ISW In Brief: Jailbreak Threatens Gains in Kandahar

ISW in Brief: Jailbreak Threatens Gains in Kandahar

by Paraag Shukla

April 28, 2011

In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, 25 April, nearly 500 imprisoned insurgents escaped from Kandahar’s central prison through a 1,200 foot tunnel dug by the Taliban. According to Taliban spokesman Zabhiullah Mujahid, the tunnel took five months to complete and successfully bypassed the prison’s surface guard towers, concrete barriers, and checkpoints. The daring jailbreak, not detected until hours afterward, is a major setback for coalition efforts in Kandahar Province. The escape of hundreds of Taliban fighters will likely contribute to a swell of violence in and around Kandahar City, and further undermine the credibility of Afghan forces as the government prepares to begin transitioning select areas to Afghan control in the summer.

Construction of the escape tunnel began from a house northeast of the prison, only a mile from Afghan police headquarters, and stretched underground to the cell block that housed political prisoners. Three inmates, who were previously informed of the plan, rallied the prisoners and led them through the passage. Once outside, the escapees were driven by the Taliban to secure locations. The entire escape took just over four hours. In the morning, U.S. forces established blocking positions across the district and Afghan forces launched operations to scour the areas around the prison. Afghan officials reported on Tuesday that 65 escapees had been recaptured and two were killed.

Sarpoza Prison, which houses 1,200 prisoners, has been the site of insurgent escapes and violence before. In June 2008, the Taliban detonated an explosives-laden tanker at the main gate and dozens of fighters streamed inside, killing guards and releasing prisoners. Approximately 1,100 prisoners, including an estimated 400 Taliban inmates, managed to escape during the attack. The jailbreak was an opening move in a larger operation, as two days later the Taliban launched an aggressive incursion into Arghandab district. Canadian forces, responsible for security at the time, spent $4 million to bolster the prison’s facilities and train its personnel. In March 2010, the Taliban conducted an attack next to the prison but were repelled by security forces. Sarpoza is now guarded and administered solely by Afghans. By tunneling underground, the Taliban were able to circumvent the prison’s security, highlighting the Afghans’ inability to conduct routine security functions.

It remains unclear how the Taliban was able to measure the tunnel to end precisely in the political cell block or how hundreds of Sarpoza prisoners were able to rally in such a quiet and efficient manner. The Taliban have publicly credited “informants” inside the prison with assisting the jailbreak and Kandahar Mayor Haidar Hamidi stated that such an operation would have been impossible without inside help, stating that “corrupt police inside the prison…likely helped the prisoners to escape.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s office confirmed indications of “cooperation and facilitation from inside the prison,” and Sarpoza governor General Ghulam Dastgir and his deputy were questioned and arrested on Wednesday. The likelihood of collusion by guards in this escape, as well as the attack last week on the Ministry of Defense by an insurgent wearing an Afghan army uniform, highlights the insurgents’ continued ability to infiltrate or co-opt Afghan security personnel.

The heightened physical presence of U.S. forces and major combat operations across Kandahar last year forced the Taliban to curb their kinetic operations and emplacement of improvised explosive devices in favor of an intimidation and assassination strategy. Recent reports indicate the Taliban were also having difficulty replacing mid-level commanders. Their successful escape will allow hundreds of experienced fighters, shadow governors, and bomb makers to return to insurgent ranks just as this year’s fighting season begins in earnest.

Both coalition forces and the Taliban will attempt to seize the initiative with the onset of summer. The Taliban will attempt to capitalize on this significant morale boost by reestablishing a foothold in Arghandab River Valley and the surrounding areas. The missteps by Afghan security forces are also likely to damage their credibility in the eyes of the population and increase the challenges facing the coalition elsewhere in the country as it prepares to begin handing over security responsibilities in July.