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Can the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) Defend Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan, a visit to the Kandahar Corp by a US army officer would generally have required an armed US army convoy and early preparation. But this time, it was very unusual. In early 2003, my American colleague in charge of rebuilding the Afghanistan National Army in the south and I were visiting the Corp in an unescorted SUV. We travelled 1 km to the east of Kandahar Airfield, the Coalition Forces Airbase in Kandahar International airport. We got out of the vehicle in a broad flat area near the Kandahar–Chaman highway a small border city in Baluchistan province of Pakistan. He pointed out the area and said: “We are going to build Afghanistan National Army (ANA) Corp here”. The old corp was located at the centre of Kandahar city, almost 30 kilometres west of Kandahar airport.

After the 9/11 attacks, the US supported warlords and other tribal militias in their effort to overthrow the Taliban regime.  The warlords, who were armed to the teeth, were not loyal to the new central government. At that time estimately, there were more than 200 warlords across Afghanistan. The December 2001 Bonn Agreement stated: “Upon the official transfer of power, all mujahidin, Afghan armed forces and armed groups in the country shall come under the command and control of the Interim Authority, and be reorganized according to the requirements of the new Afghan security and armed forces.” And the main vehicle for dissolving the militias was the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) initiative, part of the Japanese-led Afghan New Beginnings Program (ANBP).

In early 2003, ANBP set the goal to disarm 100,000 Afghan militiamen but many Afghan officials argued that the true size is bigger than the estimation. In Bonn, the Afghan government and international community had reached an agreement to build a new 70,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) that could defend the country from internal and external threats.

The new Afghan army was established by a decree of President Hamid Karzai on December 1, 2002. Karzai set the goal for National Army to be at least 70,000-strong by 2009. However, many western military experts as well as many Afghan government officials believed they needed at least 200,000 troops in order to defend the country from enemy forces. So, due to the precarious security situation in Afghanistan, the US and its allies agreed to help build a 350,000-strong army and police forces, and finance it until 2022.

Afghanistan’s army traces its roots to 1709 when the Hotaki dynasty was established in Kandahar, followed by Ahmad Shah Durrani‘s rise to power in 1747. In the 1760s, Afghanistan had a well-equipped and trained army of 100,000 active men under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Abdali that had defeated the Maratha Empire of India in the Third Battle of Panipat on 14 January 1761. This battle is considered one of the largest and most eventful of the 18th century.  It is recorded that the battle had the largest number of casualties in a single day for a classic formation battle between two armies. The Afghan army also defeated the British Army three times in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 2003, the first new Afghan battalion was trained in Kabul by British army personnel of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and became the 1st Battalion, Afghan National Guard. A few months later, my US colleague and I welcomed the newly graduated battalion at Kandahar Airfield. They were accompanied by US advisors called “Embedded Training Teams (ETT)”. The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) also started building new military bases for the fast-growing ANA. The 1st Battalion of 205th Hero Corp was transported in US army buses and vehicles to the new Corps. The new Corps protection wall had not yet been completed, and a few buildings were under construction—only a barrack and few small buildings had been completed. Still, I was surprised by the progress that had been made in such little time. Some soldiers lived in tents, and they had only three types of weapons; RPGs, AK47s and PKMs. The ETTs rented SUV pick-up truck at the local market for ANA transportation and hired contractors for food. A company of the battalion was deployed to Urozgan, and another to Zabul province.

In mid-2005, an ANA platoon and a US Special Forces team were assigned to provide security to a NATO and ANA resupply convoy from the city of Tarin Koot, the capital of Urozgan, to the valley of Dara Noor on the border of Kandahar. The convoy was to deliver the first batch of six Non-Standard Light Tactical Vehicles (Ford Rangers) to the ANA Company stationed in Urozgan. From our hilltop vantage point we could see the convoy coming from miles away. I then called the ANA Company Commanding Officer Sarwar Khan and said: “Congratulationss! You got your vehicles.”

