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Taliban Keeps Up Diplomatic Push In Effort To Establish Legitimacy

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As the U.S. military closes down its operation in Afghanistan, Taliban militants are overrunning large parts of the country. They're reported to have seized at least one provincial capital this week, and there are increasing reports of executions and assassinations. The Taliban are not engaging in any serious way in the peace talks with the government. But at the same time, they have been on a diplomatic blitz. It's part of an effort by the militant group to gain legitimacy. Here to tell us more about why this matters, as NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So what is the goal of the Taliban in trying to gain international recognition?

NORTHAM: They're looking for legitimacy. Beyond that, the Taliban thinks establishing these diplomatic relations could be important for economic stability if they eventually control Afghanistan again. And I spoke with Rodger Baker with Stratfor Rane, which is a risk intelligence company, and he's been monitoring Afghanistan for decades. He says the Taliban would need foreign investment, trade, these types of things if they want to maintain control.

RODGER BAKER: And so you have to have that financing, that ability to succeed with the population or else you simply are not only going to see the different ethnic and sectarian militias come back up and reassert themselves in their own geographies and hometowns but you may start to see the fragmentation of the Taliban itself.

NORTHAM: So, Sarah, the Taliban would need international recognition in large part to help it stay in power.

MCCAMMON: And which countries are Taliban leaders focusing on in terms of these diplomatic efforts?

NORTHAM: Some of its regional neighbors, Turkmenistan, Iran, which has taken in a lot of Afghan refugees over the years, Pakistan. But it's long supported the Taliban. In fact, it was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban while they were in power in the '90s. But in the past few months, the Taliban have also held talks with Russia. And most recently, there were high-level, well-publicized meetings with China's foreign minister.

MCCAMMON: The Taliban were, of course, known for terrible human rights abuses when they were in power before in Afghanistan, things like carrying out public executions in the Kabul stadium. Is there any evidence that that's changing?

NORTHAM: No, not at all. In fact, some Afghans feel that, if anything, the Taliban are worse now, more brutal and brazen than they were before.

MCCAMMON: So why - Jackie, why would these countries want to establish diplomatic contact? Doesn't that risk legitimizing a ruthless militant group?

NORTHAM: Some would point out that the Taliban have already been legitimized because they've had peace talks with the U.S., you know? But for these neighboring countries, they're hedging their bets. You know, the huge, overwhelming concern is security. Take China, for example. It doesn't want Afghanistan to be a safe haven for extremists who could target its interests. There's economic and investment considerations for China as well. Now, does this mean the Chinese trust the Taliban? No, but it is in their interest to work with them.

MCCAMMON: Many nations, of course, view the Taliban as absolutely brutal. And in the past, the international community was not willing to provide the legitimacy that they craved. But, Jackie, where do things stand now in that regard? I mean, how much has Afghanistan changed in the past 20 years? And how would the Taliban be able to navigate those big changes in this country that it clearly wants to rule?

NORTHAM: Well, you're right. Afghanistan has changed a lot over the past two decades. There have been strides in education for girls. The media landscape has thrived. You know, the country is connected to the world in a way it never was before. I regularly went there on assignment. In Kabul and other cities were internet cafes, young people on cellphones, music. None of that existed under the Taliban.

And I spoke with Laurel Miller with the International Crisis Group, and she says the Taliban acknowledge the changes in the country.

LAUREL MILLER: But, you know, having awareness of it and governing if they do come to govern in a way that really respects and embraces those changes is another matter. And as they have not spelled out any political vision for Afghanistan yet, it's very hard to say whether or not they will modify their governing practices in a way that accepts these changes.

NORTHAM: And, you know, Sarah, we're already hearing plenty of reports about human rights abuses during this military push by the Taliban. And senior U.S. officials are warning that a military takeover and a return of their Islamic Emirate would leave the Taliban isolated and an international pariah.

MCCAMMON: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY KEANE'S "AFRO CELLO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.