Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, the departing head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat in front of Congress, where he described the Haqqani Network as a "veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency."
The militant group has long been considered one of the most dangerous insurgent forces in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. Their estimated 5,000 to 15,000 fighters, led by militant Jalaluddin Haqqani, roam the mountainous region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they carry out deadly roadside bomb attacks, kidnappings and extortion plots.
Mullen accused the group of carrying out several attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan on behalf of Pakistani intelligence services. Earlier this month, the Haqqanis were blamed for an attack on the U.S. Embassy and a truck bombing that wounded 77 Americans. Mullen said that the ISI, Pakistan's spy agency, helped the Haqqanis carry out both attacks.
"It has long been known that [the Haqqanis] do have some ties to the ISI, but what Mullen did was take it to a new level and accuse the Pakistanis of using the Haqqanis to carry out Pakistan's policies," explains New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti.
Mazzetti, who recently wrote at length about the Haqqanis' influence and power, says that there is some speculation that Pakistan's ISI is working with the Haqqanis to accelerate the American departure from Afghanistan
"Some people I've talked to have said that the more attacks against the embassy and other places that take place, the more the American public will get fed up with the war and want to get out even sooner," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Again, that's a theory, but it's one way to explain why Pakistan would throw its support behind a group like this."
Mazzetti says that U.S. officials are still trying to figure out the relationship between the ISI and the Haqqanis and are still not sure whether leading Pakistani military officials are involved in any way.
"They're trying to discern ... whether this is actually policy from the Pakistani government or whether this is just part of the ISI," he says. "I think after 10 years of war, that we still don't know."
Ties To American Money
The Haqqanis operate in eastern Afghanistan, an area with few American troops on the ground. For the past five years, they have run what Mazzetti calls a "protection racket for construction firms" — meaning that Haqqani commanders are paid to protect American contractors working on reconstruction projects from insurgent attacks.
"They're running a shakedown scheme in Mafia fashion. The American money goes to all sorts of construction projects in eastern Afghanistan and the only way those roads and schools are not bombed is if the Haqqani Network guarantees they will not be bombed, and the only way they guarantee it, is if they get paid," he says. "You can look at it as American taxpayer money is ultimately going into the pockets of the Haqqani Network."
The Haqqanis then use that money to build up other parts of their crime syndicate and finance other attacks, he says.
"Most of the money from the shakedown ultimately get funneled back to [an area] in Pakistan where the Haqqani Network is based," he says. "To the extent that there is a border [between Afghanistan and Pakistan], they really run the show."
Mark Mazzetti is a national security correspondent for The New York Times. In 2009, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also received the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting and the Livingston Award for national reporting, for breaking the story of the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing interrogations of al-Qaida detainees.
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you combine the traits of a terrorist movement and a crime family, you get the Haqqani Network. They're from Afghanistan and hide out in Pakistan's frontier territory on the border. The Haqqanis were behind the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, the retiring head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqanis planned and conducted that attack with the support of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. That comment outraged Pakistani officials.
White House and State Department officials have tried to tone down Admiral Mullen's assessment and have expressed their concern about the fraying relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.
My guest, Mark Mazzetti, covers national security for the New York Times. He was part of the team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mark Mazzetti, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
MARK MAZZETTI: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: So you've compared the Haqqani Network to the Sopranos, but it's as if they Sopranos were also an Islamist terrorist group with a militia and connections to the intelligence agency. Now Admiral Mike Mullen says that this network is a virtual arm of Pakistan's intelligence agency. Recap for us, what Admiral Mullen said and why it's creating such an uproar.
MAZZETTI: Specifically he was talking about Pakistan's military and ISI, which is their military intelligence service. And basically what he said was that, in effect, Pakistan, the United States's ally, took part, in a way, in an attack against the U.S. embassy and a number of other high-profile attacks around Kabul.
