KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Taliban leaders carried out an audacious plot Monday to free nearly 500 fighters from southern Afghanistan’s largest prison, leading them through a tunnel dug over more than five months and equipped with electricity and air pipes, which suggested that the insurgents remain formidable and wily opponents despite recent setbacks.
The plan was so closely held that one young Taliban fighter who got out said he knew nothing of it until a fellow inmate tugged his sleeve to wake him in the night and led him to the 3-foot-wide tunnel, which ran more than half a mile from a hole in a cell’s floor, under security posts, tall concrete walls and a highway, and came up in a nearby house. From there, a waiting car took the fighter a few miles away, where he hailed a taxi to safety.
“I was just praying to God that he would free me,” said the fighter, Allah Mohammed Agha, 22, recounting his escape from Sarposa Prison, where he had been held for 28 days. “Last night was the night that my dream was made true.”
He spoke by phone from Spinbaldak, near the Pakistani border.
The Afghan government called the breach a disaster. The prison break called into question the extent of the gains made against the Taliban in 18 months of hard fighting in Kandahar province, and whether any progress will be sustainable once NATO troops begin to reduce their numbers as planned this summer, members of Parliament, tribal leaders, and Western officials said in interviews.
Some worried that the jailbreak might strengthen the Taliban in the coming weeks as the spring fighting season begins. Having so many fighters back in circulation — possibly including hard-core commanders — also threatened to undermine efforts to bring Taliban fighters over to the government side, Afghan officials and former Taliban said.
There is no doubt that the incident demonstrated the Taliban’s ability to organize such an elaborate operation, even after they were driven largely underground in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and despite police and prison guards, prison visits by NATO mentors, and sophisticated NATO surveillance in Kandahar.
The prison break comes after four recent attacks by the Taliban, in which they used suicide bombers, often disguised as police officers or soldiers, to penetrate secure buildings, including an Afghan army corps’ headquarters in Laghman province and the Ministry of Defense headquarters in the capital, Kabul.
Members of Parliament and others were scathing about the lapses. Some questioned whether the prison guards or police officers were bribed not to notice the tunnel’s construction.
“It’s a big achievement for the Taliban and shows a big failure and weakness in the government,” said Muhammad Naiem Lalay Hamidzai, a Parliament member from Kandahar and chairman of the internal security committee.