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Committee To Decide Who Speaks On Behalf Of Afghanistan At The U.N. General Assembly

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Who should speak on behalf of Afghanistan at the U.N.? That's a question now facing an obscure committee that decides on credentials. The Taliban sent a letter this week saying they want to speak to the General Assembly and that they have a new ambassador. But the ambassador who represented the previous government is claiming the seat, too, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.S. is one of nine members of the credentials committee and is signaling it might slow walk a response to the letter from the Taliban. U.N. diplomats are good at that, says Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group.

RICHARD GOWAN: The credentials committee actually blocked the Taliban from taking Afghanistan's seat from 1996 to 2001, when the group last ruled Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: But there are risks to doing that this time.

GOWAN: If the Taliban really wants to turn the screw, they can simply tell the U.N. that if they don't receive recognition, they will start to block aid flights into the country or take other steps that would potentially force a new crisis.

KELEMEN: So Gowan is expecting a delicate to and fro. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been trying to keep up a united front, telling the Taliban they won't gain international legitimacy unless they uphold basic rights and keep their counterterrorism commitments. But even some of America's closest partners are urging the West to keep channels open.

SHEIKH TAMIM BIN HAMAD AL THANI: (Non-English language spoken).

KELEMEN: The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, used his speech at the U.N. General Assembly to stress the need for ongoing dialogue with the Taliban. A boycott, he warned, would only lead to polarization. Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has been lobbying hard for international recognition of the new Taliban government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAH MAHMOOD QURESHI: Let's not shun them away, and let's not blindly trust them.

KELEMEN: He told the Council on Foreign Relations that the international community has to deal with the reality that the Taliban are back in power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QURESHI: Ostracizing Afghanistan proved to be a mistake in the 1990s, and it would be a mistake now.

KELEMEN: Pakistan and other neighboring states are worried about a brewing humanitarian crisis that could spill over into the region, so is Vicki Aken who's with an aid group called the International Rescue Committee. She's based in Kabul and has met four of the newly appointed Taliban ministers, who she says are struggling to get a handle on things.

VICKI AKEN: They weren't expecting to be there as quickly as they were is the message I keep hearing. And they were expecting some of the technical people to have stayed as well, and many of them didn't.

KELEMEN: The previous government staff has mostly disappeared, she says, and Afghanistan's reserves and donor funds are mostly frozen. The IRC's president, David Miliband, says the international community has to figure out a way to balance its interests, making sure the Taliban keep their commitments on basic rights while also ensuring that the Afghan people don't suffer more.

DAVID MILIBAND: They face the prospect that the economic rug is pulled from under them. It may have been a threadbare rug before because Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, but humanitarian aid can never fully make up for a economy that doesn't function.

KELEMEN: The U.N. secretary-general says the international community, while far from giving the Taliban legitimacy, does need to figure out some ways to give Afghanistan's economy some breathing space.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEN CLOHER'S "KAMIKAZE ORIGAMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.