taken place in Afghanistan in 1978 which installed a communist party in power. Nur Muhammad Taraki became the head of the state replacing the previous president Daoud Khan. Taraki’s government introduced many modernisation reforms that were considered too radical and left them unpopular, especially in the rural areas and with the traditional power structures.
  • The communist government also had a policy of brutally suppressing all opposition. Even unarmed civilians opposing the government were not spared. This led to the rise of various anti-government armed groups in the country. The government itself was divided and Taraki was killed by a rival, Hafizullah Amin, who became the president. The Soviet Union, which at that time, wanted a communist ally in the country, decided to intervene.
  • The Soviet army was deployed on 24th December 1979 in Kabul. They staged a coup and killed Amin, installing Babrak Karmal as the president. Karmal was a Soviet ally.
  • This intervention was seen as an invasion by the USA and other western nations. While the Soviet army had control of the cities and towns, the insurgency groups called the Mujahideen had the rural parts of Afghanistan under their control. A bitter war was fought between both groups. The Soviet Union, which had planned to stay for 6 months to a year in Afghanistan found themselves stuck in a war that was proving to be too costly.
  • The Mujahideen did not relent in their pursuit to ‘drive out the Soviets. They had the support of many countries like the USA, Pakistan, China, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They were given assistance like arms and training needed to fight the Soviets.
  • The Soviets followed a policy of wiping out the rural regions in order to defeat the Mujahideen. Millions of land mines were planted and important irrigation systems were destroyed.
  • As a result, millions of Afghan refugees took refuge in Pakistan and Iran. Some came to India as well. It is estimated that in the Soviet-Afghan war, about 20 lakh Afghan civilians were killed.
  • In 1987, after the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he announced that his government would start withdrawing troops. The final Soviet troops were withdrawn on 15 February 1989. Now, the government of Afghanistan was left alone to fight the Mujahideen.
  • Finally, they succeeded in taking control of Kabul in 1992. Again, the Mujahideen had different factions within and they could not agree on power-sharing. The country collapsed into a bloody civil war.

    (Read more here- Afghanistan's History: A Major Trigger of many Geopolitical Events

The Taliban

  • In 1994, a group of fundamentalist students wrought control of the city of Kandahar and started a campaign to seize power in the country. They were called the Taliban.
  • Many of them were trained in Pakistan when they were in refugee camps. By 1998, almost entire Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban. Many of the Mujahideen warlords fled to the north of the country and joined the Northern Alliance who were fighting the Taliban.
  • This time, Russia lent support to the Northern Alliance, though they were fighting against them earlier.
  • The Taliban ruled the country under a strict interpretation of the Sharia law and much of the progress with regard to women and education which the country had seen earlier, were reversed. Girls were forbidden from attending schools and women were banned from working. The Taliban-ruled country also became a safe haven for international terrorists.
  • Only Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia recognised the Taliban government.
  • In 2001, a US-led coalition defeated the Taliban and established another government in place.

Why the US is fighting a war in Afghanistan and why has it lasted so long?

  • On 11 September 2001, attacks in America killed nearly 3,000 people. Osama Bin Laden, the head of Islamist terror group al-Qaeda, was quickly identified as the man responsible.
  • The Taliban, radical Islamists who ran Afghanistan and protected Bin Laden, refused to hand him over. So, a month after 9/11, the US launched airstrikes against Afghanistan.
  • As other countries joined the war (ISAF), the Taliban were quickly removed from power. But they didn't just disappear – their influence grew back and they dug in.
  • Since then, the US and its allies have struggled to stop Afghanistan's government from collapsing and end deadly attacks by the Taliban.
  • The mission, he said, was “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime”.
  • The first targets were military sites belonging to the hardline Taliban group who ruled the country. Training camps for al-Qaeda, the terror group run by 9/11 plotter Osama Bin Laden, were also hit.
  • But 20 years on, it's hard to argue the US mission has been fulfilled – the Taliban may play a part in ruling Afghanistan again if peace talks do eventually succeed.
  • The Taliban first took control of the capital Kabul in 1996 and ruled most of the country within two years.
  • They followed a radical form of Islam and enforced punishments like public executions. Within two months of the US and its international and Afghan allies launching their attacks, the Taliban regime collapsed and its fighters melted away into Pakistan.
  • A new US-backed government took over in 2004, but the Taliban still had a lot of support in areas around the Pakistani border and made hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the drug trade, mining and taxes.
  • As the Taliban carried out more and more suicide attacks, international forces working with Afghan troops struggled to counter the threat the re-energised group posed.

Why has the war lasted so long?

