It was one of the great prison escapes in history in terms of the ingenuity and perseverance of those involved. It happened at 10pm on April 25 this year in southern Afghanistan when, after five months 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 three foot high and almost 1,200 feet long that led under the prison walls to a house on the far side of a main road. During the next five hours some 541prisoners, one of them with a broken leg, crawled their way 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 but shows Taliban members, usually portrayed as brainwashed fanatics, as imaginative, disciplined and resourceful. It is this which 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. Furthermore the escape is also one of the few complex operations carried out by the Taliban about which a full account is available from their side that can be largely confirmed by US and Afghan government sources.
Some of these details emerged immediately after the escape as Taliban spokesmen crowed about their success and Afghan government and US officials produced their own embarrassed explanations about what had gone wrong. But the whole story of the escape from 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 published, 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 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.
The prison from which the mass escape took place is in the Sarposa district of Kandahar close to the road from Kandahar to the western city of Herat, and is the largest detention centre in southern Afghanistan. It was used to hold insurgents captured from the heartland of the Taliban rebellion. It had been substantially reconstructed, relying on US and Canadian advice on building a secure prison, to prevent attack from outside or escape from within, both of which had happened over the last decade: In 2003 when 45 Taliban escaped down a tunnel dug from the inside and in 2008 suicide bombers blew up the prison gates and 900 prisoners fled. These failures prompted full-scale reconstruction designed to make escape impossible. More watcher towers were built and surveillance cameras installed; there were high new walls extended underground to prevent tunnels, and the prison was surrounded by a deep trench.
Many of the Taliban accepted that the prison was now escape-proof. But one unnamed member of the movement, according to the Taliban-inspired account, was not so sure. He is said, somewhat mysteriously, to have had “by his connections gained full knowledge of the inside and outside of the prison” and to have become convinced that it might “be possible to dig a tunnel from the inside of a house on the other side of the street to the prison as a means of releasing the prisoners.” At first he was nervous of telling anybody about his idea, but finally he shared it with two other Taliban fighters with whom he was riding a motorcycle. Initially skeptical, these men told the local Taliban high command in Kandahar which then sanctioned the scheme.
At the end of 2010 a small group of trusted Taliban Mujahideen rented a house south west of the prison compound. They brought in workers to make concrete-blocks for sale so the house appeared to be home to one of Afghanistan’s many small construction companies earning money from the construction boom. There was a watch tower nearby so, to give cover for the activity in the house, workers were busy making concrete blocks in the yard during the day. It was only when these workers, who did not know of the escape plan, left in the early evening that the real work of the construction company began, which was digging a tunnel towards the prison, whose starting point was a room in the house.
At first there were just four Mojahideen who were in the secret and were involved in the digging, one of them working at the head of the tunnel with a pick-axe while the three others removed the soil. The tunnel was too narrow for a wheel-barrow to be used so they went to the market and bought children’s tricycles which they converted into small wheel barrows by removing the seat and handlebars, replacing them with a container for the excavated soil. Filled with earth, these were dragged back with a rope to the mouth of the tunnel. Getting rid the soil was easier than might be supposed because loose earth has a value in Kandahar and it was taken by truck for sale in the local market.
For two months the four men worked at the tunnel, but to increase progress the number was doubled to eight who dug a further 12 feet every night. Inevitably, after 300 feet they began to suffer from lack of oxygen and after another 150 feet the stale air made work impossible. The diggers tried a ventilation fan but they had headaches until they built a battery-operated air pumping machine that delivered air silently through a pipe. They worried that the road under which they were tunneling only 7.5 feet below the surface might give way when heavy military trucks going to and from the prison passed overhead. They tested it by parking a lorry of their own on top of the tunnel and, even though it seemed safe, they dug deeper.
At this point something began to go wrong. A Taliban spokesman later boasted that “from the beginning we had the support of skilled professionals, people who were trained engineers who advised us on the digging and we managed to hit the spot where the prisoners were kept.” But, by their own admissions, this was exactly what did not happen. Before they even reached the prison walls, the diggers comprehensively lost their way and excavated 340 feet of tunnel in the wrong direction, They only noticed this when they hit a metal pipe which had nothing to do with the prison but led to a nearby village. Only then did they get a map of the prison, which they did by simply downloading it from the internet. Nevertheless, the loss of time was serious because they could only work at night, to avoid making other workers in the concrete block factory suspicious. Summer was approaching and the nights were getting shorter. The number of workers in the tunnel was raised to 21 to speed up the tunnel’s progress under the centre of the prison.
