Michael Totten

A Conversation with Robert D. Kaplan

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There are few places in the world Robert D. Kaplan has not visited and written about in his books and magazine articles. He travels to countries hardly anyone else even considers — to Turkmenistan, for instance, during the time of the lunatic “Turkmenbashi” who transformed his post-Soviet republic into the North Korea of Central Asia. He has an uncanny ability to see conflicts looming on the horizon well in advance and — reversing the standard relationship between journalists and officials — U.S. defense policy professionals often ask him for briefings about what he has seen.
His regular dispatches in the Atlantic ought to be required reading for anyone interested in foreign affairs, as should his numerous books.
I met him a few weeks ago in Washington D.C. while he was briefly in town after returning from a month-long trip to post-war Sri Lanka. We discussed Colombo’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign there against the Tamil Tigers, what China has been up to while no one was looking, Russia’s revived imperial project in its “near abroad,” the geopolitcal ramifications of a more liberal Iran, Israel’s difficulty in fighting effective counterinsurgency warfare, and our new man-hunting General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan.
MJT: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?
Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, the U.S. and other Western countries have cut all military aid. We cut them off just as they were starting to win. The Chinese filled the gaps and kept them flush with weapons and, more importantly, with ammunition, with fire-fighting radar, all kinds of equipment. The assault rifles that Sri Lankan soldiers carry at road blocks throughout Colombo are T-56 Chinese knockoffs of AK-47s. They look like AK-47s, but they’re not.
What are the Chinese getting out of this? They’re building a deep water port and bunkering facility for their warships and merchant fleet in Hambantota, in southern Sri Lanka. And they’re doing all sorts of other building on the island.
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Hambantota port design
Now, why did the Chinese want Sri Lanka? Because Sri Lanka is strategically located. The main sea lines of communication between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. It’s part of China’s plan to construct a string of pearls — ports that they don’t own, but which they can use for their warships all across the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka defeated, more or less completely, a 26 year-long insurgency. They killed the leader and the leader’s son. But there are no takeaway lessons for the West here. The Sri Lankan government did it by silencing the media, which meant capturing the most prominent media critic of the government and killing him painfully. And they made sure all the other journalists knew about it.
MJT: Wow.
Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war. Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government. So that’s one thing they did.
The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say “you have to kill all the people to get to us.” So the government obliged them. The government killed thousands of civilians.
MJT: Tamil civilians?
Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.
MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?
Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U.N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months.
MJT: I didn’t know it was that brutal. I’ve read accusations that there were human rights violations, but we’re so used to hearing that no matter what happens.
Kaplan: The West thinks of Sri Lanka as unimportant, whereas for the Chinese and the Indians it’s very important. And I consider Sri Lanka part of the new geography. It’s part of the new maritime geography, and that makes it very important.
MJT: Until China started helping Sri Lanka, where was Sri Lanka geopolitically?
Kaplan: It’s a place that registers the geopolitical reality between China, India, and the Indian Ocean. The Indians have a very checkered record in Sri Lanka. They sent in a peacekeeping force in 1987 and got their asses kicked by the Tamil Tigers. They came in to help the Tamils, but the Tigers wanted no part of any force there. They came in to help the Tamils, and they wound up fighting the Tamil Tigers.
MJT: Sri Lanka’s government naturally isn’t aligned with India, though.
Kaplan: Right. But it has reasonably good relations with India. It’s now at a point where it’s balancing between India and China.
MJT: Sri Lanka has been fighting this counterinsurgency for decades. Have they slowly made progress all this time and have now finally finished it off, or was there a tipping point recently where a seemingly endless conflict just ended almost suddenly?
Kaplan: The Sri Lankan government was elected in 2005 to win the war. And it has done that. Extremely brutally. It’s a government that’s very nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist. These are not the Richard Gere’s “peace and love” Buddhists. These are the real blood and soil Buddhists, where Buddhism is like any other religion when it’s threatened and it’s defending a piece of territory. It can be very brutal.
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Buddhas, Colombo, Sri Lanka
It was elected to win the war, which it interpreted from the voters as a right to silence the media and to fight without any restrictions.
MJT: It does work, though, doesn’t it?
Kaplan: It does work, yeah.
MJT: Not that we should do it, of course.
How popular were the Tamil Tigers among the Tamil population?
Kaplan: Not particularly popular. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.
MJT: They had an air force?
Kaplan: Yeah. They had a few planes that they used for bombing missions over Colombo. It was the only insurgent terrorist outfit that had a navy and air force.