I was stationed from mid-2006 to the end of 2008 with the 205th Hero Corp. By then, the 205th Corp had one brigade composed of three infantry battalions and one supporting battalion. A Garrison, Corp headquarters and many buildings and facilities had been constructed.

At the end of 2008, there were more than 80,000 ANA active personnel with its share of surprises, challenges and hopes.

Currently, the ANA maintains seven corps and a supporting division.  Each corps is responsible for one major area of the country with three to four subordinate brigades, and each brigade with four infantry battalions as its basic fighting units. Six corps serve as regional land commands for the ANA: 201st Corps is located in Kabul, 203rd Corps in Gardez,  205th Corps in Kandahar, 215th Corps in Helmand,  207th Corps in Herat, 209th Corps in Mazar-i-Sharif and 111th Capital Division in Kabul.

The young and brave Afghan National Army soldiers who fought shoulder to shoulder with the US and coalition forces faced many day-to-day operational problems but they were extremely competent when it came to their weapons and transportation, and very determined combat operations.  They were using 30 year old weapons collected from warlords and other illegal arm groups through Disarmament demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program. In the modernization process, begun in 2006, the US and its allies replaced the ANA’s Old Russian weapons with the US M16, M4 and Canadian C7.  On the transportation front, they received US Humvee, M113A2, M1117 Armored Security Vehicle, International MaxxProl  armoured personnel carriers and more Non-Standard Light Tactical Vehicles. However, the modernization process was going very slowly.

The 205th Corps 1st Brigade together with the Canadian Armed Forces were responsible for the security of Kandahar province. At that time, Kandahar was one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces. At the same time the Canadians were also responsible for building up the 1st Brigade. The Canadian military advisors assigned to work with each of the ANA units were called Operation Mentoring Liaison Teams (OMLT).  The Canadians were well aware of the ANA weapons’ problems in the battlefield and had started training and delivering C7 riffles to the ANA very early on.

In mid-2007, I along with 1st Brigade Commander General Basir and 207th Corps Executive Officer and General Khair Mohammad were invited to Canada to observe Canadian soldiers training with the C7, and to visit various facilities. Upon our return to Afghanistan, Canadian Expeditionary Forces Commander (CEFCOM) Lieutenant-General Gauthier presented the first C7 rifle to General Basir. Since then all ANA rifles have been replaced with US M4, M16, Canadian C7 and many more US and NATO manufactured weapons. More than 10,000 thousand  M113A2 Armoured Personnel CarriersHumvee Armoured Personnel CarriersM1117 Armored Security Vehicle Internal security vehicles,  International MaxxPro1 Armoured Personnel Carriers have been supplied and 1673 more will  be supply in July, 2017.

Commandos – the ANA’s Special Forces Units

In 2007, the ANA had extended its reach, sometimes by itself and sometimes with its international partners, to every inch of Afghanistan’s soil. The ANA remained the only hope for the people of Afghanistan to defend their homeland from foreign threats. From its humble beginnings to its present strength, everyone was working vigorously to bring the ANA up to its peak position. But the leadership knew that the ANA needed Special Forces units, so it would have the capability for precise and unique operations. A program was established in early 2007 with the intent of taking one conventional battalion from each of the ANA corps, giving them special training and equipment, and reorganizing them based on the United States Army Rangers battalion concept.  Each battalion was assigned to one of the six military corps. These infantry units go through a 12-week intense training program concentrating on skills that a commando unit requires. The training was conducted by mentors from Combined Security Transition Command-AfghanistanUnited States Army Special Forces, French Special Forces, ANA cadre and Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI). The 1st infantry battalion of 205th corps of 1st brigade was  the first candidate for commando training, but due to its battalion commander’s lack of professionalism, the 3rd battalion won the heart of the ANA leadership and its ETTs.

The first ANA Commando Battalion graduated on July 24, 2007. ISAF’s original plan was for one brigade with six battalions, but now the ANA has a full division of 11,000 active Afghan commandos. As the ANA, Afghanistan National Police (ANP) and Intelligence services gained in capability for independent operations without the direct support of NATO and ISAF, the question of transitioning the security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) arose.

