The Taliban’s Great Escape

by Joshua Foust on 4/25/2011 · 16 comments

In 2008, there was a massive prison break in Kandahar. Something like 900 inmates escaped, most of whom were Taliban figures. The Canadians came in for particular blame here, as they took two hours to arrive at the prison after the breakout occurred, and were accused of refusing to re-capture the prisoners while watching the prisoners flee.

Eventually, the prisoners of Sarpoza fled to the Arghandab—this was when the ARV was pretty quiet and Kandaharis went there on vacation—and sparked an epic battle for control of the area after the Taliban seized something like eighteen separate towns in the area.

Of course, NATO was never able to dislodge the Taliban from the area. And I’m not even sure what happened to most of the escapees, though I do know quite a few were recaptured. Anyway, I think they escaped again?

The inmates escaped through a nearly 400-yard tunnel they had spent six months digging, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said.

The escape at the prison, which holds 1,200 inmates, began after dark and finished just before daybreak, said Maj. Tim James, a spokesman for NATO forces in Kabul.

I’m not going to speculate about how they were able to dig an 1,100 foot tunnel without anyone noticing. Weirder prison escapes have been attempted, including, most awesomely, The Great Escape. But in all likelihood at least one of the prison guards was aware this escape was happening and they chose to become complicit in it in some way—just another example of the lousy personnel screening in the Afghan security forces.

We still don’t have a list of who the escapees were, and if they were important or involved in the 2008 escape or not. One figure claims 106 of them are Taliban commanders, which may or may not be real (or affect the happy ISAF narrative that they’re removing mid-level commanders from the battlefield).

What we can be certain of is that this will have dramatic consequences. The 2008 break resulted in a huge uptick in area violence, and the first of many failed NATO attempts to “retake” the countryside surrounding Kandahar City. Those attempts are, by and large, still ongoing (though they didn’t begin with the 2008 escape). We can expect something similar. Given the coordination required to dig this tunnel and organize a massive breakout, we can also expect the escapees will have more opportunities to hide and go underground.

It’s really difficult to see this break as anything other than disaster. But at least we now know who really has the momentum in the South. Unfortunately, it’s not us.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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M Shannon April 25, 2011 at 9:54 am

My Pashtu is dodgy. Anyone know what the word for “Klink” is?

Sorry for the Hogan’s Heroes reference but it’s so obvious I couldn’t resist.

Pol-Mil FSO April 25, 2011 at 11:43 am

Joshua – I’d like to correct the record regarding some inaccuracies that you quoted from the Globe and Mail article:

The Quick Reaction Force (QRF) from the Kandahar PRT did not take two hours to arrive on the scene, per the accusation by the Kandahar Provincial Council. I do not want to get into exact timelines, but it was more than one hour and less than two hours. The QRF was ready to move out within the alert status requirement, but it was held up for almost a half hour while the PRT Tactical Operations Center attempted to gain situational awareness as to what was actually happening in the city. The PRT received reports of multiple attacks going on across the city, the PRT Commander needed time to determine what was the principal target and what were the diversionary attacks, and he was not going to send out the QRF without any idea of the location and strength of enemy forces.

The Taliban had left the scene by the time the PRT QRF arrived at Sarpoza Prison but this was because it was a well-planned and well-executed operation. The Taliban planning took into account the response time of the PRT QRF and the response time of overhead ISR platforms and they ensured that the operation would be over before arrival of any coalition assets.

Finally, the QRF’s mission was to rescue and evacuate wounded personnel, secure the prison, and assess the damage. Trying to round up escaped prisoners was not something they could have done without neglecting their primary mission. Trying to round up prisoners by deploying coalition troops from Kandahar Air Field (a 45 minute road march away) in the middle of the night into a city about which the coalition forces had little familiarity or experience would not have been a wise move, especially given the lack of intelligence about what was actually going on the in the city that night. It also probably would have violated NATO ROEs concerning detention of Afghan civilians.

Pol-Mil FSO April 25, 2011 at 11:47 am

Forgot to note that my comments, as with your introduction, were about the 13 June 2008 attack on Sarpoza Prison.

M Shannon April 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm

WRT Pol-Mil’s comments it sounds like the Taliban commanders have a considerably better grip on things than the ISAF. It must be the sound staff college and graduate level educations they’ve received.

BTW who assigned the PRT it’s mission? You’d think the primary mission WRT a prison full of enemy would be to prevent their escape or wasn’t a prison break imaginable?

I like the mil speak- “within the alert status requirement” “while the PRT Tactical Operations Center attempted to gain situational awareness”. Perhaps we’d do better if the military was forced to drop the jargon.

anan April 25, 2011 at 8:39 pm


:LOL: You crack me up. Keep in mind that back then 1-205 bde only had 9 combat infantry companies with 3 bn HQs companies. Often one of its bns were on out of area assignments. The Canadian bde was woefully undermanned and the less said about the ANP the better.

There was a major shortage of combat capacity in the province. Something that is most definitely not the case now.