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Colombo, Sri Lanka
MJT: That’s fascinating.
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: Not even Hezbollah has either of those, and Hezbollah is the most sophisticated Islamist terrorist group in the world.
The Tamil Tigers didn’t care much for the Arab and Islamist terrorist groups, did they?
Kaplan: No, they didn’t.
MJT: I read a quote from one of the Tamil Tiger leaders who said he refused to train Islamist terrorists because he didn’t want to help anyone kill Americans.
Kaplan: They didn’t want to create a situation where the West would aid this Sinhalese government under the guise of fighting international terrorism.
MJT: It makes sense. They were off our radar almost entirely.
Kaplan: In Sri Lanka you have a majority Sinhalese Buddhist population that thinks like a minority. They have a minority sense of oppression. Although they have 75 percent of the population while the Tamils have only about 18 percent, there are 60 million more Tamils nearby in southern India. So they’re kind of like the Iraqi Shias and the Serbs, other majorities who feel like minorities, and can be twice as brutal because of it.
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Sri Lanka ethnic map
MJT: So there are no lessons at all? Nothing for the U.S., Israel, or Pakistan?
Kaplan: No.
MJT: Only moral lessons, perhaps. Yes, this works, but it would take an awful lot to get us to fight that way again.
Kaplan: The only lesson is that while we’re obsessed with Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese have a fully developed world view. They’re thinking about many countries all at once.
MJT: What’s China’s ultimate objective?
Kaplan: They’re putting a lot of money into their navy, more than their army. Their ultimate objective is to project sea power, and not just in the western Pacific which makes them a great regional power, but also in the Indian Ocean which makes them a great power in total.
MJT: Do you get the sense that China is becoming more ambitious as it gets more powerful?
Kaplan: I think as their economy develops, and as they have more and more economic interests around the world, they suddenly have more national interests. As they trade more, they have more things to protect. So they develop a world view and their military expands accordingly. It’s very similar to the U.S. military expansion in the late 19th century and the early 20th century before World War I.
MJT: That’s what I thought.
Kaplan: Between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I, our economic expansion made us a great power. We suddenly were dealing with Latin America, with the Pacific, and with Europe in ways we hadn’t before the Civil War. And that led to a corresponding military expansion. We very quietly and unobtrusively became a great power.
MJT: I don’t think the U.S. ever consciously intended to become the most powerful country in the world.
Kaplan: No.
MJT: We just slowly, step by step, ended up there.
Kaplan: Right. It just happened. And that’s how I look at China.
MJT: Russia was more deliberate about it. Soviet Russia, I should say.
Kaplan: Russia is a land power. And land powers are much more insecure than sea powers.
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Tanks in Moscow
MJT: They can be conquered much more easily.
Kaplan: Russia’s only coast to speak of is in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. It’s a polar ice cap. It’s useless.
When you’re threatened on land, you’re much more insecure than if you’re threatened an ocean away. We’re virtually an island nation.
MJT: Russians seem to feel genuinely threatened by NATO expansion.
Kaplan: Yeah, they do.
MJT: Way more than they should.
Kaplan: They’ve been invaded by the French under Napoleon. They’ve been invaded by the Germans. They’re insecure about their Western frontier. That was the whole purpose behind the satellite states of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It provided a buffer region for the Russians, a buffer region that was under their total control. So what the Russians want to do is somehow, some way, create another buffer on their Western border. So there’s a lot of pressure on the Baltic states, on Poland.
MJT: It looks like Ukraine is in danger.
Kaplan: It’s endangered perpetually. Russia as a land power can’t tolerate an independent Ukraine.
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Vladimir Putin
MJT: It doesn’t look good for them after what happened in Georgia. I’ll be surprised if nothing much happens there over the next couple of years.
Kaplan: Russia has to be able to control Ukrainian politics behind the scenes.
MJT: They were doing it before the Georgian incident when they poisoned the current president, Viktor Yukoshenko.
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: I can see it from their point of view to an extent. It’s as if the U.S. suddenly lost Florida. That’s how the Russians look at Ukraine. They lost a nice place with a warm climate and a beach on the Black Sea. Almost everywhere else is winter for eight months of the year. Almost half of Ukraine is ethnically Russian.
Kaplan: And they lost the Caucasus. The Caucasus figures large in Russian literature, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writing and in others’. They write about the beauty of the Caucasus. It was Russia’s Wild West, its romantic Wild West, except it was to the south. And it’s deeply embedded in the Russian psyche. So the loss of the Caucasus, especially Georgia, really hurt.