That transition process was launched in 2011, and completed at the end of 2014 when ISAF announced the end of its combat mission. This target was set at the 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon and confirmed by Allied leaders at the Chicago Summit in May 2012. During the transition process, 150,000 NATO/ISAF forces, the best trained and equipped forces this world had ever seen, were gradually withdrawn from combat missions, handing over the security responsibility to the newly trained ANSF, which included ANA,  ANP and Intelligence services. In the beginning, NATO/ISAF officials were doubtful that the ANSF would be capablele of defending their country alone, but the ANSF rapidly demonstrated that it could and was in some circumstances even more successful than NATO/ISAF, due to its knowledge of the culture and people of Afghanistan. More areas came under Afghan government control allowing civilian authorities to expand their services.  This helped increase confidence between the government and its people, despite the fact that ANSF were lacking sufficient airpower and heavy weaponry.

One of the main combat tactics used by NATO/ISAF and the Afghan government against the Taliban and other terrorist groups were night raids that forcing Taliban leaders, commanders and soldiers to change location three to four times a night.  They had to turn off their cellphones to avoid SF raids.  Every night, the Special Forces carried out 15 raids on average targeting a militant commander, destroying their hideout, ammunition depot and more. Prior to 2014, most of the Taliban senior leaders and officials avoided traveling to Afghanistan from Pakistan. Following the withdrawal of NATO/ISAF forces, Pakistan forced Taliban leaders to go inside Afghanistan to lead their anti-government and anti-NATO/ISAF campaign.  They were told that Afghan Forces were unable to defend their country and you will be safe inside because (ANSF) lacking of night raid capability.

In 2014, Taliban and other terrorists groups crossed the border by the hundreds from Pakistan to attack ANSF bases and posts. Taliban insurgents were attacking ANSF in group of hundreds, something that had happened before very rare because they feared NATO/ISAF airpower. The Taliban’s main tactics against NATO and Afghan forces were usually hit and run, suicide bombings, roadside bombs and ambushes. But now, the Taliban knew that they were attacking much less equipped and trained forces compared to NATO forces.  They also had their second level of leadership inside Afghanistan leading the fight against the ANSF.

The Afghan government quickly realized it needed to adopt a smarter fighting policy against the enemy. Moreover, more special operations units were developed and trained over the years.  These new units were from the Ministry of Interior and the National Directorate of Security (NDS).  The government decided that a joint Task Force (TF) of all three security departments with elite forces would be created.  Its main responsibilities were to hit or capture militant leaders, eliminate any imminent threats to the country and keep Afghanistan safe. Resources from other departments and NATO/ISAF assisted the TF and a joint intelligence analysis center was established to gather intelligence from different sources, analyze it and prepare operational packages for this TF.

With this in mind, a high level Afghanistan National Coordination Center (NCC) was established in 2015 by presidential decree to lead the country’s fight against enemies of the government, and to be responsible for the overall security situation. The NCC is comprised of five departments; the National Security Council, the ministries of Defense and Interior, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) and the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The NCC was chaired by the ANA Chief of Staff and assisted by four deputies who were second in ranking in their departments.

As a member of the NCC, my role was to observe the capabilities and the shortcomings of the ANSF. One of the country’s best officers general Qader was appointed to lead the Special Operations units in their day-to-day fighting. He would give us good news every day in his early morning 6 o’clock briefing. These Special Forces units had broken the backbone of the newly emerging threat under the umbrella of ISIS. Almost 20 high-level Taliban commanders and governors sent to Afghanistan were captured or killed. Taliban hideouts, command posts and other safe havens were once again not safe from the night raids by Afghan Special forces. Once, I invited the Ministry of Interior Special Forces commander to brief me on an operation carried out by his forces. To emphasize his forces’ training, capability and accuracy – and the intensity of this operation – he noted their annual causalities were one or two, but in this operation he had lost one of his soldiers and two others were injured.

