28 August 2021. Moscow Komsomolets
Written by Andrey Yashlavskiy
Translated by Elizaveta Ovchinnikova
Yury Zhdanov assessed terrorists’ potential and threat on Afghan soil
The situation in Afghanistan is heating up day by day. President of the International Police Association Russian Section (IPA RS), Lieutenant General, Doctor of Law, Professor, Honoured Lawyer of the Russian Federation Yury Zhdanov told what Russia and the world community should prepare for after the Taliban (a terrorist organisation banned in the Russian Federation) came to power in Afghanistan.
– The terrorist attack near the Kabul airport on 26 August claimed more than two hundred lives – Afghan civilians, Talibs and American soldiers. What consequences will this atrocity have for the situation in Afghanistan?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Americans lost 13 soldiers as a result of this attack. This is their biggest loss in one day during the many years of the war in Afghanistan. And this loss has a catastrophic significance for the United States. Now it is clear that the US-Taliban agreement signed in 2020 that the latter will ensure terrorism and drug fight does not work. The outgoing American troops were shot in the back. It is not necessary to mention that the Taliban is controlling the country, controlling security in Afghanistan.
I think those people who got into the Taliban government were trained in the infamous US Guantanamo Bay prison. In particular, the Taliban Defence Minister was a detainee of this prison. Then he was recruited, released, fought in wars and now he is heading the ministry. Nevertheless, US agents of influence do not allow ensuring security in Afghanistan. The Taliban is not united; there are unruly field commanders, as well as other powerful terrorist groups.
– Amid the bloody terrorist attack at the airport organised by the ISIL adherents (a terrorist organisation banned in the Russian Federation), the Taliban creates the impression of almost a relatively moderate force. Does the Taliban have the potential to move from the category of notorious extremists to the mainstream, more civilised, moderate one?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: We are all extremely interested in this. Both Russian Special Presidential Representative for Afghanistan, former Ambassador Zamir Kabulov and the Acting Ambassador to Afghanistan are conducting relevant negotiations. European countries, China and Pakistan should be involved in these efforts.
Answering your question, I will say that we have very high expectations for such a transformation. But this is constant, difficult work – not just for Russia but for a number of countries (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan), all those who are somehow involved in these contradictions. Everyone should take part in establishing peace in Afghanistan and in creating a sane, manageable regime that works according to civilised norms that are understandable to the whole world.
– The question is whether the Taliban wants to live according to such principles prescribed by external forces.
Mr Yury Zhdanov: It seems to me the entire period of the Americans’ stay in Afghanistan was part of a special operation, so they should be controlled. But it turns out that not everything is as smooth as we would like it to be. And of course, everyone is extremely nervous about the way the Taliban will go: whether they will be able to control everything that happens in the country, whether they will be able to take control of drug trafficking (Taliban representatives often talk about this but, in my opinion, this is the only business in Afghanistan and this is quite difficult to stop it). There are too many contradictions. I believe under the influence and pressure of external forces, we can try to restore order. And I hope the current Taliban leadership understands that it is not so difficult to demolish them in principle. What happened to the Afghan government army – this is 200 thousand ‘bayonets’ trained by Americans – for absolutely no reason folded to 50 thousand poorly organised and poorly armed Taliban fighters. Everything has happened behind the scenes – collusion, elements of betrayal. In general, I think this is the US scenario but I am not sure that Americans are happy that a huge space will turn into a terrorist camp that will spread around the world.
– If the current situation in Afghanistan is the result of an American project, then what is the purpose of such a scenario?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: To harm, create huge problems, first of all, for China and Russia. And to control the drug flow – I suppose the CIA plays a huge role in promoting drugs to neighboring countries with Afghanistan. Such a hybrid war, which has multi-way indicators, aimed at destabilising the situation in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and neighboring states, can provoke severe pain in the neck and delay forces and means from Russia and China.
– But given recent events – the hasty withdrawal of American troops, chaotic evacuation and, in the end, the death of more than ten US servicemen – the United States administration appears in the eyes of the world and its citizens in a particularly unfavourable light. This whole story hits America and President Biden personally.
Mr Yury Zhdanov: I completely agree with you – unless you consider it a manoeuvre. Yes, now they will rant, repent, say ‘Sorry, we’ve failed here.’ But if their goal was to turn Afghanistan into Syria, Yemen or Iraq, then by losing the battle, they win the war. How do Taliban ultimatums, demanding that the Americans have left by a particular date, fit in with the fact that the state has been handed over to them. From the outside, it looks like a failed performance in the theatre of the absurd. In fact, it is all a game. And I think that despite all these sacrifices, this is a dirty hoax for subsequent strategic goals.
– The Taliban, which is taking over Afghanistan, is not some kind of monolith but a fragmented movement that unites both relatively moderate forces and real thugs.
Mr Yury Zhdanov: You are absolutely right. The spread of forces there is colossal. Nevertheless, as far as I understand, most of the supporters have sworn loyalty to the new leaders of this movement, many of whom ‘undertook internships’ at Guantanamo. Their detention and then their return to service reinforce the Americans’ hopes on the fact that they will manage the regime in a way that would be beneficial to the United States. But the heterogeneity of the Taliban, where some field commanders do not obey the new leadership, creates anxiety for all of us, as well as for the same Americans, that restoring order will be delayed for many years.
