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Afghanistan's Neighboring Countries Try To Predict The Future Of Relations

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

As Afghans adjust to a new reality under the Taliban, Afghanistan's neighbors are doing the same. The country's allies and foes alike are all trying to figure out what the new diplomatic reality will be there. To help us unpack that, we're joined now by NPR's Lauren Frayer, who's based in Mumbai, India. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.

DAVIS: Let's start with the humanitarian situation. Are Afghanistan's neighbors seeing any influx of refugees at their borders?

FRAYER: Well, Pakistan and Iran, which both border Afghanistan, are the countries that have absorbed the most Afghan refugees over the years. And both actually reinforced their borders this week, so made it more difficult to cross those borders. Both have also been accused in the past of mistreating Afghan refugees, in some cases even sending them back. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, other Central Asian countries have all seen Afghans trying to get in. Many of them are former Afghan soldiers. Turkey, while not bordering Afghanistan directly, has also been a big destination for Afghan refugees. And Turkey's been building a border wall with Iran to block the land route that Afghans use.

So - but all of these countries are accepting thousands of Afghans by air. And, actually, the U.S. is working with them. So today, the Pentagon announced it's activating the civil reserve air fleet. So this is - this allows the U.S. Defense Department to have access to commercial aircraft from United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, a few others. And the U.S. military will operate military flights in and out of Kabul to other countries. And then U.S. commercial flights will then help carry those evacuees onward from regional airports.

DAVIS: What about diplomacy? Are countries just switching in the course of the past week, really, from dealing with the previous Afghan government to dealing with the Taliban?

FRAYER: Yeah. It's a big change. Pakistan has long been accused of arming, training, funding the Taliban, so those communications are already well-established. And there have actually been some celebrations in Pakistan this week. Russia's ambassador said he's pleased with the Taliban's conduct so far. The Kremlin also has spent years developing contacts with the Taliban.

I mean, even India, very close with the government of the former president, Ashraf Ghani, is believed to have established back channels of communication to the Taliban many months ago, though officials will not confirm that. Interesting report in the Indian media this week was that as the Taliban entered Kabul, they reportedly got in touch with India and asked India to keep its embassy in Kabul open, promised to keep diplomats safe. And India weighed that request, but then at the same time got intelligence that Pakistan-based militants had also entered Kabul with the Taliban. And that's basically India's worst fear. These are militants who've attacked India before. And so India closed its embassy very quickly and evacuated its diplomats. But it's interesting because it shows sort of the Taliban's calculus. Like, they want other countries, not just Pakistan and China, to keep diplomats on the ground, that that might lend legitimacy to the incoming Taliban regime, however it looks.

DAVIS: What other countries have kept their embassies open so far?

FRAYER: So China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, among others. And that's an early indication of the countries willing to do business with the Taliban and potentially an indication of those who could fill this massive vacuum left by the United States.

I spoke with Nirupama Rao. She is a former foreign secretary of India. She was also ambassador to the U.S. and to China. And she says China sees Afghanistan as potentially part of its Belt and Road project, this giant global network of Chinese infrastructure.

NIRUPAMA RAO: They want to build that great wall of steel, to use Xi Jinping's words, exploiting Afghanistan's very rich natural resources and bringing Afghanistan into this whole network of connectivity. And they are not going to be talking about human rights while they are doing this.

FRAYER: So she says China, for example, could look the other way on women's rights. But China's also worried about security. It doesn't want Afghanistan to become a base for militants. And that's a fear shared by many countries, including India, where I am.

DAVIS: In the few seconds we have left, India - it is the world's biggest democracy. Afghanistan is in the region. How - what is the view from India on the fall of Afghanistan?

FRAYER: India's worried. I mean, a Taliban takeover means there's one less democracy in the region, to the extent that the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan after Ashraf Ghani's government was a democracy - a fledgling one. But it did not hold. And a U.S. failure in Afghanistan is being seen as a failure of democracy in the region. And so that's very worrying for other democracies like India.

DAVIS: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thanks, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.