At least 11 ANA combat inf battalions are in the fight in Kandahar province + Canadian bde + 3 US army bde equivalents + at least 6 ANCOP combat bns + a major improvement and expansion of the AUP. Today if multiple reports of attacks come in, QRF can be sent to all potential hotspots simultaneously, even if there isn’t situational awareness at the TOC.

“But at least we now know who really has the momentum in the South. Unfortunately, it’s not us.”

Don’t agree. Two major tactical successes [killing provincial AUP chief and the prison break] aren’t enough. The Taliban has to actually inflict serious damage on the ANA, ANCOP, or ISAF to have momentum.

What can be said is that ANSF/GIRoA/ISAF have less momentum in their favor than they did a month ago in Kandahar.

Dishonesty? May 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

Taliban’s “micro Tet” at Kandahar City:

Shooting started shortly after midday and the gunfire was still ringing through Kandahar city hours later. Government and hospital officials confirmed that the governor’s compound, the mayor’s office and the intelligence agency offices had all been attacked, along with a number of police stations.
The Taliban said a large number of their militants flooded into Kandahar city with the aim of targeting any building used by the government.

What is it?Progres?

anan May 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm

“Dishonesty” would you like to touch base offline.

Don’t know enough about the attack yet to comment. If you could ask 215th ANA Corps a question about today’s attack, what would it be?

Some possible questions that it might be useful to get answers to are:
– ANSF casualties [verifying that there were no ISAF casualties]
– Taliban casualties and captured
– Afghan civilian casualties
– some color on which Taliban factions might have been involved [doubt they would answer this on the record]

What are your sources from Kandahar telling you?

Dishonesty? May 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Basic principles of COIN,David Galula pacification in Algeria pg.246
The first law. The objective is the population. The population is at the same time the real terrain of the war. (destruction of the rebel forces and occupation of the geographic terrain led us nowhere as long as we did not control and get the support of the population.) This is where the real fighting takes place, where the insurgent challenges the counterinsurgent, who cannot but accept the challenge.

The third law. This minority will emerge, and will be followed by the majority, only if the counterinsurgent is seen as the ultimate victor.If his leadership is irresolute and incompetent, he will never find a significant number of supporters. The necessity for an early partial success by the counterinsurgent is obvious

The population’s attitude is dictated not by the intrinsic merits of the contending causes, but by the answer to these two simple questions:
Which side is going to win?
Which side threatens the most, and which offers the most protection?

Helmand&Kandahar are now ISAF Clear,Taliban Hold.

anan May 7, 2011 at 10:22 pm

“If you could ask “205th” ANA Corps a question” Typo above.

When you talk about “Taliban”, what specific Taliban factions are you referring to? To speak about “Taliban” “ANSF” GIRoA” “internationals” “warlords” as monoliths misses a lot as I am sure you know. You do make reasonable arguments.

In my view the QST might be more popular and legitimate in Kandahar than in any other Afghan province, and making Kandahar the primary effort in the short term was a mistake. The 11 ANA combat infantry battalions and 6 ANCOP combat battalions tied up in Kandahar could be better used elsewhere with higher ROIs.

“Which side is going to win? Which side threatens the most, and which offers the most protection?” To state the obvious, in most of Afghanistan that is the GIRoA, ANSF, or nominally pro GIRoA warlords. In large pockets of the south and east that is Taliban associated militias.

In Helmand, several senior ANSF officers are Southern Pashtuns and enjoy considerable local respect and legitimacy. Plus 215th ANA Corps and the two ANCOP battalions [which I think soon rotate out of Helmand] fight better than the local Helmand Taliban. Does anyone disagree?

Dishonesty? May 8, 2011 at 9:53 am

To ability ANSF in Kandahar City:Interesting,return Col.Razziq!!!
On Sunday, heavy machine-gun fire and explosions could still be heard in Kandahar as Afghan forces – aided by Nato-led foreign troops – sought to mop up remaining pockets of Taliban resistance.

The city’s streets are virtually empty of people, with Taliban fighters firing guns and rockets from a traffic police building and a hotel they are still occupying.

“It is a complicated building, that is why it has taken a while to clear up but soon we will clear the building of the enemy,” Kandahar border police commander General Abdul Razeq said.

Recall Col.Razziq

M Shannon April 25, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Anan: What does your comment have to do with mine? The way the QRF is organized or how ISAF commanders react to an incident has nothing to do with how many ANA are about. Neither does the penchant for the military to use bafflegab.

If it took more than an hour for the QRF that is stationed in the city to respond to an incident at the main jail- a place that should have been well known, well recced with contingency plans in place- how much longer would it take to assist a NGO or dev corp? Answer- helps not coming from the military until the smoke clears.

QRF is a fancy term for reserve. How many companies or even platoons have to be in reserve if you can send one to each of many simultaneous incidents at a moments notice? I doubt a “Tet” moment would find anything but chaos amongst ISAF and ANSF.

BTW the Canadians don’t really have a brigade. They have a big battalion task force and a single US battalion attached to justify their BGen TF commander slot.

anan April 25, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Shannon, was agreeing with most of your comments.