The Haqqani Network, which has been blamed for, sort of, a ruthless campaign of violence, it has been long-known that they do have some ties to the ISI, but what Mullen did was, sort of, take it to a new level and accuse Pakistan of using the Haqqanis to carry out Pakistan's policies.
GROSS: So if it's true, as Admiral Mullen says, that Pakistan's intelligence service has actually done things in support of the Haqqani Network and assisted it, what might the ISI's motives be in working with this criminal terrorist syndicate?
MAZZETTI: The motives of the ISI, the United States has been trying to discern for a decade or more. Sometimes they are very opaque. If it is true, what Admiral Mullen said, some people I've spoken to have said well, you know, maybe Pakistan is trying to accelerate the American departure from Afghanistan. That the more attacks against the embassy and other places that take place, the more the American public will get fed up with the war and want to get out even sooner.
And the sooner the United States gets out, the more Pakistan can then pull the levers of a future Afghanistan state. Again, that's a theory, but it is one way to explain why Pakistan would throw its support behind a group like this.
GROSS: So the Haqqani Network would help push the United States out, theoretically, make Afghanistan seem like a hopeless cause, and also the Haqqani Network can then be an ally of Pakistan after the U.S. leaves. Is that the scenario? Is that the thinking?
MAZZETTI: Exactly right.
GROSS: OK, now the United States gives Pakistan a lot of money, and a lot of the money the U.S. gives Pakistan I think ends up with Pakistan's intelligence service. So does that mean that we are actually funding the intelligence service which is trying to undermine our efforts in Afghanistan?
MAZZETTI: Well, the United States, as you said, has given billions of dollars to Pakistan over the last decade. A lot of the money, covert money, has gone to help the ISI, help the military with its own counterterrorism, counterinsurgency operations. And if you believe that the ISI does give financial support to groups like the Haqqanis and the Taliban, then you can very clearly draw a line that American money is going to these groups that are now killing American troops.
It is - again, there's accumulated evidence about the support between the ISI and the Taliban and the Haqqanis, but American officials are still trying to discern exactly, you know, how this relationship works and whether people like General Kayani and General Pasha, who are respectively the head of the military and the ISI, are blessing this from the top. Whether this is an actual policy of the Pakistani government or whether it's just parts of the ISI that are doing it.
I think, still, after 10 years of war, we don't know.
GROSS: I think what a question on my mind is: Is the Pakistan government cooperating with the Haqqani Network and supporting it to some degree for pragmatic reasons, just to kind of prevent the Haqqani Network from attacking Pakistan, to kind of like quiet them down a little bit when it comes to Pakistan? Or, are they in collusion on attacks because Pakistan wants those attacks to happen, too?
MAZZETTI: All of the above could be true. But I think we have to go back to the history a little bit, about why Pakistan would spend any time with this group or have any contacts whatsoever. It's well-known that in the 1980s both the ISI and the CIA worked with both the Haqqanis and other militia groups in Afghanistan to drive the Russians - to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
Since that time, Pakistan has seen groups like the Haqqanis as, in a way, proxy forces, as ways that would allow Pakistan not to station large amounts of troops in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, and instead, station them where Pakistan considers to be more important, which would be along the Indian border.
So Pakistan is much smaller than India, has a much smaller army. So if you're a Pakistani general, you might see a group like the Haqqanis as a pretty critical instrument of policy. You would also want to keep them, as you said, in line so they are not turning their attacks east towards Pakistan. That would be a great concern.
The expectation is that once, you know, the U.S. really clearly starts moving out, this is when all the negotiation and the horse-trading happens, and everyone's going to want to carve out their areas, and what the Haqqanis will want to have is an area in eastern Afghanistan that allows them to keep up their criminal enterprises, and some of that bleeds over into Pakistan.
And maybe - and again this is to some degree speculation on the Americans' part - but some people see that Pakistan wants to use the Haqqanis for the future, that - who could represent, to some degree, some of the interests that Pakistan has for the future of Afghanistan after the United States leaves.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about what the Haqqani Network is, and then we'll get back to what the larger implications are. To give a sense of the ruthless tactics that the Haqqani Network uses, let's talk about their attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, in June.
