Taliban: A law unto themselves

The West likes to think of the Taliban as brainwashed fanatics, but their wit and guile in combat – and beyond – is not to be dismissed. And an audacious prison break has proved this beyond doubt, argues Patrick Cockburn

It was one of history's greatest prison escapes in terms of the ingenuity and perseverance of those involved. It happened at 10pm on 25 April this year in southern Afghanistan. After five months of tunnelling, Taliban diggers finally broke through the concrete floor of a cell in the centre of Sarposa prison on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar. Behind them snaked a tunnel 3ft high and almost 1,200ft long, which led under the prison walls to a house on the far side of a main road. During the next five hours, 541 prisoners, one of them with a broken leg, crawled to freedom. Only when the guards tried to hold their regular roll call in the prison yard later in the morning did they discover the empty cells from which had vanished some of the most dangerous prisoners in the world.

The story of the escape is not only exciting in itself; it shows Taliban members – usually portrayed as brainwashed fanatics – as imaginative, disciplined and resourceful. This is what makes them such formidable adversaries of the American, British and Afghan armies, despite their inferiority in numbers, training and weapons. The Kandahar prison break illustrates an ability to foresee difficulties and find intelligent ways of overcoming them.

The escape is also one of the few complicated operations carried out by the Taliban where a full account is available from their side and can be largely confirmed by American and Afghan government sources. Some of these details emerged immediately after the escape, as Taliban spokesmen crowed about their success and Afghan government and American officials produced their own embarrassed explanations about what had gone wrong. But the whole story of the escape from the Kandahar prison only emerged several months later when the Taliban allowed the details of the escape to be published in its Arabic-language magazine Al-Somood. Two articles were printed, one of which appears to be the Taliban's lengthy official account of the escape, supplemented by a second shorter piece, published under the name of "Muhammad Idris", a young Taliban fighter who was in Sarposa prison awaiting trial and was one of the first people into the tunnel. The two articles were translated and put online by the prestigious Afghanistan Analysts website. They are circumspect about a few episodes, such as the possible complicity of the prison guards. But their account is otherwise convincing.

The prison from which the mass escape took place is in the Sarposa district of Kandahar, close to the road that links Kandahar to the western city of Herat. It is the largest detention centre in southern Afghanistan. The prison was used to hold insurgents captured from the heartland of the Taliban rebellion. It had been substantially reconstructed, relying on American and Canadian advice for building a secure prison, to prevent attacks from outside or escape from within, both of which had happened over the last decade. In 2003, 45 Taliban escaped down a tunnel dug from the inside and in 2008 suicide bombers blew up the prison gates and 900 prisoners fled.

These failures prompted a full-scale reconstruction designed to make escaping impossible. More watchtowers were built and surveillance cameras installed; there were high new walls extended underground to prevent tunnels and the prison was surrounded by a deep trench. Many of the Taliban accepted that the prison was now escape-proof. But one unnamed member of the movement, according to the Taliban-inspired account, was not so sure. He is said, somewhat mysteriously, to have "by his connections gained full knowledge of the inside and outside of the prison" and to have become convinced that it might "be possible to dig a tunnel from the inside of a house on the other side of the street to the prison as a means of releasing the prisoners".

At first, he was nervous to tell anybody about his idea. But, finally, he shared it with two other Taliban fighters with whom he was riding a motorcycle. Initially sceptical, these men told the local Taliban high command in Kandahar, which then sanctioned the scheme.

At the end of 2010 a small group of trusted Taliban Mujahideen rented a house south-west of the prison compound. They brought in workers to make concrete blocks to sell so the house appeared to be home to one of Afghanistan's many small construction companies earning money from the building boom. Workers were busy making concrete blocks in the yard during the day to give cover for the activity in the house – there was a watchtower nearby. When these workers – who did not know about the escape plan – left in the early evening, the real work of the construction company began, which was digging a tunnel towards the prison, with a room inside the house serving as the starting point.

At first there were just four Mujahideen who were in on the secret and involved in the digging, one of them working at the head of the tunnel with a pick-axe while the three others removed the soil. The tunnel was too narrow for a wheelbarrow to be used, so they went to the market and bought children's tricycles that they converted into small wheelbarrows by removing the seat and handlebars, replacing them with a container for the excavated soil. Filled with earth, these were dragged back with a rope to the mouth of the tunnel. Getting rid of the soil was easier than might be supposed because loose earth has a value in Kandahar, so it was taken by truck to sell in the local market.

For two months, the four men worked at the tunnel. The number was then doubled to eight men who dug another 12ft every night. Inevitably, after 300ft they began to suffer from lack of oxygen. After another 150ft the stale air made work impossible. The diggers tried a ventilation fan but they had headaches, until they built a battery-operated pumping machine that delivered air silently through a pipe. They worried that the road they were tunnelling under, only 7.5ft above them, might give way when heavy military lorries going to and from the prison passed overhead. They tested it by parking a lorry of their own over the tunnel and, even though it seemed safe, they dug deeper.