  • There are many reasons for this. But they include a combination of fierce Taliban resistance, the limitations of Afghan forces and governance, and other countries' reluctance to keep their troops for longer in Afghanistan.
  • At times over the past 20 years, the Taliban have been on the back foot. In late 2009, US President Barack Obama announced a troop “surge” that saw the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan top 100,000.
  • The surge helped drive the Taliban out of parts of southern Afghanistan, but it was never destined to last for years.
  • As a result, the Taliban were able to regroup. When international forces withdrew from fighting, Afghan forces left to lead the charge were easily overwhelmed. To make matters worse, Afghanistan's government, which is full of tribal division, is often hamstrung.

What are the reasons war is still going on?

  • A lack of political clarity since the invasion began, and questions about the effectiveness of the US strategy over the past 20 years;
  • The fact each side is trying to break what has become a stalemate – and that the Taliban have been trying to maximise their leverage during peace negotiations an increase in violence by Islamic State militants in Afghanistan – they've been behind some of the bloodiest attacks recently
  • There's also the role played by Afghanistan's neighbour, Pakistan.
  • There's no question the Taliban have their roots in Pakistan, and that they were able to regroup there during the US invasion. But Pakistan has denied helping or protecting them – even as the US demanded it does more to fight militants.

How has the Taliban managed to stay so strong?

  • The group could be making as much as $1.5bn (£1.2bn) a year, a huge increase even within the past decade. Some of this is through drugs – Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and most opium poppies – used for heroin – are grown in Taliban-held areas.
  • But the Taliban also make money by taxing people who travel through their territory, and through businesses like telecommunications, electricity and minerals.
  • Foreign countries, including Pakistan and Iran, have denied funding them, but private citizens from the region are thought to have done so.
  • The figures for Afghan civilians are more difficult to quantify. A UN report in February 2019 said more than 32,000 civilians had died. The Watson Institute at Brown University says 42,000 opposition fighters have died. The same institute says conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan have cost the US $5.9 trillion since 2001.
  • The Taliban now control much more territory than they did when international troops left Afghanistan in 2014.
  • Many in Washington and elsewhere fear that a full US troop pull-out would leave a vacuum that could be filled by militant groups seeking to plot attacks in the West. The Afghan people, meanwhile, continue to bear the brunt of the long and bloody conflict.
What do the Taliban and the United States want?

The negotiations appear to be focused on four elements:

  • Withdrawal of Foreign Forces: Both sides agree on the full withdrawal of the fourteen thousand U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan.
  • Counterterrorism Assurances: The Taliban has agreed to prevent Afghanistan from being used by terrorist groups, but negotiators disagree over how to define the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist.”
  • Intra-Afghan Dialogue: Washington has urged the Afghan government and Taliban leaders to begin official talks on how Afghanistan will be governed after the war, but the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the government until after it has reached a deal with the United States.
  • Comprehensive Cease-fire: U.S. negotiators seek a permanent cease-fire among U.S., Taliban, and Afghan government forces prior to a peace deal, but the Taliban insists on putting off a cease-fire until U.S. troops have withdrawn.

Reasons for India to be part of the reconciliation process with the Taliban:

  • Regional Stability: Security and Stability are foundations over which development can be built on. A peaceful neighbourhood and trouble-free regional climate will provide space for the regimes to focus more on development as threats of violence by the Taliban’s in the region will be minimized.
  • Counter China and Pakistan's vested interests: India should play a considerable role through a Quadrilateral group plus 2 talks to thwart the efforts of china to place puppet regimes that can play according to their own vested interests. This can be counterproductive for India's aspirations and concerns.
  • Connectivity with Central Asia: India's trade with Central Asia and reaping benefits from the enhanced connectivity will be largely dependent on Afghanistan's domestic environment. A peaceful and cooperative Afghanistan will be a key pin in India's central Asia policy. The latest trilateral transit agreement between India. Iran and Afghanistan is a significant step in this direction.
  • TAPI for Energy security: Violence free Afghanistan is a desideratum for finishing the project of TAPI and sustaining the benefits from it through energy supplies from Turkmenistan.
  • Gateway to “Link West” policy: Afghanistan will act as a gateway to India's increasing rigour on its West Asia policy.
  • Minerals of Afghanistan: The cost of access to minerals will be minimum and helpful in expanding the production of Indian Industries.

US- Taliban Deal

  • The U.S. signed a deal (at Qatar's capital-Doha) with the Taliban that could pave the way towards a full withdrawal of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan over the next 14 months and represent a step towards ending the 18-year-war in Afghanistan. Along with this, a separate joint declaration was also signed between the Afghan government and the US at Kabul.

