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Pakistan Warns A Power Vacuum In Afghanistan Would Be Catastrophic

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's hard to talk about the evolving situation in Afghanistan without mentioning Pakistan. Pakistan's neighbor has long been associated with the Taliban, which, as of August 15, more or less controls Afghanistan after two decades of war against the U.S. and the U.S.-backed government there. NPR's Jackie Northam is in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and joins us on the line. Good morning Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Jackie, how is this playing out in Islamabad?

NORTHAM: Well, obviously, it is right next door to Afghanistan, so there is concern about what's happening. Prime Minister Imran Khan has said there needs to be peace in Afghanistan and that there should be an inclusive government there to help get that peace and that, you know, a power vacuum would be catastrophic. He said that big powers, you know, the U.S., other nations, should play a role and try to work something out. You know, it's important to remember the last time the Taliban ran Afghanistan that Pakistan was just one of three countries that recognized the government. So far now, it is one of a handful of countries that have left its embassy open in Kabul. But it's not formally recognized the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. And, Leila, you know, the other fear here especially after yesterday's attack is that, you know, ISIS-K is a splinter group of the Pakistan Taliban, which is different than the Afghanistan Taliban. And so there's concerns that, you know, there are still ties with that group and it could spill over here into Pakistan.

FADEL: So let's talk about that, ISIS-K, a splinter group of Pakistan's Taliban. What are Pakistan's biggest worries then here?

NORTHAM: Well, the worry - just to back up, many people here in Pakistan believe that after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan that they would eliminate ISIS-K in no time. But that's obviously not the case, as yesterday's attacks show. You know, ISIS-K is not large, but it does have sympathizers here in Pakistan. As I said, it's an offshoot of the Pakistan Taliban. And, again, you know, Pakistan fears that this sort of attack that we saw yesterday in Afghanistan could happen here. And also it could embolden other militant groups that aren't attached to the Taliban to stage attacks here in Pakistan.

FADEL: Let's pivot for a moment to asylum-seekers, many trying to get into neighboring Pakistan. What's the situation at the border crossings?

NORTHAM: Well, we can't get out there. I can't get out there. For security reasons, they won't allow us, but social media is showing thousands of people at one of the two main border crossings with Afghanistan. At the moment, the Pakistanis are not letting people in unless they have Pakistani passports. The - you know, the plan is to keep Afghans on the other side of the border. And, I mean, one of the reasons, you know, if you remember that Pakistan hosted millions of Afghans for decades after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, you know, and the decades of war that followed, and they do not want that again. Primarily, one of the big things is the economy's so bad here, and it could hurt the economy further. The other thing is that the Pakistani authorities are asking hotels here in Islamabad, the capital, to stop taking new reservations for the next three weeks. And that's in order to make room for foreigners who are passing through Pakistan after being evacuated from Afghanistan.

FADEL: Now, you mention that Pakistan really feared this kind of humanitarian and security crisis. How are Pakistani officials responding?

NORTHAM: Well, they've certainly talked about the crisis here. And, as I said, you know, Pakistan is not capable of handling a potential flux of refugees. The economy is very bad here. More than 20 million Pakistanis lost their jobs, and 55,000 small businesses shut down in the past year because of COVID. And they just can't take on any more at this point.

FADEL: NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam in Islamabad, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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