After the Taliban takeover of the northern city of Kunduz in September 2015, the Afghan Special Forces played a key role in liberating the city. In November, five Afghan commandos were killed and a dozen injured in an enemy ambush. Later I learnt that their leave and training cycles had been compromised by the ANA commanders due to fighting pressure across the country, and their units had stayed too long in the battlefield.

Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated prime minister of Pakistan, was very impressed by the Afghan President Protection Services “PPS” (Presidential Guard). When she returned to Pakistan in 2007 from exile to participate in their national election, she asked former Afghan President Hamid Karzai if his PPS could train her security personnel. President Karzai had sent bombs, explosive materials detection equipment, and remote control bombs jammers to Bhutto, but before he could sends the PSS to train her security personnel she was assassinated in December 2007. Once, I was invited to an ANA Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to watch a night raid on an important target. Throughout the nearly two-hour mission, an AAF MC-12 small spy plane would pan and scan the aircraft’s camera, confirming or dismissing potential threats as it circled slowly in the sky above the target. The Afghan Special Mission Wing was created seven years ago, and it is the primary source for real-time intelligence for the country’s Special Forces. The commando unit’s leader, other ANSF officials and I were watching the live intelligence on a big screen at the TOC. When everything looked good he ordered his men to begin their assault. The mission was completed without any causality to the commandos. I said then, this is the type of forces we need for our country’s stability.

The Afghan Air Force (AAF)

Pilot Major Ziarmal is famous for carrying out unique and impossible missions in Afghan Air Force. He was invited to one of our NCC evening meetings to give us options for carrying out another such almost impossible mission. In his turn at the table he verbally attacked us: “You have us carry out these operations, but you do not appreciate us.” His voice was silenced by the chair: “This is your job and we do not give bounty to soldiers.”  Ziarmal had recently rescued ANSF personnel whose defense lines were overrun by the enemy. He had landed his helicopter in very difficult terrain while under constant enemy fire and rescued his fellow members. He rightfully wanted to be appreciated for his and his fellows’ heroism, but I believe it was not the right time for asking what was deserved. Later, when we received the news that Ziarmal’s unit successfully carried out the assigned operation, the Chief of Staff General Qadam Shah said then that it was an appropriate time for this recognition, but no one has done so as far as I remember.

The Afghan Air Force (AAF), formerly the Afghan National Army Air Corps, is a branch of the military of Afghanistan that is responsible for air defense and air warfare. It is divided into three wings, with the 1st Wing at Kabul, the 2nd Wing at Kandahar and the 3rd Wing in the south at Shindand and in western Afghanistan. The AAF was established in 1924 under the rule of King Amanullah Khan, developed gradually over time, and reached its peak in 1980s when the Soviet Union built it up, in hopes that a strong Afghan air power would defeat the mujahedeen and preserve the pro-Soviet Najibullah government.

The AAF had over 400 military aircraft, including more than 200 Soviet-made fighter jets. The collapse of Najibullah’s government in 1992 and the continuation of a civil war throughout the 1990s reduced the number of Afghan aircraft to less than a dozen. During Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001, in which the Taliban government was ousted from power, only a few helicopters, jets and transportation planes remained of the AAF. Since 2007, the US-led, international Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTF), then the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan (NATC-A) has worked to rebuild and modernize the AAF. It currently has about 120 aircraft and 8,000 active personnel. By 2017, the NATO training mission in Afghanistan wants to raise the ranks of the AAF and increase the air fleet to 140 aircraft which are progressively getting more advanced.

After 2014, 150,000 well-trained and equipped NATO/ISAF forces withdrew from Afghanistan and handed over the security of Afghanistan to a less trained, equipped and organized ANSF in need of air support more than at any time in their history.  There were very few attack and transport helicopters in the hands of the ANSF. Few helicopters were provided to each of the corps, and they were only to be used in extreme cases. Sometimes resupply of units in difficult terrain and remote areas would require allocating more resources from other wings, and the planning for this was done months ahead. As well, the existing planes and helicopters were not capable of operating in all weather, times and terrain.