MJT: Have you been there lately?
Kaplan: No.
MJT: It’s interesting.
Kaplan: And who knows? They may get it back.
MJT: They got pieces of it.
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: I doubt they’ll get Tbilisi back.
Kaplan: There’s a good chance they’ll get a government there that’s, quote unquote, “friendly.”
MJT: It’s looking that way.
Kaplan: A “friendly” regime.
MJT: Saakashvili isn’t too popular these days.
Kaplan: No. He miscalculated.
MJT: Yeah. But he’s not a bad guy. He’s certainly better than Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia.
Kaplan: Yeah. The problem, though, with Georgia, was the Bush Administration. It spoke loudly and carried a small stick rather than the reverse. They promised Saakashvili all this aid and support. The two presidents had a hug fest and all that. But there was little we could do if the Russians called the bluff.
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George W. Bush and Mikheil Saakashvili
MJT: And what could we do? We aren’t going to war with Russia over, well, anything, let alone Georgia.
Kaplan: Right.
MJT: If they tried to conquer Western Europe that would be a different story, but of course they won’t.
Kaplan: I thought the body language between Bush and Saakashvili was bad. It was the kind of public friendship that indicated we would back him up. It sent the wrong message.
MJT: To Saakashvili, you mean?
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: There wasn’t much we could do. Likewise, if the U.S. moved into South Ossetia — which of course wouldn’t happen even in an alternate universe — Russia couldn’t have done anything. With Russia and the U.S. right now, the winner is whoever moves first.
Kaplan: Yes. And keep another thing in mind. The Obama Administration is trying to find a way to get Russia’s help with Iran. And what is Russia’s price for that? My guess is they want control of Georgia.
MJT: Do you think that would be enough?
Kaplan: It might be. And keep something else in mind. Since the days of Gorbachev, the Iranians and the Russians have had an unspoken agreement about stability in the southern tier of the former Soviet Union. The Iranians are not mucking about in Georgia and Armenia and other places right on their border the way they’re mucking about in Iraq.
MJT: Right.
Kaplan: And that is something Russia really appreciates. So Russia’s friendship with Iran, and it’s willingness to have Iran’s back at the United Nations, is born of geopolitical and geographical realities.
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin
MJT: They aren’t messing with Azerbaijan all that much either, even though Azerbaijan used to be part of the Persian Empire. There was a Hezbollah terrorist attack foiled there recently against the Israeli embassy, but that only took place in Azerbaijan. It didn’t have much to do with Azerbaijan itself.
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: I was there last August.
Kaplan: How’s the government under Aliyev?
MJT: Not great.
Kaplan: Yeah. That’s what I would expect.
MJT: They have the right idea about where the country should go, but the government is autocratic.
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: I have to say, though, that I was impressed with the physical condition of the country. At least the capital Baku. Outside Baku it started to look a bit like Iraq.
Kaplan: Yeah. That’s always been the truth. There is a syndrome in a lot of these countries where the capitals are really city-states. All the money flows into the capital and there’s nothing outside. This is true in Bulgaria, in some other places. It’s going to take a long time for the money to flow to the countryside.
MJT: It will. It’s true in Georgia, too, to a lesser extent. It isn’t doing as well as Eastern Europe. Baku, though, in Azerbaijan, is very pleasant.
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Baku, Azerbaijan
Kaplan: It has a beautiful old section by the waterfront. You should have seen it in 1993. It was a trash heap.
MJT: I’ll bet.
Kaplan: It was hideous. And then I went back in 1999, and it was a different world. I can’t even imagine it now.
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MJT: So you’re working on a book about the Indian Ocean.
Kaplan: Yeah. I’m deep into it. One day we’re going to wake up from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re going to see a changed world. We’re going to see a world where there are still geopolitical contests, but they’ll be between China and India. We’ll see the emergence of China on the world’s seas with less U.S. dominance. We’re going to see a more maritime world. We may live in an era of globalization, but 90 percent of all goods travel by sea in containers. It’s container shipping that allows for the whole globalization, the clothes we wear, the prices we pay for them, etc. Those who control the sea lanes are going to be crucial.
Now, we’ve seen a little of this already in the news with the piracy issue. When does piracy thrive when you read about piracy historically? It thrives when trade is thriving. Pirates are parasites. The more international trade is thriving, the more hosts are available for parasites. So piracy is an indication that things are good, in a way.
