Jailbreak in Kandahar
Some 500 inmates escaped from Sarposa Prison in Kandahar between 11 p.m. local time April 24 and 3 a.m. April 25 through a tunnel reportedly 360 meters (about 394 yards) long constructed over the course of some five months. A jail break this long in the making and of this scale seems improbable without at least considerable numbers of prison guards willfully ignoring the escape. This is the most recent reminder of the inherent problems with indigenous forces’ being compromised. Though official government and Taliban claims regarding the number of escaped inmates differ (the government put the number at 476, while the Taliban said 541 prisoners, including 106 “important” commanders, escaped), the gravity of the break — reportedly from the prison’s political section — is undisputed. Only a handful of escapees have been recaptured.
Sarposa is known for repeated prison breaks; both tunneling and frontal assaults have led to breaks at Sarposa in the past decade. All 1,100 inmates at the facility broke out during a 2008 complex attack that included a large, suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. While the security of the prison has improved, the siting of the facility is inherently poor. There is little standoff distance, rendering it vulnerable to the tactics of tunneling and assault.
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Because of this vulnerability, the most consequential prisoners are either sent to the Pol-e-Charkhi facility in Kabul, the country’s main prison, or the U.S. detention facility at the sprawling Bagram airfield north of the national capital. No one on the American Joint Prioritized Effects List (the “capture or kill” list of high-value targets being hunted in Afghanistan), for example, was likely to be among the escapees at Sarposa. Even the 2008 incident, in which the entire prison was emptied, had only limited effects, particularly strategic effects.
However, there will consequences to the prison break. Prisons the world over can become forums for radicalization and the sharing of criminal or operational expertise, and Sarposa is unlikely to be an exception. So while the Taliban have every incentive to play up the significance of this prison break, there are undoubtedly motivated and willing fighters among the escapees, and it is possible that some escapees have bombmaking expertise or tactical leadership experience.
After the 2008 break, Taliban fighters — reinforced by the escapees — seized several villages in the Arghandab district north of the provincial capital. The April 24-25 break was considerably smaller in scale, and U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations have ramped up considerably in Kandahar province and neighboring Helmand province. However, the break comes during a critical phase of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency-focused strategy; ISAF and Afghan forces are spread thinly across the country’s restive southwest and are attempting to push forward not just aggressive security but also development goals. Escapees are unlikely to be quick converts to recent, tentative political shifts, and an escape of this magnitude certainly does nothing to facilitate Kabul’s goals.
One important aspect of the April 24-25 jailbreak is perception. It is a noteworthy propaganda coup for the Taliban at a time when ISAF is attempting to demonstrate progress and momentum and highlight degraded Taliban capabilities. The Taliban already see themselves as winning, and even anti-Taliban Afghan elements have grown weary of a decade of occupation. Furthermore, facilitating the rescue of incarcerated comrades has been a longstanding priority for jihadists not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq and Yemen, and even in the continental United States. The Sarposa jailbreak will give further credence to the Taliban’s pledge to their fighters that they will not be forgotten if they are captured, which has rhetorical value for their efforts at maintaining existing cadres and for recruitment.
The worst of Afghanistan’s detainees have not escaped. While the Sarposa break will have tactical repercussions, the fundamental problem is the battle of perceptions. That the porous Afghan judicial system managed to convict and incarcerate some prisoners who later escaped has consequences in terms of the broader Afghan perception of rule of law. (Increasing numbers of low-level detainees have been pushed by ISAF to the Afghan judicial system, in accordance with counterinsurgency goals to build indigenous civil institutions.) It is ultimately this perception that ISAF’s current strategy seeks to change.
Read more: Afghanistan Weekly War Update: The Latest Sarposa Jailbreak | STRATFOR