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SATURDAY PUZZLE — Wow! The top half of this grid is a tough nut to crack, which makes the “belt” at 32-Across exceptionally wry. Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic collaborated on another hard Saturday puzzle back in June; these are great puzzles for aficionados, because they pose challenge after challenge, but even if you feel trepidation about Saturdays you will find that a little risk-taking will push you over the top, a very satisfying feeling.

Tricky Clues

I was at an impasse in the northeast corner of this puzzle — I don’t know who the soccer player “____ Howard” is, or who founded “Artists Against Fracking,” or 10-, 11- and 12-Down. All were blanks, as well as the offbeat entries at 25- and 28-Across, so I had one little bit of fill, PTAS, going through a fairly large sea of blank boxes, and was otherwise intimidated. My impulse for “Cans” was a reference to firing/axing/“letting someone go,” and couldn’t find anything that fit; my impulse for “Salon stock” was “rinses.” The one mental step that got me going was thinking that the entry for “Cans” might well be plural, which would put a double SS in the “Salon stock” entry: MOUSSE. That shot in the dark gave me ONO and reminded me of the PRU, which led to TOP THAT.

13A: Everyone knows about that infamous 1783 British play that so grievously offended the tailor community that it rioted, right? The tailors were so irate that the Dragoons were summoned, and swept through the crowd with the intensity of balls mowing down pins in skittles. That’s how “Devil AMONG the Tailors” got its name, a miniature game of skittles played on the bar.

28A: This entry drove me to distraction more than any of the other quirks in this grid. I was so happy to figure out MENU PAGE, a location on any app or website where a prominent “Home” button should appear (in my opinion, it would be nice to be able to “go home” from anywhere on a given site, something that we seem to be moving away from in some updates. I still miss the physical button on the phone, though).

Your Thursday Briefing

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A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?

Since international troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan in May, the Taliban have carried out a sweeping military campaign that has intensified over the past week. The Taliban have overrun nine provincial capitals across the country, most of them clustered in the north.

The victories have stoked fears that the Taliban could take the capital, Kabul. While the administration of President Ashraf Ghani has refused to acknowledge the falling capitals, the acting finance minister has fled the country.

The U.S. military has conducted airstrikes but mostly refrained from getting further involved, making clear that its 20-year involvement in the country was over. President Biden said on Tuesday that Afghan leaders have “got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”

Context: After the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, they faced fierce resistance from militia groups in the north known as the Northern Alliance. Even when Taliban fighters took Kabul in 1996, the alliance deprived them of a complete takeover. Now, experts say if the group takes the north, they could take the whole country.

Your Friday Briefing

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How has your sense of Afghanistan’s future changed over the year?

I was in Afghanistan early in 2003, and in those days, there was virtually no insurgency. There was this very heady optimism about where the country was headed — gender equality, rights for girls and women, people being able to participate in an open and representative political process.

Over the years we adjusted our expectations, and over time we came to expect that, well, that was all a pipe dream, but at least what we can hope for is a compromised sort of democracy, with corruption and all sorts of issues. There’s been a lot of progress in the last 20 years in Afghanistan, and that gave me hope. And of course, over the last couple of years, those hopes have declined. And in the last few days, they have been utterly crushed.

What should people be reading to better understand Afghanistan and Afghan people right now?

They should be reading history books. They should be reading people who really know Afghanistan and know it well. A lot of people have relied on my books to kind of get a view into what Afghanistan is, and that’s fine, but I have never intended for my books to be representative of what Afghan life is. I hope people dig much deeper than that and read history books and learn more about Afghanistan in that way.

But there has been an uptick in demand for your books. Is there anything you want people to know who are picking up one of them for the first time?

These are stories. This is the perspective of someone who has lived in exile, essentially since 1980. I’ve always been very careful about making sure that people don’t mistake me for some kind of Afghan ambassador or Afghan representative. I haven’t lived there in a long time.

But I do have a perspective, and I have a deep affection and a deep emotional connection with the people there, with the land, with the culture, with the history and the heritage. I hope my books provide a little bit of insight on what Afghanistan is, beyond the usual story lines.