The Taliban bomber calmly parked a white fuel tanker near the prison gates of this city one evening in June, then jumped down from the cab and let out a laugh. Prison guards fired on the bomber as he ran off, but they missed, instead killing the son of a local shopkeeper, who watched the scene unfold from across the street.
Seconds later, the Taliban fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the tanker, setting off an explosion that killed the prison guards, destroyed nearby buildings, and opened up a breach in the prison walls as wide as a highway. Nearly 900 prisoners escaped in the jailbreak, 350 of them members of the Taliban, in one of the worst security lapses in Afghanistan in the six years since the U.S. intervention here.
The jailbreak, on June 13, was a spectacular propaganda coup for the Taliban, not only in freeing their comrades and flaunting their strength but also in exposing the weakness of the Afghan government, its army and the police, as well as the international forces trying to secure Kandahar.
In the weeks since the jailbreak, security has further deteriorated in this southern Afghan city, once the de facto capital of the Taliban, that has become a renewed front line in the battle against the radical Islamist movement.
The failure of the U.S.-backed Afghan government to protect Kandahar has rippled across the rest of the country and complicated the task of NATO forces, which have suffered more deaths here this year than at any time since the 2001 invasion.
“We don’t have a system here; the government does not have a solution,” said Abdul Aleem, who fought the Taliban and helped to put some of its members in the prison. They are on the loose again, and he now faces death threats and sits in his garden with a Kalashnikov on the chair beside him.
He said that without the presence of international forces in the city, the situation would be even worse. “If we did not have foreigners here, I don’t think the Afghan National Army or police would come out of their bases,” he said.
A rising chorus of complaints equally scathing about the failings of the government can be heard around the country.
The collapsing confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai is so serious that if the Taliban had wanted to, they could have seized control of the city of Kandahar on the night of the prison break, one Western diplomat in Kabul said. The only reason they did not was because they did not expect the Afghan government and the NATO reaction to be so weak, he said.
Interviews with local officials and other people here who witnessed the bold prison break and its aftermath show that the level of government organization and security was woefully inadequate around what was clearly a high-priority target for the Taliban.
There were only 10 prison guards on duty that night guarding about 1,400 prisoners, said Col. Abdullah Bawar, the new head of the prison.
Five of them were killed in the attack. Three of the guards — Bawar’s son, his nephew and the son of another warden — died at the front gate when the tanker exploded.