I remember a wounded soldier and another soldier’s body were finally transported after 31 days. This operation had taken a month due to the pressures of fighting and other above-mentioned problems. Such delays in resupply and evacuation were sapping soldiers’ spirits.

At the Kandahar air wing,  providing air support to soldiers in Helmand, Urozgan and Zabul provinces, AAF Mi-35 attack helicopters and MD 530Fs were taking almost 1 hour to reach those provinces, and due to fueling they had very little time for maneuvering and providing air cover to the soldiers on the ground.

The Afghan Army chief of staff told me that the US equipped our helicopters with fourth generation night vision, and that we were the only country outside of NATO to have that privilege. However, this was not the perfect solution for the air force when it comes to night raids and resupply of units in danger and difficult terrain. The fourth generation  night vision was only working properly on moon days, and the other  15 days of the month were difficult for Afghan pilots without flyers. The flyers can be only provided by the US forces and their assistance to the AAF was very limited. This made it difficult for our intelligence community to time moving targets with the AAF capability—and it also provided the insurgents the opportunity to move around with little concern.

The AAF continues to use this limited force very effectively against its enemies, and only political corruption, and not these hurdles will stop the ANSF from doing their job.

On that note, I remember an Afghan parliamentarian had taken two helicopters from the AAF for almost 10 days to visit his constituency in Badakhshan province while some ANSF units’ resupply had been delayed for weeks due to lack of helicopters and resulting deaths on the front lines.

Air superiority is crucial for the ANSF in the long fights ahead. If NATO, its international allies and the Afghan government want to succeed in their stabilization efforts, more attention and resources need to be allocated to the AAF. Afghans are brave and know how to use their limited capabilities. For instance, I remember the prudence of one of the ANA strategists in one of our National Security Office meeting, and how effectively he used the air force in the Ghorak district of Kandahar.

