It is a safe bet that the Taliban have never heard of much less read Barack Obama’s book, Audacity of Hope yet they have shown plenty of it in what they did in Qandahar on April 25. Digging a tunnel some 360 meters long (some reports have suggested it was 1,000 meters long) under the Qandahar-Herat highway, they reached the Sarpoza prison and rescued 487 prisoners, many of them Taliban fighters while the guards were asleep.
It is a safe bet that the Taliban have never heard of much less read Barack Obama’s book, Audacity of Hope yet they have shown plenty of it in what they did in Qandahar on April 25. Digging a tunnel some 360 meters long (some reports have suggested it was 1,000 meters long) under the Qandahar-Herat highway, they reached the Sarpoza prison and rescued 487 prisoners, many of them Taliban fighters while the guards were asleep. The rescue mission had all the elements of a Hollywood thriller and would rank with some of the greatest jail breaks in the world yet it is highly unlikely that Hollywood would take the offer. Regardless, the escape of such a large number of prisoners has left many people red-faced in Qandahar and Kabul, not least among American and Canadian officials that have been issuing optimistic reports about the “progress” they have made in “training” Afghan security forces. Perhaps it was the result of such brilliant achievements that Obama wants to reward General David Petraeus, the top military commander in Afghanistan, with the post of CIA director.
The escape plan began in a non-descript construction compound opposite the prison. The metal and concrete beams scattered across the dirt-filled compound also did not arouse suspicion because that is what a construction company would stack. But these were not meant for erecting buildings; their purpose was altogether different: to support the tunnel the Taliban burrowed under the much travelled highway called “Highway One”. Many such reconstruction compounds have sprung up in Qandahar, financed by American dollars to buy people’s loyalty and give them an incentive to build rather than fight. The money is good even if little reconstruction has occurred.
One cannot but admire the Taliban’s ingenuity. Local media reports say only 18 Taliban were involved in digging the tunnel. It took them mere five months to complete the job. Obviously, they dug the entire tunnel by hand. The Afghans are not merely grave diggers of empires but also brilliant tunnel diggers, it seems. Being on the outside, there was little problem in disposing the brown soil but one has to hand it to the Taliban: they sold the dirt in the city bazaar by truck loads and made tons of money without arousing suspicion.
The Taliban had planned a grand escape not only in terms of the number of people to be rescued but also the manner of their escape. The tunnel itself was almost like a highway; it was of sufficient diameter and high enough for the prisoners to stand upright for most of their walk to freedom. Large parts of the tunnel were also lit with electric light and even had ventilation using fans. The only things missing were McDonalds and Tim Hortons to fortify them on their way out of prison! Most Afghans would be envious at such service. They have no electricity or fans in their primitive homes; they use kerosene lamps for light.
The Taliban also maintained complete secrecy. Not many prisoners were aware of what was afoot. Only a handful of Taliban inside the Sarpoza prison were privy to the plan and a mere 20 minutes before the opening was made inside the prison cell, inmates were taken to the tunnel entrance. A five-foot drop through the concrete floor landed them in the tunnel and onward to freedom. It was so well planned and organized that at any one time, only a handful of people were allowed into the tunnel to ensure there was enough air to breathe. At the other end, there were caravans of cars and vehicles ready to rush them to safe houses. And all this was done while prison officials as well as their American and Canadian handlers were all fast asleep.
There is a reason for it. The prison guards are unmotivated. American and Canadian officials that claim to train them are only training recruits for the Taliban. But there was an even more basic reason. In June 2008, there was a similar break in Sarpoza prison. At that time, two explosive packed suicide trucks drove into the prison wall. This was followed by a coordinated attack leading to the collapse of virtually the entire prison structure and the escape of some 1,200 prisoners. Following that attack, the prison was rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars; huge concrete barriers were installed in multiple layers to ensure no such attack could succeed in the future. On the surface this appeared like a good security arrangement but the Taliban did not have to drive an explosive-laden truck into the prison again. Instead, they decided to tunnel their way in.
What would the Americans and the Canadians do now? Drive metal barriers deep underground as the Israelis have done around Gaza? Perhaps, but the Taliban would find a way around that too. No one should underestimate their ingenuity. President Hamid Karzai’s official spokesman described the mass breakout as a “disaster”. Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Qandahar, conceded that security forces had “failed in their duty”.
What else could he say? Immediately after their spectacular jail break, the Taliban were ready with a press release to the international media. A spokesman for the Taliban said: “We had the full support of the people of Qandahar, who provided us with clothes and safe places to go.” He went on: “We have proved that whatever we want to do in Qandahar or anywhere else in the country, we can do it.” Indeed.
Not surprisingly, the Americans are beginning to get desperate and want to talk to the Taliban who have now opened a diplomatic mission in Turkey. This is meant to facilitate direct talks between the Taliban and the American occupier/invaders. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she would like to talk to them directly. Whether the Taliban would like to meet her face to face is a different matter.
The US and its allies have made a song and dance of what they have “achieved” in Afghanistan. The Afghans see it very differently. Perhaps the only area where the Americans have made real progress is in the number of Afghans held prisoner, much like the US with its 2.32 million prison population, the highest in the world surpassing even Russia and China. According to the United Nations Secretary General’s latest quarterly report on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the Afghan prison population has grown from 600 prisoners in 2001, to 10,600 in October 2007, to 19,000 by January 2011. The report warns: “This increase in the prison population puts a strain on the already overcrowded system that was designed for about 10,000 prisoners.”
But as Gilles Dorronsoro, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and an expert on Afghanistan, Turkey and South Asia, wrote in an opinion column in the New York Times: “The prison break will have a strong psychological impact, discouraging people who were ready to work with the coalition. This is especially true since Kandahar’s police chief, an important local figure, was recently killed,” (4-26-2011). He described the planned transfer of security operations and responsibilities to the Afghan National Army by 2014 as a “fantasy” and emphasized that US “military withdrawal [from Afghanistan] without negotiating with the Taliban leadership is impossible.” Madam Clinton has her work cut out for her.
Welcome to the Hindu Kush, the graveyard of empires.