Salient Features of the Deal

  • Troops Withdrawal: The US will draw down to 8,600 troops in 135 days and the NATO or coalition troop numbers will also be brought down, proportionately and simultaneously. And all troops will be out within 14 months. But Biden Administration has announced that it will withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
  • Taliban Commitment: The main counter-terrorism commitment by the Taliban is that the Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.

Challenges in the Deal

  • One-Sided Deal: The fundamental issue with the U.S.’s Taliban engagement is that it deliberately excluded the Afghan government because the Taliban do not see the government as a legitimate ruler. Also, there is no reference to the Constitution, rule of law, democracy and elections in the deal.
  • Taliban is known for strict religious laws, banishing women from public life, shutting down schools and unleashing systemic discrimination on religious and ethnic minorities, has not made any promises on whether it would respect civil liberties or accept the Afghan Constitution.
  • Therefore, the Shariat-based system (political system based on fundamental Islamic values) with the existing constitution is not easy.

Issues with Intra-Afgan Dialogue:

  • President Ashraf Ghani faces a political crisis following claims of fraud in his recent re-election.
  • The political tussle is between Ashraf Ghani (who belongs to the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan- the Pashtun) and Abdullah Abdullah (whose base is among his fellow Tajiks, the second largest group in Afghanistan).
  • If there are any concessions made by Mr Ghani’s government to the Taliban (predominantly Pashtun) will likely be interpreted by Mr Abdullah’s supporters as an intra-Pashtun deal reached the cost of other ethnic groups, especially the Tajiks and the Uzbeks.
  • Consequently, these ethnic fissures may descend into open conflict and start the next round of civil war.
  • Thus, the lifting of the US military footprint and the return of a unilateral Taliban could set the stage for the next round of civil war that has hobbled the nation since the late 1970s.

Impact of US Withdrawl on Other Stakeholders

  • On Afghanistan: Withdrawal is likely to create a security vacuum in Afghanistan and raise concerns, such as fears of a civil war.
  • US: Due to domestic Political Compulsions US is keen to get out of the endless war.
  • Though, the US doesn't recognise the Taliban as a state under the name of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (key demand of Taliban), though many experts are of the view that this deal is a little more than a dressed-up U.S. surrender that will ultimately see the Taliban return to power.
  • Pakistan: The deal provides a strategic advantage to Pakistan, which is a long-time benefactor of the Taliban.
  • China: After the launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan is seen as more of a protectorate state of China. Thus, China may leverage Pakistan's influence on the Taliban, to propel its strategic projects like the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Russia: The US exit is for Russia a full circle after its own defeat at the hands of US-backed Mujahideen and exit from Afghanistan three decades ago. In recent years, Russia has taken on the role of peacemaker in Afghanistan. But both the Taliban and the Afghan government have been wary of its efforts. Russia’s growing links with Pakistan could translate into a post-US role for Moscow in Afghanistan.
  • Iran: As a country that shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran perceives active security threats from both. And a Taliban regime in Kabul would only increase this threat perception. But Iran, with links to the Hazaras in Afghanistan, has of late played all sides. Despite the mutual hostility and the theological divide between the two, Iran opened channels to the Taliban a few years ago, and recently, even hosted a Taliban delegation at Tehran.

On India

  • The withdrawal of the US alters the balance of power in favour of the Taliban, which will have strategic, security and political implications for India.
  • The deal may jeopardise the key stakes of India in Afghanistan:
  • India has a major stake in the stability of Afghanistan. India has invested considerable resources in Afghanistan's development.
    1. India has a major stake in the continuation of the current Afghanistan government in power, which it considers a strategic asset vis-à-vis Pakistan.
    2. An increased political and military role for the Taliban and the expansion of its territorial control should be of great concern to India since the Taliban is widely believed to be a protégé of Islamabad.
    3. As Afghanistan is the gateway to Central Asia, the deal might dampen India’s interest in Central Asia.
    4. Withdrawal of US troops could result in the breeding of fertile ground for various anti-India terrorist outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Is the Afghanistan government doomed?

  • The American Intelligence Community has concluded, consistent with TheWall Street Journal, that Kabul could fall within six months. None of the U.S. military and political leaders, from General Austin Miller to President Biden, is for certain about the survival of the Afghan government. The American withdrawal has turned the balance of power within the battleground in favour of the Taliban. they're already making rapid advances.
  • So, there might be three scenarios, consistent with experts. 
    • One, there might be a political settlement during which the Taliban and therefore the government comply with some power-sharing mechanism and jointly shape the longer term of Afghanistan. As of now, this seems like a foreign possibility. 
    • Two, an all-out war could also be possible, during which the govt, economically backed and militarily trained by the West, holds on to its positions in key cities and therefore the Taliban expand its reach within the countryside, while other ethnic militias fight for his or her fiefs this is often already unfolding. 
    • A 3rd scenario would be of the Taliban taking up the country. Any nation getting to affect Afghanistan should be prepared for all three scenarios.