More than a dozen people were killed - and you write about this in a recent article - last month, Afghanistan's national intelligence directorate released recordings of phone calls that were intercepted during the attack. And in these exchanges, the Haqqani Network leaders in Pakistan instruct their operative in the hotel to shoot the locks off rooms, throw in grenades and make sure no one escapes.
Would you read the dialog that you reprint in your article?
MAZZETTI: Yes, in our story Sunday, we go on to say: Later, as the fire blazes, the recordings capture the voice of Badruddin Haqqani, one of Jalaluddin's sons, whom the State Department says is in charge of kidnapping for the network. On the tape, Mr. Haqqani asks, quote, "how is the fire?" A militant named Omar replies: It's a big fire, and the smoke is blinding me.
Omar says he will not be able to move away from the fire, and Mr. Haqqani asks if he has bullets. Quote, yes, I have a lot of ammunition, Omar says. God willing, I'm very relaxed, lying on this mattress, waiting for them. Mr. Haqqani laughs and says: God will give you victory.
GROSS: My assumption is that Omar is prepared to die in the flames because he can't move away from them.
MAZZETTI: That's right, and one of the MOs of Haqqani Network attacks is that they tend to be suicide attacks, where many of the operatives end up losing their own lives.
GROSS: So it's amazing to actually hear the dialog from that. Thanks for reading it. What was their goal in killing people at this hotel in June?
MAZZETTI: You know, it's hard to know what exactly their goal is in that attack or on the attack on the American embassy or a number of other attacks. It's people's best guess, though, that what they are ultimately looking for is recognition, some degree of acknowledgement that they are here to stay and that they need to be dealt with for the future, they cannot be dismissed.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. We're talking about the Haqqani Network, a terrorist group from Afghanistan which has found safe haven in Pakistan.
Their empire is, in part, a crime empire. And I think one of the most outrageous parts of the crime empire for Americans is that they've gotten a lot of protection money from contractors who are building roads and schools with American reconstruction money, which means what, that American reconstruction money, a lot of that is actually going to the Haqqani Network, this terrorist network, that is our enemy.
MAZZETTI: That's right. It's sort of an elaborate shakedown scheme in Mafia fashion, where the American money goes to all sorts of construction projects in Eastern Afghanistan, and the only way those roads and schools are not bombed is if the Haqqani Network guarantees that they will not be bombed, and the only way they guarantee it is if they get paid.
So you can look at it as American taxpayer money ultimately going into the pockets of the Haqqani Network.
GROSS: And what do they use the money for?
MAZZETTI: Well, they use the money to build up other aspects of their enterprise. Many observers have looked at it as them building a mini-state in Pakistan where they can build quasi-government offices, they can build their own madrases, they can help finance other attacks. So most of the money, it is believed, from these shakedowns ultimately get funneled back to Pakistan, to Miranshah, where the Haqqani Network is based.
Miranshah, which is a fairly large town in North Waziristan, is Haqqani Network Central, and central headquarters for a lot of other groups, but it's a place that - and the Pakistan government's there. The military has bases, but they are largely confined to their bases. It is really run by the militants.
And the Haqqanis to some degree are the biggest players in town. They are the richest players in town. They are hosts to other militants who come through looking to carry out attacks elsewhere. They put them up in sort of quasi-hostels, and they are the innkeepers for these groups. So they run the show in Miranshah, and from there, their empire spreads south in the tribal areas and west into primarily three provinces of eastern Afghanistan - Khost Province, Paktia Province and Paktika Province.
GROSS: So they really control a lot of the border territory between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MAZZETTI: That's right. To the extent that there is, you know, even a border, which there really isn't, they run the show, and they're able to deforest parts of eastern Afghanistan and take the lumber and bring it back and sell it in Pakistan. They are able to steal precious gems, and again, bring them back over the border.