Pol-Mil FSO April 25, 2011 at 11:19 pm


It seemed obvious that the Taliban leader of the June 2008 raid on Sarpoza Prison had military experience if not staff college training. As I said before, the raid was well-planned and well-executed, implying that there were rehearsals before execution. One anecdote – the would-be suicide driver of the tanker truck that was to blow up the prison front gate had a change of heart and ran away before detonating the bomb in the truck. The Taliban immediately went to Plan B and fired a RPG at the truck to detonate its explosive cargo.

The PRT’s overall mission is to support the Government of Afghanistan in its efforts to provide security, development, and governance. In 2008 it was an all-Canadian PRT, with the exception of a couple of USG civilians, and also hosted one embedded U.S. Army Police Mentoring Team. The PRT’s Force Protection Company had three principal missions: 1) Defense of the PRT base (Camp Nathan Smith); 2) Protective Security for the military and civilian staff during their engagement with Afghan interlocutors; and, 3) QRF for Kandahar City and the surrounding area. The PRT had neither the responsibility nor the manpower to guard Sarpoza Prison or other Afghan Government buildings in Kandahar City. In 2008 the PRT was the only significant coalition military presence in Kandahar City itself, apart from a small SOF presence on the northwestern edge of the city, and a few liaison officers at a Provincial Coordination Center adjacent to the Governor’s Palace in the center of the city. The closest other significant coalition presence was at Kandahar Airfield, 12 miles south of Kandahar City

The PRT QRF was on a 30 minute alert status that night, and was ready to roll out in less than the specified time. As I mentioned in my previous post, the QRF was held back because the PRT was receiving radio and MIRC Chat reports of all hell breaking loose in the city and the PRT Commander needed to determine where to send the QRF. Based on what he was hearing he had several options, including – to protect the liaison officers at the Provincial Coordination Center next to the Governors Palace (the most high-value target), to rescue the private security contractors who reported taking fire at their team house, or to respond to ANP reports concerning an attack on the prison. Camp Nathan Smith is located in the northeastern part of Kandahar City, at least six or seven miles from Sarpoza Prison on the western outskirts of the city. Going all the way across the city is at least a 20-25 minute drive in most conditions, even slower at night when the patrol has to be on guard for Taliban ambushes. The Taliban was aware of these geographical factors and used them to put a deadline on their operation, I would guess that they planned and trained to have the operation completed within 30 minutes from initiation of the attack to evacuation of key liberated prisoners.

Boris Sizemore April 26, 2011 at 1:29 pm

This one is for the books…Look at the map anyone and see where the prison sits. Believe it or not it is not a PRT zone, but a ANSF and ISAF zone. If the PRT is the tasked one for this prison what a whale of a story this is.

It took them about three hours to get everyone out. They took over two plus hours. So the PRT reaction force was asleep as were the ANSF and everyone else. The Taliban had a team of suicide commandos ready to deploy should ANSF forces enter the area. Nothing happened. They got away and actually ferried the escapees out to preplanned sites throughout the night in pickups and cars.

2008 was a set piece assault on the perimeter and this was an all out make us look completely stupid escape.

Afghans I have spoken to are laughing. No you do not need to win every battle to win the war. Sometimes you can win by making your enemies look incapable bordering on keystone cops. This is what the Taliban did to ISAF and the ANSF.

The entire security apparatus of the area was completely asleep while they spent the last several months bragging of a “new security situation.” The next several months will prove the foolishness of the impression. No there was no major damage. The enemy has just melted away and will appear some other day to IED our poor misled soldiers in the area. The Afghans are experts at guerilla war, and we are not yet ready to stem the tide.

anan April 27, 2011 at 4:03 am

“The next several months will prove the foolishness of the impression.” Force densities matter. Do you really think the Taliban will launch a major offensive against 3 ANA brigades, 6 ANCOP bns, 1 Canadian bde, 3 US Brigades, provincial AUP, ABP in Helmand?

Aside from some special forces, the Taliban in Kandahar don’t fight as well as the Siraj boys up in Loya Paktia. If the Mullah Omar centric QST tries a major offensive in Kandahar, they will be further marginalized by Siraj, Peshawar Shura and others in the east.

“No there was no major damage.” Boris, we don’t agree.

“The enemy has just melted away and will appear some other day to IED our poor misled soldiers in the area.” Agreed that they will try IEDs and avoid gun fights. Boris, with the sheer density of ANCOP and ANA and NDS in Kandahar developing their own intelligence networks, why do you think Mullah Omar will make Kandahar a major effort?

“The Afghans are experts at guerilla war, and we are not yet ready to stem the tide.” 1-205 ANA are no slouches. Nor are the ANCOP. Why can’t they win?

M Shannon April 27, 2011 at 1:33 pm

According to the Brookings Index Report no ANCOP or ANA battalions are capable of independent action. That’s quite remarkable as the list of tasks that they would be need to perform would be quite short when compared to what a western battalion would required to do. Even more worrying is that the Taliban seem to be increasing their infiltration of the ANSF.

We’re past the point were increasing ANSF size makes any sense. It should be significantly deceased in size in the hope that a few quality units can be formed to become the nucleus of a force that can be trusted a bit. Leaving it as is jst assures the Taliban a source of intelligence, guns, ammo and recruits.

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