MJT: Right.
Kaplan: And we see how critical these sea lines of communication are if just a few hundred pirates can get ships to divert from using the Suez Canal and instead choosing to go around southern Africa. Which is what’s happening.
So I think we’re going to make up more of a maritime world where the rim line of the world is going to be between the Horn of Africa and the Sea of Japan with the Strait of Malacca as sort of the Fulda Gap of the 21st Century. The Fulda Gap, you know, was a valley in West Germany during the Cold War where Soviet tanks would come through if there was ever a confrontation.
MJT: Right.
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Chinese Navy
Kaplan: Global warming could change things a bit, if it’s true. If the seas really are warming and the ice is freeing up, land-locked Russia will no longer be land-locked. It has this vast coast to the north that it could suddenly use for shipping across the Arctic to North America, Japan, and elsewhere. That would bring a whole new advantage to Russia.
Now, of course you could say that Russia is losing population, the health statistics are terrible, and that’s true. That’s also something we’ll have to take into account. Russia is deteriorating greatly in social and medical terms. But if the ice really is melting, that’s going to provide a great benefit for Russia in the decades to come.
We don’t even look at that geography now. But we would start looking at it in an age of ice melt in the Arctic.
MJT: A lot of Americans will listen to what you’re saying about the Indian Ocean, that India and China are going to ramp up their navies, and they’ll be in charge of policing the Indian Ocean area, and say “Great. Finally. Someone else is finally doing this work. Why do we have to do it all the time?”
Kaplan: That’s a good point.
MJT: Would they be right? I mean, neither India nor China is an ideological power.
Kaplan: Right. Excellent. Look, not only that, our differences with China are much less than our differences with the Soviet Union.
MJT: Much less.
Kaplan: And India is a democratic country that’s inferentially pro-American. So your average American would be right. This is a way for us to gracefully retreat from global domination, by leveraging other powers to take up responsibility.
Either way, this is the world that will confront us after Iraq and Afghanistan. We will still be a great power, and an indispensable power. We’re the only great sea power operating in Asia that does not have territorial ambitions in Asia. We’re half a world away.
MJT: I don’t feel threatened by China policing sea lanes to protect their commercial interests. I don’t care for its support of nasty regimes in Burma and North Korea, but I’m not sure this will have much affect on any of that.
Kaplan: China practices what I’d call a very bleak form of realism. It’s classic realism with no light at the end of the tunnel or any kind of sentimental or humanistic outlook.
MJT: It’s very bloodless, isn’t it?
Kaplan: Yeah. They will deal with a democratic power, and they’ll deal with Burma and Zimbabwe and Sudan and Sri Lanka. They’re hungry for energy, for oil. It’s a very bloodless form of realism.
MJT: I don’t like it, but it worries me less than Russia’s outlook.
Kaplan: It should. I agree with you. I’m not painting a disastrous world after Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m painting a different world.
MJT: How does Iran fit into all this? We’re all familiar with how Iran interferes with countries to its west, in the Arab world. What does Iran do on its eastern side?
Kaplan: Iran is so beneficially placed between the two oil-rich regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. They border both. What’s interesting is that when you travel to Turkmenistan and through Central Asia, Iran is like a cultural lode star. All these countries are influenced by Persian language and culture.
But the current Iranian regime is very unappetizing for all these countries. If Iran loosens up, and I think it might…
MJT: I’m sure it will eventually.
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A church in Northern Iran
Kaplan: Yeah. It’s going to be an incredibly attractive power in all of Central Asia. And then we will really see a greater Iran. Iranian influence will increase with a more moderate regime for cultural reasons.
MJT: Because of its soft power.
Kaplan: Exactly. Because of the soft power of Persian culture.
MJT: Persian culture, without Khomeinism on top of it, is very appealing. Not just to Central Asians, but also to me.
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At an anti-regime demonstration in Iran
Kaplan: It’s very attractive.
MJT: Many Kurds in Iraq have told me the same thing. They admire Persian culture much more than they admire Arab culture, which they detest.
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: But Iran doesn’t appeal to them much now because it’s smothered under this awful Khomeinism.
Kaplan: Yes. You’ve explained it. You don’t need me to explain it. That’s exactly it.
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Tehran, Iran
MJT: But I pay much more attention to what’s going on to the west of Iran. What is Iran up to in its east, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on? Are the Iranians mucking around over there like they are in the Arab countries?