So it's their territory, and part of the problem is that, you know, the United States in Afghanistan, since the beginning, has tried to deploy its forces where they see they are most needed, and there have never been - there's never been a large American military contingent in eastern Afghanistan. And even with the surge over the last year and a half, most of the surge troops have gone to southern Afghanistan, where the - what's called the Pashtun Belt in the south, where the Taliban are centered.
There has not been - there's not been an increase in the American forces in the east, and that's allowed the Haqqanis, really, over the last five years, to thrive.
GROSS: So how does the front companies that they run, the smuggling that they do, the ransoms that they get from kidnapping, how does that coincide with their theology? And they are Islamist in theology. And I don't mean Islamic. I mean Islamist like extremist, Islamic-state-oriented...
MAZZETTI: That's right. It's sometimes hard to reconcile that they are - you know, they are the Sopranos or the Gambino crime family, and yet they are devout Islamists, especially the younger generation. Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was the asset of the CIA in the 1980s, is still alive; however, most people think he is more of a fringe figure now, and the sons have really taken over the operation and that the sons are even more devout than the father.
So it is sort of hard to reconcile that on the one hand, they are doing this sort of petty crime activity, and on the other hand, they run this network of madrases, schools in Pakistan, that are churning out these very devout fighters, and which makes them such a unique group in this very complicated war.
GROSS: So the father, Jalaluddin, he was one of the, you know, fighters, one of the mujahedeen, in the '80s, in Afghanistan, when Afghanistan was fighting against the Soviet invasion. The United States armed him then. He was considered to be a great ally of ours. What did Ronald Reagan have to say about him?
MAZZETTI: Well, Ronald Reagan characterized the mujahedeen as - as we know, freedom fighters and brought many of them into the White House to thank them. And this was all part of a covert CIA and ISI operation to drive the Soviets out. Charlie Wilson, the famous Texas Congressman who made the mujahedeen his cause, called Jalaluddin Haqqani goodness personified. So that is obviously a case of a very good ally, at one point, who turns to be a very, very bitter enemy years later.
GROSS: Now, when you hear American leaders, whether - you know, it's the president or people in Congress talk about Afghanistan, they talk about the Taliban, they talk about al-Qaeda. You very rarely hear them talk about the Haqqani Network. Why is that if the Haqqani Network is so important? And on the same lines, what's the Haqqani Network's relationship with the Taliban and al-Qaeda? Are they - do they share the same goals, or do they see themselves as rivals?
MAZZETTI: It's a good question. They - the Haqqanis have allied themselves with the Taliban for years. Jalaluddin Haqqani pledged his support in his alliance with Mullah Omar, who is the head of the Taliban. So they are certainly allied. And there's sort of a difference of opinion in the U.S. government about exactly just whether they can be convinced to go in a different direction, in other words whether the Haqqani Network can be broken off from the Taliban and sort of dealt with differently.
And that's really something of a matter of dispute right now. They have some goals. The United States for some time has lumped in the Haqqani Network with the Taliban in part because it's sort of easier to lump an enemy together and say that's who you're fighting. But they're to some degree separate groups because they're in separate territory.
And so as the United States tries to figure out an endgame in Afghanistan, the question is can the Haqqani Network be dealt with in a way that's different from the Taliban? Can they negotiate with the Haqqani Network while they're fighting the Taliban? That's actually under consideration.
And a year ago, the United States was trying to figure out whether to put the Haqqani Network on a list of international terrorist organizations, and the decision was no, they shouldn't do that because if you designate a whole group as terrorists, then you're basically cutting off all possibility of talking to them. You're branding them an enemy.
And so the decision in the Obama administration was let's not do that. Let's just brand individuals guys terrorist but not a whole network.
GROSS: Now Admiral Mike Mullen, this week - the retiring head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the things he said was - this was in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week. He said that he thinks that the partnership approach that he's long championed with Pakistan is going to be difficult to revive. He said, quote, I am losing people, and I'm just not going to stand for that. I've been Pakistan's best friend. What does it say when I'm at this point? What does it say about where we are?