– Will the Taliban, who are making numerous promises, stop being terrorists after the final seizure of Afghanistan?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: There is no need to wait for miracles – wolves will remain wolves, no matter what skin they wear, whether it a sheep, or a rabbit one. And this is primarily what the Americans are talking about. Thus, the report of the US Congressional Research Service ‘Terrorist Groups in Afghanistan’ of 17 August 2021 describes the main terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan that are associated with al-Qaeda (a terrorist organisation banned in the Russian Federation) and the Islamic State (a terrorist organisation banned in the Russian Federation). First of all, the Taliban is associated with them. Interestingly, it is not officially included in the list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs) of the United States.
In the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020, the Taliban pledged to undertake some counter-terrorism efforts in exchange for the complete withdrawal of foreign armed forces, which should be completed in August 2021. At the same time, President Joseph Biden and other US officials said that the United States will retain the potential to counter terrorist threats in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of their troops. And what do we see? The US army has left and terrorism in Afghanistan continues unabated. Moreover, there are no ‘counter-terrorist’ actions from the Taliban side. On the contrary, all neighboring countries have prepared for defence against bandits.
– The United States, as you know, fought against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. How is the Taliban connected with this group?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Indeed, the al-Qaeda ‘core’ has been the main US target in Afghanistan since 2001. They include al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (who is reportedly now ill) and his deputies constituting an advisory council of about ten people. In September 2019, the White House announced that US troops had killed Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden and the group’s rising leader in Afghanistan and Pakistan. US officials claimed that US military raids and airstrikes on al-Qaeda targets, including a large training camp discovered in Kandahar province in 2015, reduced the group’s presence in Afghanistan. The US-Taliban agreement obliges the Taliban to prevent any group, including al-Qaeda, from using Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States or its allies. But at the same time, the Taliban suddenly has created such a threat to Americans themselves. And successfully actualised it.
Let me remind you that the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda go back to the 1990s, when the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan and provided al-Qaeda with a safe haven when planning the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and other terrorist attacks. These ties were strengthened by their joint struggle against international forces in Afghanistan, as well as mixed marriages and other personal relations between members of these two groups. Do you really think that the CIA did not know about this? And what conclusions did American analysts draw?
In a report for April 2021, UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team assessed that al-Qaeda and the Taliban ‘remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.’ It is reported that in February 2021, the Taliban issued orders banning its members from providing shelter to foreign militants. Those were all their points that could have led to breaking relations with al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda supporters celebrated the Taliban takeover of power, and the Taliban reportedly released detainees, including members of al-Qaeda.
It is worth recalling that the Taliban includes the so-called ‘Haqqani Network.’ It is the official semi-autonomous component of the Afghan Taliban and an ally of al-Qaeda. The movement was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a leading anti-Soviet Islamist officer who became a prominent figure of the Taliban. And the current leader of the group is Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has been the deputy leader of the Taliban since 2015. The appointment of Sirajuddin as the head of the network has probably strengthened cooperation between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. UN observers describe the Haqqani network as the ‘main link’ between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Today, it is very difficult to say that the Taliban disowns al-Qaeda and wanted does not care at all about their previous long-term relations. And there is hardly an answer to this painful question today.
I think there will be a tug-of-war – each of these structures will try to influence each other and try to lure certain members to their ranks, especially those who have administrative power within these groups.
It is necessary to remember about it all the time and do everything to avoid final splicing and al-Qaeda pressure on the Taliban leadership (it can manifest itself in different ways, through the elimination of unwanted actors, using psychological pressure etc.).
- In addition to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by the explosions on 26 August at the Kabul airport, the local branch of ISIL also plays an active role.
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Yes, it does. The ‘Islamic State’ announced the creation of its branch in Afghanistan back in January 2015 – IS-Khorasan – perhaps one of the most ‘successful’ IS subsidiaries. The movement was defeated in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2019 by the US and Afghan forces. And in the north of Afghanistan, the militants of this group were defeated in 2018. However, according to UN observers, this group now has about 2,000 fighters, mainly in the east, but there are also in northern Afghanistan.
With its terrorist attack at the Kabul airport, the group demonstrated that it is acting, that it is combat-ready. And its suicide bombers can continue to terrorise the state. Even after the final withdrawal of the Americans and their allies from Afghanistan, the explosions may continue. They will fight for power and, probably, it is almost impossible to negotiate with them. This war can be endless. And I am waiting for new sad ‘surprises’ from this force, which will attract to its ranks those who are now hesitating. They will make every effort to show that there will be no peaceful life here, using the support of their adherents from abroad.
– There are considerable disagreements between diverse extremist groups operating in Afghanistan...
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Of course, as within any pack of predators. The forces of the IS-Khorasan and the Taliban fought for control over the territory or because of political and other differences. After coming to power, the Taliban reportedly even executed a jailed former IS leader. Some suggest that the hardliners of the Taliban may switch to the side of the IS if the leaders of the movement compromise themselves on certain issues when they begin to rule Afghanistan.