Kaplan: Western Afghanistan is now essentially an Iranian satellite.
MJT: They speak a version of Persian there.
Kaplan: The Iranian currency freely circulates in Herat. Iran is supplying electricity to Herat and much of Western Afghanistan. So while Western Afghanistan is relatively quiet and free of violence, the reason it is so is because of the influence of Iran.
MJT: I assumed it was quiet more because it’s outside Pashtunistan, so to speak. But I guess what you’re saying is the flip side of that.
Speaking of Pashtunistan, you have written before that Afghanistan and Pakistan are best thought of as a single political entity.
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A map of “Pashtunistan,” where the ethnic Pashtuns live in both Pakistan and Afghanistan
Kaplan: Yes.
MJT: And that’s much more obviously true now than it was when you first wrote it.
Kaplan: Yes.
MJT: Because now we’re seeing a Taliban insurgency in both countries. Do you think this insurgency is beatable if the U.S. can only really operate on the Afghanistan side of it?
Kaplan: I think the U.S. is able to influence both sides. The recent offensive in the Swat Valley by the Pakistani government has been pretty successful. And who do you think is behind all that? Uncle Sam. We really put pressure on them to solve their own problems. They transferred their military resources from the Indian border to the Swat Valley.
MJT: Is the Swat Valley ethnically Pashtun or Punjabi?
Kaplan: It’s more Pashtun than Punjabi, I think. It’s where they overlap.
I traveled all throughout the Swat Valley in the mid-1990s. It was beautiful, touristy, and peaceful. There was no problem. All this is very recent.
I find it interesting that after all this pressure was put on Pakistan by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the Pakistanis really started a major offensive.
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MJT: How much of Pakistan’s response was because of U.S. pressure, and how much because the Taliban got so close to Islamabad?
Kaplan: It was both. Probably both. And they’ve really pursued this seriously. Much more seriously than they’ve pursued anything else.
MJT: It was quite striking, actually, how quickly they turned around.
Kaplan: Yeah. It is.
You know what’s interesting? The Israelis. They’ve been great at defeating structured Arab armies, but they haven’t figured out how to deal with a few thousand insurgents in South Lebanon or in Gaza. What did their wars in 2006 and 2009 in Lebanon and Gaza get them?
MJT: It got them fewer rockets for a while, but it’s temporary.
Kaplan: Yeah.
MJT: I don’t know what they should do. They can’t put a David Petraeus in Gaza or Lebanon. It won’t work.
Kaplan: No.
MJT: And they can’t fight a counterinsurgency from the air because that’s just absurd.
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Bombed house, South Lebanon, 2006
Kaplan: Yeah. They haven’t been able to solve this problem at all.
MJT: I’m glad it isn’t up to me what Israel should do. There aren’t any good options. Maybe they should hold Syria accountable. Syria is at least a state with a return address and national interests. I don’t think the Syrian government is particularly ideological. It isn’t like the Iranian government. Syria isn’t an ideology, it’s a state.
Kaplan: It wants to survive.
MJT: Maybe the Israelis should lean on Assad. They can’t lean on Hamas or Hezbollah. They can’t lean on Beirut because Beirut is too weak to do much.
Kaplan: Yeah. I mean, the idea of bombing highway overpasses near Beirut to punish Lebanon for Hezbollah is ridiculous.
MJT: There is no way they could have pulled that off in Lebanon in 2006, no matter how brilliantly they might have fought.
Kaplan: And they didn’t fight brilliantly.
MJT: Even if they did…
Kaplan: Well, as you said, they can’t do what Petraeus did.
Speaking of Petraeus, this appointment of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan is really interesting.
General Stanley McChrystal
MJT: What do you think of him?
Kaplan: Oh, he’s got it. He’s another Petraeus. He’s larger than life. I’ve interviewed General David McKiernan, the man he’s replacing. He’s a good guy, but he’s no lightning. He has no great ideas.
I think deep down the real reason the Obama Administration fired McKiernan and wants to bring in McChrystal is because McChrystal is a man hunter. He got Zarqawi in Iraq. And Obama desperately wants to kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri to show that they can do this better than the Republicans.
So the White House said, “we want to get these people.” And Secretary Gates said, “well, if you want to get them, McChrystal’s your man.” He ran the Joint Special Operations Command for five years. It conducts all the secret operations — Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, the best Ranger battalions. It’s all very secret. And they go out on man hunting missions and kill people.

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