 

About the new Afghan peace plan of the Biden administration

  • The Biden administration is pursuing actively in establish a peace plan between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Few important points of such a peace process are-
    • UN Summit: United Nations will convene a meeting of the foreign ministers from China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the United States. It will develop a “unified approach” to peace in Afghanistan.
    • Withdrawal of Troops: The peace plan has kept open the possibility that the 2500-odd US troops in Afghanistan might stay on for a while. 
    • The US had promised to withdraw all troops by September 11 this year.
    • Turkey to Organise a meeting: The United States has asked Turkey to convene a meeting of the Afghan government and the Taliban to finalise a peace settlement.
    • Taliban to Reduce Violence: The US has asked the Taliban to accept an immediate agreement to reduce violence for 90 days. This will provide the space for the peace initiative.
    • Inclusive Interim Government: the US has asked the Afghan Government and Taliban to move towards a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and form an interim unity government.

What are the challenges in front of India?

  • India refused to recognise the Taliban regime of 1996-2001. Instead, India supported the ‘Northern Alliance’ in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
  • The ‘Northern Alliance’ was a united military front that came to formation in late 1996 after the Taliban took over Kabul. They fought a war with the Taliban in 2001 and ended the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan. 
  • India has long held the position of dealing only with the elected government in Kabul. India supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled peace process.
  • There has been a high degree of mistrust on the Taliban since the Hijack of an Air India flight to Kandahar in 1999. Further Taliban’s proximity to Pakistan has also hampered the Indo-Taliban relations.
  • The Doha Agreement is silent on other terrorist groups. Such as anti-India terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed.
  • Further, supporting the Taliban will be a betrayal for the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban can go back to medieval practice and establish an Islamic republic based on Sharia. This will result in denying the hard-earned rights of the Afghan people.

Why Afghanistan is important to India?

  • Regional Balance of Power: Afghanistan is tied to India’s vision of being a regional leader and a great power, coupled with its competition with China over resources and its need to counter Pakistani influence.
    • India’s ability to mentor a nascent democracy will go a long way to demonstrate to the world that India is indeed a major power, especially a responsible one.
    • India’s interest in Afghanistan relates to its need to reduce Pakistani influence in the region.
  • Energy Security: The pipeline project TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), which seeks to connect an energy-rich Central to South Asia, will only see the light of the day if stability is established in Afghanistan
  • Strategic Location: For access to the landlocked Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan.
  • Natural Resources: The country is home to resource deposits worth one trillion dollars, according to the US Geological Survey.
  • Regional Security: A stable Afghanistan is important for regional security in South Asia

The Participation of Other countries in the Afghan peace process:

  • China had communicated with the Taliban long ago.
  • Russia has hosted several rounds of talks with the Taliban.
  • European powers have also shown interest in funding talks.
  • The participation of India: The inaugural session of Intra-Afghan peace talks occurred in Doha in September 2020. The External Affairs Minister was present at the inaugural session. This is in conformity with the long-held Indian position on the Afghan peace process. That is, any peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled.

India: Time to be Wary

  • New Delhi, which was hoping to be part of the U.S. initiative, would be nervous about the US withdrawal.
  • India was on the outer edges of Trump’s actions towards the Afghan deal and was a reluctant supporter of the “intra-Afghan talks” between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
  • The new U.S. proposal gave India a role, by recognising it as a regional stakeholder, but this proposal seems to have no future. – Haqqani group, fostered by the ISI, would have a large role in any Taliban regime – and this is one of India’s worries.
  • Another concern would be India-focused militants such as Lashkar- e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohamed, which the Indian security establishment already believes to have relocated in large numbers to Afghanistan.

India’s developmental works in Afghanistan:

  • India built vital roads, dams, electricity transmission lines and substations, schools and hospitals, etc.
  • The 2011 India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement recommitted Indian assistance to help rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure and institutions, education and technical assistance for capacity-building in many areas, encourage investment in Afghanistan and provide duty-free access to the Indian market. Bilateral trade is now worth $1 billion.
  • India’s development assistance is now estimated to be worth well over $3 billion. And unlike in other countries where India’s infrastructure projects have barely got off the ground or are mired in the host nation’s politics, it has delivered in Afghanistan.
  • Last year, India pledged $1 million for another Aga Khan heritage project, the restoration of the Bala Hissar Fort south of Kabul, whose origins go back to the 6th century.
  • Bala Hissar went on to become a significant Mughal fort, parts of it were rebuilt by Jahangir, and it was used as a residence by Shah Jahan.

