In the winter of 1989, as a journalist for the Times of London, I accompanied a group of mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. At one point, a fortified military post became visible on the other side of a valley. As we got closer, the flag flying above it also became visible — the flag of the Afghan Communist state, which the mujahedeen were fighting to overthrow.
“Isn’t that a government post?” I asked my interpreter. “Yes,” he replied. “Can’t they see us?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Shouldn’t we hide?” I squeaked. “No, no, don’t worry,” he replied reassuringly. “We have an arrangement.”
I remembered this episode three years later, when the Communist state eventually fell to the mujahedeen; six years later, as the Taliban swept across much of Afghanistan; and again this week, as the country collapses in the face of another Taliban assault. Such “arrangements” — in which opposing factions agree not to fight, or even to trade soldiers in exchange for safe passage — are critical to understanding why the Afghan army today has collapsed so quickly (and, for the most part, without violence). The same was true when the Communist state collapsed in 1992, and the practice persisted in many places as the Taliban advanced later in the 1990s.
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