KABUL (Reuters) - An audacious jailbreak organised by the Taliban that freed hundreds of prisoners could have a devastating effect on efforts to quell a growing insurgency and underscores the weakness of the Afghan government and its security forces.
The Taliban wasted little time in crowing about how they were able to orchestrate the mass escape from the main jail in Kandahar in Afghanistan’s south, freeing about 500 inmates on Monday under the noses of Afghan and foreign security forces.
Analysts now fear the jailbreak will help an emboldened Taliban spread their insurgency despite strenuous efforts by Afghan, U.S. and other foreign troops over more than a year to hit back at militants in their strongholds in the south.
It comes as a blow to both the Afghan government and NATO-led foreign troops who have boasted of recent security gains in Kandahar after months of heavy fighting. The Taliban have said more than 100 of its commanders were among the escapees.
“The jailbreak is likely to have real implications for the upcoming fighting season,” said Felix Kuehn, an independent researcher based in Kandahar city.
“If over a hundred Taliban commanders have managed to escape from the prison, they are likely to have a multiplying effect in and around Kandahar city, reconnecting with their home communities and mobilizing others,” he said.
The massive breach of security occurred on the eve of the summer fighting season when insurgents normally step up attacks, and with the first stage of a gradual security transition from foreign troops to Afghan forces due to begin within months.
Some officials have said it was more likely that mid-level fighters had been freed but Kuehn said, even if they were not particularly senior, it would have a “significant” effect on the Taliban’s morale.
At least 70 escapees have been apprehended since Monday’s jailbreak, according to Afghan officials, but the majority are still on the loose.
In the early hours of Monday morning, Taliban insurgents broke through the concrete floor of a cell block housing “political” prisoners, or insurgents, in Kandahar’s main prison, after tunneling hundreds of meters under the jail over a period of more than five months.
According to government officials, 488 men, most of them captured militants, escaped one-by-one through the tunnel over the next few hours while their guards slept. The escapees surfaced under a nearby house and were ferried away by waiting vehicles.
The exact details are still sketchy but accounts of the brazen jailbreak could have been taken straight from a Hollywood film script. The mass escape stunned an entire country and left the Afghan government red-faced.
“The embarrassing Kandahar prison escape shows how fragile Afghan government institutions remain a decade after the U.S.-led intervention,” former U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a message on Twitter hours after the incident.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s chief spokesman, Waheed Omer, called the jailbreak a “disaster” which exposed vulnerabilities in the Afghan government but stopped short of laying blame on his government or on the Afghan security forces who were in charge of the prison.
But Kabul’s reaction to the jailbreak exposed a sense of complacency in the government that echoed similar reactions to high-profile Taliban operations in the past, said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst.
“We had a very mild reaction from the government. There is a feeling that they are just accepting it, it’s like they are saying: ‘OK, these things exist but what can we do about it? Nothing!’,” Mir said.
“This is certainly hurting the morale of the Afghan security forces.”
Monday’s incident comes less than three years after the Taliban staged another spectacular jailbreak at the same prison when they blew open the main gate with a truck bomb and freed up to a 1,000 inmates, including hundreds of militants.
Days later, hundreds of insurgents, including many of those who escaped, massed in an outlying district and appeared to be threatening Kandahar city itself.
Some 1,000 Afghan troops had to be flown in from the north of the country, and around 100 insurgents were killed in the ensuing battle.
But this time, rather than launching any large-scale offensive as in 2008, the Taliban will most likely stick to a tried and tested method of assassinations, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Such targeted attacks are more efficient and effective for the insurgency,” he said.
Last year was the most violent since the war started in late 2001, with record casualties on all sides. The United Nations said 21 public officials were reported to have been assassinated each week across Afghanistan between mid-June and mid-September,
up from seven a week for the previous three months.
“The Taliban are smart. They will wait and defend their positions over the summer. If they can resist and continue with these kind of spectacular attacks I think they have won,” said Mir.
“This is what they need. They are not expecting to defeat a mighty military force such as NATO, resisting is a great achievement for them,” he said.
Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani