Patrick Cockburn writes:
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.