The Taliban's Great Escape

The number of Islamic fighters freed from captivity during last week's big Taliban prison break is much higher than early estimates suggested, U.S. and European government officials now acknowledge. Initial reports suggested "dozens" escaped during last Friday's attack on a major prison on the outskirts of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan's largest city. But more recent reports suggest the number of escaped militants totals around 400.

The prison break is a painful reminder to the Bush administration that the war in Afghanistan is escalating—and Taliban attacks are increasing. U.S. and British officials believe that some of the escaped militants were quickly re-deployed by Taliban commanders to participate in terror attacks in southern Afghanistan on Monday and Tuesday. The Associated Press reported from the region that militants had destroyed bridges and planted mines in several villages they control, apparently in possible preparation for a wider conflict.

Official reports reaching Washington and London now indicate that hundreds of prisoners—estimates range as high as 1,200, though some U.S. officials say this is too high—got away when a well-organized Taliban force last Friday staged a two-phase attack at the prison on Kandahar's outskirts. First, suicide bombers struck near the prison gate, said a U.S. official who, like others quoted in this story, asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. Almost simultaneously, a small assault force—involving armed motorcycle riders and two or three dozen fighters—launched a daring commando raid. In the resulting chaos, U.S. and British officials now acknowledge, every prisoner who was physically able to escape fled the facility. The Canadian Broadcasting Company quoted Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claiming that 30 fighters on motorbikes and two suicide bombers had attacked the prison.

A U.S. official said that although no internationally-recognized Taliban leaders were among the hundreds of militants who escaped, some significant mid-level fighters did get loose. The raid was noteworthy, officials said, because of the evident planning behind it and the skill with which it was carried out—a demonstration of the Taliban's ability to carry out complex and bold operations with modest manpower.

One issue still under investigation, U.S. and U.K. officials confirmed: whether the prison attackers had inside help. Security and intelligence agencies recognize that corruption is a significant issue in Afghanistan, particularly among local Afghan police personnel. But at the moment there is no evidence that the attack was an inside job, two officials noted.
As if the scale of the prison break were not alarming enough, Western officials added that the latest reporting from the region suggests that a resurgent Taliban field command quickly marshaled some of the escaped militants and sent them to participate in the wave of attacks on villages near Kandahar. Some Western officials believe the Taliban may be planning a larger attack on Kandahar itself to demonstrate its renewed power. On the other hand, if Taliban commanders try to assemble a substantial concentration of fighters in preparation for a large-scale assault on such a high-profile target, it could expose them to bombing attacks from U.S. and allied forces.

At least some of the Taliban's resurgence has been attributed to its ability to evade U.S. and allied forces by taking refuge in Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border. Bush administration and U.S. intelligence officials have publicly alleged that the Pakistani tribal areas have become safe havens for both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Only last weekend, Afghan president Hamid Karzai threatened to send troops across the border into Pakistan in "self defense."

As NEWSWEEK recently reported, U.S. officials have tacitly blessed efforts by Karzai's government to buy off or otherwise co-opt "reasonable" Taliban factions. But the latest Taliban actions suggest that it is still a serious militant force, and one whose strength and reach may be surging.