He seems very pessimistic about the U.S. having, you know, a partnership with Pakistan in resolving the situation in that region. Do you think that his pessimism is shared by a lot of other people in the Pentagon?
MAZZETTI: I think that it is, and some in the Pentagon think that Mullen is just finally coming around to the realization of - you know, to the truth. I mean, Mullen's testimony last week was so fascinating because here's a guy who has devoted more than any other U.S. official time and energy to making this relationship work.
He's taken countless trips to Islamabad to speak with his counterpart, General Kayani, who is the head of the Pakistani military. And he said time and time again that this is a relationship that we need and that the Pakistanis can be convinced to, quote, change their behavior, that we can - you know, we the U.S. can bring them around.
So here is a guy who, at the end of his military service, was looking back on this effort, and he doesn't see much from it, and he's very angry about it. Now, the - as I said, there are many in the military, especially people who have been commanders on the ground, who have watched their soldiers die at the hands of the Haqqani Network, and they say, well, what took him so long, right.
Why has it taken so long for the U.S. to get tough on the Haqqanis? So this anger and frustration actually has been building up, especially in the ranks of the military, for some time. And now Admiral Mullen comes out and says it, and that's a real sign that the U.S. government is to some degree at the end of its rope about what to do about this.
GROSS: My impression too is that there are a lot of people in the Pentagon who are very angry at Mullen for saying this publicly and are saying that he overstated the problem with Pakistan.
MAZZETTI: It's more there is anger outside of the Pentagon in other parts of the government. Definitely you hear from intelligence officials and from State Department officials and from White House officials that they thought Mullen went further than what the intelligence suggests, specifically about the attack on the American embassy but also calling them, you know, a virtual arm of the ISI, went beyond what the U.S. really knows about the relationship between the Haqqanis and the ISI.
They at the same time say, well, Mullen's on his way out, it's easy for him to tee off on the Pakistanis. We've got to deal with them, and this is the worst thing for the relationship is the Pakistanis accused essentially of trying to blow up the American embassy in Kabul.
So Mullen's on his way out the door, but for the future, this relationship is poisoned.
GROSS: Mark Mazzetti will be back in the second half of the show. He's a national security correspondent for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. We're talking about the Afghan terrorist group the Haqqani Network that has found safe haven in Pakistan, and the increasing tension between the U.S. and Pakistan. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Haqqani Network has acted as a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence agency.
Well, you know, some people are saying that because Pakistan is becoming so alienated by the United States that Pakistan might be trying to turn to China as an ally. And an example of that you wrote about is that Pakistan showed China a Black Hawk helicopter that was downed during the raid on bin Laden's compound. And I mean, the technology within this should really be a secret and China should not have access to it, but Pakistan gave China access to it. So what's your interpretation of what it means that Pakistan may be trying to, you know, woo China as an ally?
MAZZETTI: Since the bin Laden raid, senior Pakistani officials have in not-so-subtle moves tried to tell the United States or send messages to the United States that, you know, the U.S. isn't the only game in town, that Pakistan can go elsewhere for friends. I think it was within a week of the bin Laden raid, senior Pakistani officials traveled to Beijing and called Beijing's government, the Chinese government, a, quote, "all-weather friend," as opposed to presumably the fair weather friend that the U.S. is and basically said, you know, we can develop close ties with China. We may allow the Chinese to build a naval base along the Pakistani coast. And now, of course, Pakistan and China, their relationship goes way back. However, clearly Pakistan is looking past the United States and looking for other partners and the most obvious partners for Pakistan would be Saudi Arabia and the Chinese.
Now, the question is, of course, you know, do the Chinese want to reciprocate? Do the Chinese want to bring Pakistan into the fold and have a close relationship to the extent that the U.S. has with Pakistan over the last decade? There's a lot of headaches with the relationship? And there are signs - and China experts that I talked to say, you know, don't be so certain that China wants to take on that headache. But there's no question that Pakistan is trying to, in short, look for other friends.
