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Russia hosts a delegation from Afghanistan and other countries for talks

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Taliban representatives are in Moscow meeting with officials from several governments, including Russia's. Notably, that group does not include anyone from the U.S. But the talks are a big step toward the Taliban's goal of trying to win international recognition as Afghanistan's legitimate government. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

DETROW: So let's start with two questions. What was the idea behind these talks? And in them, did any of these countries formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legit government?

MAYNES: Well, they didn't recognize the Taliban. The Russians said in advance they weren't ready for that. But it definitely was a step forward in the Taliban's quest for legitimacy. You had 10 nations - of course, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Central Asian countries - all meeting solely with the Taliban. And that's significant because these so-called Moscow format meetings have happened before. But it always involved the American-backed government in Kabul, the Taliban, some other Afghan factions. That's all done. All these countries say they now recognize the, quote, "new reality" of the Taliban's ascent to powers while stopping short, or just short, of offering official recognition. With that acknowledgement, though, comes calls for U.N. humanitarian assistance. In fact, they're saying that the U.S. and its allies who were involved in the war in Afghanistan should in particular chip in, as well as unfreezing Afghan state assets to stave off humanitarian disaster. Let's listen to a little clip from the Kremlin's point man on the talks. This is Zamir Kabulov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAMIR KABULOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Kabulov is saying that he understands not everyone likes who's come to power in Afghanistan. But in trying to punish the new authorities - in other words, the Taliban - he says, we're, in fact, punishing the entire Afghan people, something that they don't deserve.

DETROW: Listen to this, it kind of sounds like Russian officials are recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government in every way, shape or form except saying it out loud. What are they trying to do here?

MAYNES: Well, essentially, it's a balancing act, right? On the one hand, they're embracing closer contacts with the Taliban following the U.S. withdrawal. They're developing influence over what happens next. Russia's calling for an inclusive ethnic government, seeing that as key to a more stable Afghanistan. But on the other hand, Russia is even more concerned about what happens beyond Afghanistan and making sure nothing happens that could destabilize Central Asian allies, with whom Moscow shares a joint security pact. So - you know, the Kremlin doesn't want to see refugees streaming across the border into these neighboring states. It certainly doesn't want to see ISIS fighters or, you know, would-be terrorists making their way into Central Asia and up to Russia. That's a security concern here in Moscow. And fundamentally, Russia wants to avoid anything that could pull the Russian military into the region in a sustained way. They've been down that path before with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It turned into a decade-long war in the '80s. And they're certainly not looking for a repeat.

DETROW: So is this all about leverage?

MAYNES: Well, exactly. I think it's interesting to point out that Russia remains among countries that officially designates the Taliban as a terrorist organization despite all the thudding we've seen. And it does make for some really odd scenes, you know, all the more so because Russian media law requires that journalists here label the Taliban as such every turn. So it's quite something to see state media cover, say, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcoming the Taliban in one breath, and then adding, oh, by the way, they're an illegal terrorist group in the next.

DETROW: That sounds incredibly awkward. Just a little bit of time left. But why wasn't the U.S. there?

MAYNES: Well, Washington said it was due to logistical problems. The assumption here was that the resignation of the U.S.'s Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, just before the talks was the real reason.

DETROW: NPR's Charles Maynes speaking to us from Moscow. Thank you, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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