 

India opened channels of communication with the AfghanTaliban

  • India has for the first time opened channels of communication with Afghan Taliban factions and leaders, including Mullah Baradar, against the backdrop of the rapid drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan.
  • The move has marked a significant shift from New Delhi’s position of not engaging with the Afghan Taliban in any way and comes at a time when key world powers are veering around to the position that the Taliban will play some part in any future dispensation in Kabul.
  • The outreach is largely being led by Indian security officials and has been limited to Taliban factions and leaders that are perceived as being “nationalist” or outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran.

Why is India reaching out to the Taliban?

  • India made contact with the Taliban in Doha. New Delhi has not rejected any reports of its outreach to the Taliban. This signals a late but realistic acknowledgement from the Indian side that the Taliban would play a critical role in Afghanistan within the coming years. India has three critical areas in handling the Taliban. 
    • One, protecting its investments, which run into billions of rupees, in Afghanistan; 
    • two, preventing a future Taliban regime from being a pawn of Rawalpindi
    • three, ensuring that the Pakistan-backed anti-India terrorist groups don't get support from the Taliban within the past, India chose to not engage the Taliban and therefore the costs were dear when the Taliban was in power. This time, New Delhi seems to be testing another policy.

India-Taliban attempts for the talk:

  • India’s tentative and belated attempts to reach out to the Taliban have not yielded the desired results.
  • India’s decision to pull out Indian nationals from its diplomatic outpost in Kandahar indicated it had failed to get from the Taliban, either directly or through interlocutors, even the minimum assurance of safety for its personnel at the consulate.
  • It is debatable if India should be making the effort to make contact at all with such a group, or, alternatively, if it should have done so earlier, at the time when the Trump administration launched serious efforts at negotiations with the group, back in 2017.
  • But then, India appeared to believe that the Americans would never leave, and was also misled by the Blinken plan that urged a regional consensus in Afghanistan under the auspices of the United Nations. But all this is academic now.

Way Forward

  • An independent, sovereign, democratic, pluralistic and inclusive Afghanistan is crucial for peace and stability in the region. In order to ensure this:
  • The Afghan peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.
  • Also, there is a need for the global community to fight against the global concern of terrorism. In this context, it high time to adopt the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (proposed by India at UN in 1996).
  • Though the deal is a good step, the road ahead would not be easy. Achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan will require patience and compromise among all parties.

What is the way ahead for India?

  • Open dialogue with the Taliban should no longer be a taboo; it is a strategic necessity. Therefore, our outreach must now be direct and unambiguous.
  • Perhaps most importantly, opening up the congested north-western frontier is key to bringing India’s continental grand strategy on an even keel, a process India has already started.
  • Backchannel talks with Pakistan and a consequent ceasefire on the Line of Control, political dialogue with the mainstream Kashmiri leadership, secret parleys with Taliban all indicate that India is opening up its congested north-western frontier.
  • Proactive engagement of the Taliban will provide this effort with more strategic heft.
  • However, Three structural conditions will continue to shape India’s Afghan policy.
    • One is India’s lack of direct physical access to Afghanistan. This underlines the importance of India having effective regional partners.
    • Pakistan has the capability to destabilise any government in Afghanistan. But it does not have the power to construct a stable and legitimate order in Afghanistan.
    • The contradiction between the interests of Afghanistan and Pakistan is an enduring one.
    • Pakistan likes to turn Afghanistan into a protectorate, but Afghans deeply value their independence. All Afghan sovereigns, including the Taliban, will look for partners to balance Pakistan.
    • India should focus on intensifying its engagement with various Afghan groups, including the Taliban and finding effective regional partners to secure its interests in a changing Afghanistan.

Conclusion:

  • As the Russian deputy envoy to Delhi has been quoted as saying, the Taliban are the current reality of Afghanistan, and it is for India to decide what role it wants to play.
  • Much hope is being set on the Doha talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government.
  • But even on the outside chance that these “intra-Afghan” talks might lead to a political resolution, the Taliban, with their military ascendancy, are likely to call the shots in a future dispensation.
  • India also needs to reassess its policy choices in close coordination with Russia and Iran, constantly reminding them that complete surrender to the Taliban’s demands will be detrimental to their own security.



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