GROSS: Because Pakistan is a nuclear power and has such importance because it has nuclear weapons, you always wonder how safe are those weapons, who has access to them. If it's true that the intelligence service has connections with a terrorist group like the Haqqani Network, does that mean that the Haqqani Network is like really close to the nuclear weapons, that they might conceivably have access to it? Or even, you know, does the ISI have - the Intelligence Service - do they have access to the nuclear weapons? Does anybody know?
MAZZETTI: I would be skeptical that the Haqqanis would have any direct access to nuclear weapons or even a great influence over the use of the weapons. I mean the nuclear weapons of Pakistan are, they really are the crown jewels. They are what safeguard Pakistan's security, especially, again, with relationship to India. And Pakistan's military guards them closely and they, you know, they move them around because they are worried about militants gaining access to them.
Now, the United States is concerned about, you know, growing militancy within the Pakistani military and that ultimately there could be more influence by groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Networks over the sort of nuclear procedures. But I don't get a sense from people in Washington that that is an immediate concern. Certainly it is the greatest worry for the U.S., that the nuclear arms would get at the hands of militants, and it is always a point of discussion between the U.S. and Pakistan. But I don't think that it's foremost on their minds like - as if this could happen immediately.
GROSS: So anti-American sentiment seems if anything to be growing a bit in Pakistan. Why is that?
MAZZETTI: The number one conspiracy theory in Pakistan is that ultimately the Americans' goal is to take the nukes, that we have designs to ultimately take the nuclear weapons out of the hands of Pakistan's government because of concerns about, that they might fall into the hands of militants. So - so many of the conspiracies on the street in Pakistan sort of go back to that. So why is Raymond Davis running around Lahore? Why are all these CIA people running around Pakistan?
Well, ultimately they want to take the nukes. And so that is what's fueled so much of this anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, that plus to some degree the drone program. So as long as the U.S. is maintaining a presence in Pakistan, an intelligence presence and also with the drone strikes, I think you'll continue to see these conspiracy theories and you're going to continue to see a great amount of anti-American sentiment that really hamstrings the government of Pakistan from looking like it's too close to the U.S. So Islamabad's government is limited in its own way from making nice with the U.S.
GROSS: Is there anybody among your sources in the Pentagon or sources in the State Department or the White House who truly believe that if we stayed longer in Afghanistan that we could turn around the state and really make it, you know, a safer, more democratic place that would really function as a state?
MAZZETTI: No one I talked to believes some of the things that people believed 10 years ago when they were wondering what was possible, a very Democratic state, as you said, a state modeled after a Western democracy. No one thinks that's really possible. I think that, again, the best that people are hoping for is a somewhat functional government that can control its borders and from the U.S. perspective basically keep groups like al-Qaida out of its territory and prevent another safe haven like there was before 9/11. So the expectations are a lot lower.
I think there's also resignation to some degree over exactly how Pakistan operates. You know, you would hear a couple of years ago that, you know, the United States was very eager to get Pakistan to cut its ties to militants, to, quote, "change its behavior," that, you know, maybe, you know, Pakistan could be turned around in America's minds. You don't hear that anymore. You hear to some degree a much more sort of sober assessment about how, well, the U.S. is leaving so, you know, why would Pakistan change its behavior? They've got to live in this area. You know, if they're going to keep up ties to groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, well, that's their business. I just don't get a sense of optimism that as much cajoling as the United States has done and may continue to do, that it's had much effect.
GROSS: Well, Mark Mazzetti, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. And I want to wish you good luck, because I know you're about to begin a leave of absence from your position as a national correspondent for The New York Times to take a leave and write a book. So I look forward to reading the book and I wish you good luck in writing it.
MAZZETTI: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: You'll find links to Mark Mazzetti's recent New York Times articles on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.