– Can Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorist forces under the Taliban? Will the Taliban continue to collaborate more or less openly with groups like al-Qaeda? Or will it fulfill the obligations assumed under the Doha Agreement to end such relations?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: I think there will be both. Of course, some relations with radical extremist movements will remain somewhere in the shadows. It is unlikely that it will be profitable for the Taliban to highlight these relations and talk about them openly. But I do not exclude that behind the scenes they can unite the terrorist world.
– The recent events in Afghanistan have a very powerful propaganda effect. On the one hand, the Taliban fighters portray themselves as the winners over the American superpower. On the other hand, the ISIL militants reminded the world that this network, which suffered serious defeats in Syria and Iraq, still exists and conducts hard attacks against its enemies. The extremists were able to take advantage of these events by 200% in their propaganda.
Mr Yury Zhdanov: You are absolutely right. They will certainly take advantage of this. I will add that it is extremely difficult to fight suicide terrorism. Probably, Israel has the greatest experience and results, but in Afghanistan there are no forces, no means, no experience, no normal police, no sufficient number of metal detectors, no security service (it is almost destroyed). So the terrorists will continue their attacks, showing the whole world and the fleeing Americans (although I am sure that this fleeing is a scenario to arrange more evil for other countries). And of course, they will score points. And it is pointless to fight them with planes and helicopters. My forecast: unfortunately, we will hear about terrorist attacks more than once.
– Fortunately, Russia does not have a border with Afghanistan. However, countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan border with it. What does the new military and political situation on the Afghan soil mean for the Central Asian republics?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: Yes, we are on the home front and these countries are on the front line. But we have CSTO agreements in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter on the right of states to collective self-defence. We are ready to protect our partners, God forbid, of course, to get involved in this conflict. However, the Central Asian countries will have a much harder time than us. Because gangs will pass through their territories, which will increase the flow of drug trafficking, arrange a restless life. And it seems to me that Americans have a plan to get Russia through these countries, to drag us into financing a hybrid war.
– You mentioned the problem of narcotic trafficking. The Taliban declares the fight against drugs. At the same time a solid part of the Taliban’s income is made up of money received from income from opium poppies. What will happen to narcotic production under the Taliban?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: It will continue and escalate. Simply from an economic point of view, even if we remove the political and criminal aspects: people need to live. In order to replace the drug business with something, it is necessary to open production facilities and provide employment for the population. And here is traditionally easy money that will enrich the ruling elite and the clans associated with it. They will defiantly burn part of the poppy field and continue to make money on the rest. There are no miracles here. The biggest problem is that Americans have not done anything here for 20 years to teach Afghanistan to live and work peacefully. Maybe was not their goal? Because with the American power and opportunities to put the country on a peaceful track and create a middle class holding on to the values we understand, it did not work out. God willing there are real economists at the top of the Taliban and not only specialists in the destruction of people or poppy fields.
– What is the real military threat now posed by the new Afghan leaders? What are the Taliban’s forces, what do they have?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: The Taliban is not only better armed than some NATO armies but it is also capable of arming friendly terrorist organisations. Most of the seized weapons made in the United States, as well as modern military equipment made in Germany are now in the hands of the Taliban.
During their offensive in August 2021, the Taliban militants seized a million small arms and billions of bullets. 99% of the combat vehicles of the Afghan army have passed into the hands of the Taliban. In addition, more than 600 M1117 armoured personnel carriers and about 8.5 thousand military Hummer SUVs were in their possession. In addition, the Taliban has 150 high-tech MaxxPro armoured vehicles, 100 thousand modernised SUVs of the Afghan police such as Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger. From the Soviet reserves – about one thousand infantry fighting vehicles, tanks and armoured cars.
The Taliban also has aviation. These are 68 MD 500 ‘Defender’ light attack helicopters, 19 Brazilian A-29 attack aircraft and up to 16 legendary Black Hawk helicopters. Four C-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft and more than 100 Russian and Soviet Mi-17 and Mi-24 transport and attack helicopters.
A serious threat is posed by several high-tech ScanEagle drones of the American company ‘Boeing.’ And they will find for sure who will manage all this stuff...
– Afghanistan has been in a state of almost nonstop war for four decades. Do you think there will finally be peace in Afghanistan? Is it possible – even if under the harsh Taliban regime, perhaps somewhat adjusted in the direction of moderation, to establish at least the appearance of peace and harmony in the suffering country? Can such a miracle happen?
Mr Yury Zhdanov: It can! I am an optimist – and I understand how this can be achieved.
First, we need the desire of the local population and the ruling elite. And secondly, we need serious external investments from neighboring countries (first of all, China and Pakistan). We need to create new production facilities and workplaces. There will be nothing without an active influence on the development of Afghanistan.
During these four decades, people only knew how to shoot, and little was created or done for the development of the country. Probably, we should take a closer look at the available minerals, at the creation of a processing industry, about the creation of metallurgical enterprises. It is unlikely that Afghans are able to do it by themselves. But these efforts are necessary and they will take more than a year or two. Can you imagine how much there is to create, return, rebuild, educate?