At this point something began to go wrong. A Taliban spokesman later boasted that "from the beginning we had the support of skilled professionals, people who were trained engineers who advised us on the digging and we managed to hit the spot where the prisoners were kept".

But, by their own admissions, this was exactly what did not happen. Before they even reached the prison walls, the diggers lost their way and excavated 340ft of tunnel in the wrong direction. They only noticed this when they hit a metal pipe that had nothing to do with the prison but led to a nearby village. Only then did they get a map of the prison, by simply downloading it from the internet. Still, the loss of time was serious because they could only work at night to avoid making other workers in the concrete-block factory suspicious. Summer was approaching and the nights were getting shorter. The number of workers in the tunnel was increased to 21 to speed things up.

The prisoners were held in two locations. Most of them were in the so-called political wing, but others were in a small room called "Tawqif Kannah", which was the first area the diggers reached. The rescuers found it by listening for the sound of a prisoner, who knew about the escape plan, striking the floor above them. Having orientated themselves, they spent another five days tunnelling under the political wing.

The final phase of the escape involved many risks. The man put in charge by the Taliban leadership was the same one who had the idea of the escape in the first place. Maintaining as much secrecy as possible until the last minute, he developed a meticulously organised plan to move the prisoners through the narrow tunnel with lowest risk of discovery.

To provide more ventilation, a powerful pump was installed and the pipe was punctured in 10 places so all parts of the tunnel would get enough oxygen. Some 45 lamps connected by wires and hanging on the wall illuminated the tunnel. Suicide bombers waited above ground to launch a diversionary attack, if necessary. A telephone wire was laid so, as soon as the end of the tunnel was opened to the prison, a telephone handset could be handed up, enabling those inside and outside the prison to co-ordinate their actions.

Crucial to success were the three or four (the sources vary) prisoners who knew about the escape plot. Care was also taken to prevent several prisoners who had been identified as spies for the prison administration from raising the alarm. Car jacks were used to break through the concrete floors into the two parts of the prison where Taliban were held. As soon as communication was established, the prisoners were given four pistols and four knives to deal with any informers or spies likely to endanger the rescue.

One of those in the political wing of the prison was the 23-year-old Taliban fighter named Idris who had been detained seven months earlier and was awaiting trial. He gave a graphic description of the final moments of the escape. Interestingly, he says all the internal cell doors in the political wing of the prison were open, giving the impression that the guards' control of the prisoners, many of whom had their own mobile phones, was limited. Another escapee says the guards were mostly asleep or drugged with opium, marijuana or heroin and were in no position to stop anybody from breaking out. Of course, this also could be a cover story to hide collusion by the guards.

Idris says the first he knew about the escape was when he was invited, along with many others, to eat and pray with an Imam in one room. It was the Imam who told them that the plan was to escape that night. One part of the cell floor was cleared of matting. Idris says: "Moments later there was a knocking under the cleared area," and then the car jack was used to break through the concrete. He explains why they needed weapons: "This wing had two rooms for criminal prisoners and there were also a number of police spies. So a decision was taken that if these spies were to cause trouble or attempt to tell the prison guards, we would kill them." The prisoners were told they could bring no luggage with them.

Idris was the second man into the tunnel. He gives a description of what it was like: "The tunnel was not very wide. We could walk crouched down or crawl easily. Every 45 feet there was a lamp, which was very bright. The Mujahideen had laid a 6in plastic pipe for ventilation. It took us about 15 minutes inside the tunnel until we reached the other end."

As the prisoners exited the tunnel they were searched by a group of Mujahideen, who took away mobile phones and any money above 3,000 Afghanis (£43). There were not enough cars and trucks to take them away, so those who knew Kandahar were told to leave the house by the rear and walk into the city using back alleys. Idris says that he and some friends hailed a taxi at about 4am and were waved through two police posts. By then, all the political prisoners were free, including one man with steel pins in his legs. The pins broke in the tunnel but he was carried to the exit by the others.

The Taliban put the cost of the whole operation at about £12,000 "for house rent, Mujahideen food, cost of the lorries and other equipment".

The account of how more than 500 men were able to disperse in Kandahar without anybody noticing in the middle of the night sounds strange, but is conceivable. Afghan houses are often in compounds facing inwards, with blank external walls, so it is impossible to know what is going on inside. The Taliban account says "the house used in the operation was about 60ft from the enemy's watchtower" that could look down into the interior of the compound.

It was probably the audacity of carrying out such a mammoth excavation over such a long period of time under the noses the prison guards that prevented authorities from discovering what was going on. Impressive also is the ability of at least 25 people involved in the escape plan in its final phases to keep it a secret.

In the days after the escape, the foreign media focused on the Taliban's advantage of having freed so many seasoned fighters who were able to return the battlefield. Perhaps more significant is the way the great escape from Kandahar prison demonstrates the Taliban's skill and resolution – and shows why it is proving so difficult to defeat them.

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