Challenges

  • Unnecessary damage: I remember a former Afghan Defense Minister a few years ago saying that in the last six months 50 vehicles had been damage in enemy attacks. Meanwhile, 600 mostly Non-Standard Light Tactical Vehicles (Ford Rangers) had been involved in collisions, rollovers and accidents by untrained and careless drivers. This is a serious management problem. Financially and in terms of human resources, Afghanistan cannot afford such losses caused by bad management. Putting good principles and standards in place can save many lives and much money.
  • Desertion: The ANSF is losing some 4,000 members per month and the desertion rate is almost 30 percent higher in the police than in the army. An ISAF report on ANSF stated: “The primary causes of ANSF attrition are generally attributed to poor leadership, high [tempo of operations], casualties, low salary, compromising soldiers’ leave and training cycles, lack of proper resupply, reinforcement, air support and arm vehicles, increases in enemy attacks, inadequate care of personnel and poor quality of life, alternative work opportunities outside the ANSF, lack of recreational facilities, high illiteracy rates among soldiers and poor force management.” When in 2015 the ANA took over almost all combat operations for the first time since the Taliban were ousted, casualties rose 26 percent, with almost 15,800 soldiers wounded or killed; or almost one in 10. Despite the challenges, the overall size of the Afghan army remains stable. The Afghan ministries of Defense and Interior say recruitment still makes up for any attrition. The army is projected to recruit up to 6,000 new troops per month, while the police say they are taking in up to 5,000 new members per month. Still, the high rates of attrition of experienced soldiers and policemen to various causes are a problem that threatens to undermine Afghan efforts to defeat an insurgency that remains as stubborn as ever since the international coalition declared an end to its combat mission.
  • Failure to attract southern Pashtuns: Modern Afghanistan has been founded in Kandahar, the heartland of the south, or in other words: “The Greater Kandahar” that covers Zabul, Urozgan, Helmand and Kandahar. Except for a few years Afghanistan since its creation has been ruled by the Pashtuns of Kandahar. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Taliban leaders Mulla Omar, Mulla Mansoor and the current Taliban leader Molavi Hybatullah are from Kandahar. Karzai as a founder of the new Army and despite his origins in Kandahar,  the new army,  police, and the government in general have failed to attract many people from the south for the following reasons:
  • Young men fear what will happen to them or their families if they join the ANA. The Taliban have had a strong assassination campaign, assassinating more than 5,000 tribal elders, former Mujahedeen commanders, mullahs and other influential figures in southern Afghanistan; and some who were targeted had very little sympathy for the Afghan government. The number of government officials and ANSF personnel assassinated by Taliban insurgents is even greater. The deep and lingering fear of the insurgents – or sympathy for them – as well as doubts about the stability and integrity of the central government in Kabul, shrink the number of southern Pashtuns enlisting in the Army even more.
  • The role of Kandahar as an economic, political and spiritual hub of Afghanistan and in general the role of Pashtuns has been forgotten in the new government that came to power in Bonn, Germany in December 2001, after the collapse of the Taliban regime by NATO and Coalition forces. Again, despite Karzai originating from Kandahar, only 18 out of 26 ministries were assigned to the so-called Northern Alliance, and few others to other minorities. Hazars and Uzbeks the other ethnic minorities that have sided with the Tajiks dominated Northern Alliance distance themselves from Northern Alliance short after the fall of Taliban regime but Tajiks  influence is still very significant, especially in the ministries of Defense, Interior , Foreign and in the Intelligence Services. After 2006, the Taliban were gaining more ground and influence in the south, and I remember while working in the President’s office in 2009, more than a hundred tribal elders from Kandahar requested the President build a brigade from former mujahedeen, and incorporate it into the ANA structure to help secure Southern Afghanistan, but the president rejected the request.  In September 2011, the New York Times wrote: “With the deadline for the withdrawal of most foreign forces in 2014, the need to enlist more southern Pashtuns is pressing if Afghanistan is to have a national army that resembles the ethnic and geographic makeup of the country. It is no small concern. The absence of southern Pashtuns reinforces the impression here that the army is largely a northern institution to be used against them and what Afghan and Western officials worry is a dangerous division of the country”.
  • The predominantly Pashtun southern and southeastern provinces Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Zabul, Paktika and Ghazni make up about 20 percent of Afghanistan’s total population, yet they contribute just 1.5 percent of soldiers recruited. Some progress has been made, but merely in percentage terms; Kandahar and Helmand have more than doubled their number of recruits in recent years. The two provinces are home to nearly four million people but their annual contribution is less than 600 soldiers to the army—less than one percent of total enlistment. By comparison, Kunduz, a northern province of about 900,000 people has a recruitment ratio of 8000. Oruzgan, a province of more than 500,000 residents has only 20 recruits per year. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of recruits come from provinces in the north and northeast, where the insurgency is weaker. While the overall representation of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, in the army is equitable (they make up about 42 percentage of the army), the vast majority come from a few northeastern provinces. More than a third comes from Nangarhar Province alone. MOD attempts to lure more southern Pashtuns, have made it easier for them to qualify for officer candidate school and have assigned a few southern Pashtun officers to the region to focus on recruiting, but their efforts are not getting the expected results. At the beginning of 2015, insurgents tried to make inroads in the areas of greatest recruitment, but the ANSF were successful in foiling their attempts.

Conclusion

As long as there are sanctuaries for terrorists in Pakistan, the ANSF need to prepare for a long war—one that may take few more decades. Since its new beginnings, the ANSF is getting better day by the day. Their progress and achievements have been is tremendous. Currently, the ANA’s stock of equipment and infrastructure is worth of 32 billion US dollars. The ANSF maybe the best example in history of a force is fighting and developing at the same time. The ANSF could also be another good example for developing so fast but this all comes at a price. It is huge, but Afghanistan is worth it.

Ghulam Wali Noori is a former historian of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Political and Cultural Advisor of the United States Army and Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, Data Analyst for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Deputy of the Internal Affairs Department at National Security Council of Afghanistan and currently working as a financial analyst in Primerica. He is also a published translator and author of 13 books including the biography of Hamid Karzai the former President of Afghanistan and a Political Sciences graduate from Carleton University.

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