The prisoners were held in two locations: Most were in the so-called political wing, but others were in a small room called “Tawqif Kannah” which was the first reached by the diggers. They found it by listening for the sound of a prisoner, who knew about the escape plan, striking the floor above them. Having orientated themselves, they spent another five days tunneling under the political wing. The final phase of the escape involved many risks. The man put in charge by the Taliban leadership was the same one who had the idea of the escape in the first place. Maintaining as much secrecy as possible until the last minute, he developed a meticulously organized plan to move out the prisoners through the narrow tunnel with least danger of discovery.
To give more air a powerful pump was installed and the air pipe punctured in ten places so all parts of the tunnel would get enough oxygen. Some 45 lamps connected by electric wire and hanging on the wall illuminated the tunnel. Suicide bombers waited above ground to launch a diversionary attack if necessary. A telephone wire was laid so that, as soon as the tunnel was opened at the prison end, a telephone handset could be handed up enabling those inside and outside the prison to coordinate their actions. Crucial to success was the three or four (the sources vary) prisoners who knew about the escape plot. Care was also taken to prevent several prisoners who had been identified as spies for the prison administration raising the alarm. Car jacks were used to break through the concrete floors into the two parts of the prison where Taliban were held. As soon as communication was established the prisoners were given four pistols and four knives to deal with any informers or spies likely to endanger the rescue.
One of those in the political wing of the prison was 23-year-old Muhammad Idris, a Taliban fighter who had been detained seven months earlier and was awaiting trial. He gives a graphic description of the final moments of the escape. Interestingly, he says that all the internal cell doors in the political wing of the prison were open giving the impression that the guards’ control of the prisoners, many of whom had their own mobile phones, was limited. Another escapee says the guards were mostly asleep or drugged with opium, marijuana or heroin and were in no position to stop anybody breaking out of the prison. Of course this also could be a cover story to hide collusion by the guards in the escape.
Muhammad says the first he knew about the escape was when he was invited, along with many others, to eat and pray with an Imam in one room. It was the Imam who told them that the plan was to escape that night. One part of the cell floor was cleared of matting Muhammad says: “Moments later there was a knocking under the cleared area” and then the car jack was used to break through the concrete. Muhammad explains why they needed weapons: “This wing had two rooms for criminal prisoners and there were also a number of police spies. So a decision was taken that if these spies were to cause trouble or attempt to tell the prison guards, we would kill them.” The prisoners were told they could bring no luggage with them.
Mohammad was the second man into the tunnel. He gives a description of what it was like: “The tunnel was not very wide. We could walk crouched down or crawl easily. Every 15 metres (45 feet) there was a lamp which was very bright. The Mujahideen had laid a 6” plastic pipe for ventilation. It took us about 15 minutes inside the tunnel until we reached the other end.”
As they exited the tunnel they were searched by a group of Mojahideen who took away mobile phones and any money above 3,000 Afghani. There were not enough cars and trucks to take them away so those who knew Kandahar were told to leave the house by the rear and walk into the cities using back alleys. Mohammad says that he and some friends hailed a taxi at about 4 am and were waved through two police posts. By then all the political prisoners were free including one man with steel pins in his legs. These broke in the tunnel but he was carried to the exit by other escapees.
The account of how over 500 men were able to disperse in Kandahar without anybody noticing in the middle of the night sounds strange but is conceivable. Afghan houses are often in compounds facing inwards with the blank external walls and it is impossible to know what is going on inside. The Taliban account says “the house used in the operation was about 20 meters (60 feet) from the enemy’s watch tower” that could look down into the interior of the compound. Probably it was the audacity of carrying out such a mammoth excavation over such a long period under the noses the prison guards, which prevented them discovering what was going on. Impressive also is the ability of at least 25 people involved in the escape plan in its final phases to keep it a secret.
In the days after the escape the foreign media focused on the advantage to the Taliban of having freed so many seasoned fighters able to return the battlefield. But perhaps more significant is the way in which the great escape from Kandahar prison demonstrates the Taliban’s skill and resolution and shows why it is proving so difficult to defeat them.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq