April 25, 2011

Taliban Rescues Captured Soldiers, Morale

The Taliban has executed a mass prison break from Kandahar City’s main prison. Afghan officials are currently investigating how militants dug a 1,050-foot tunnel under the jail without being noticed, allowing them to slip out an estimated 475 prisoners overnight. Although Governor Tooryalai Wesa says some have already been recaptured, around 100 mid-level and four provincial commanders are believed to have escaped.

The highest level of Taliban prisoners are held at Bagram air-base.

While 400+ fighters may not make much difference tactically - the Taliban’s ranks are still estimated above 20,000 - the moral boost should account for something as fighting intensifies into the summer. Morale probably isn’t as low as U.S. officials claim, but an unrelenting blitzkrieg by U.S. Special Forces and CIA-trained Afghan “hunter/killer” teams has eroded the “Quetta” leadership’s feeling of invulnerability. This feeling reverberated from the top down and bottom up, as low and mid-level commanders are tiring from being run ragged in the field.

Kandahar’s breakout stemmed from a months-long buildup to regain momentum and rebuild trust. By responding to the chatter that it’s losing more fighters than it can replace, the Taliban targeted a immediate source of replenishment. A bold move can have dramatic effects on the battle, and springing his imprisoned comrades carries the wider message that Mullah Omar won’t leave “the faithful” behind.

"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," said Mohammad Abdullah, who said he spent two years in Sarposa prison after being captured in the notorious Zhari district. "Some of our friends helped us by providing copies of the keys. When the time came at night, we managed to open the doors for friends who were in other rooms."

Thus the attack may achieve a strategic advantage through psychology rather than tactics, a common occurrence in guerrilla warfare. The White House and Pentagon continue to argue that the Taliban will be permanently displaced from southern Afghanistan within the next year. If the Taliban can delay their perceived defeat for six months beyond July, they will cast doubt onto the White House’s entire time-frame. 2014 will evaporate as July 2011 has, creating further divisions within the U.S. political and public spheres.

U.S. military officials rarely speak of how fragile America’s own political situation is.

The raid on Kandahar’s jail achieves a second psychological objective equal to and potentially greater than a morale boost on the front-lines. U.S. officials warned months ago that the Taliban will employ a “softer” counter-offensive this summer, avoiding “hard” NATO units while targeting Afghan officials. These predictions began to take vivid forms this month as Taliban infiltrators launched a series of attacks on government installations. The military objective - remove competent government officials - combines with a political message to paint the Afghan government as inept.

Propaganda from shooting up the Defense Ministry in Kabul is worth more than two dead Afghan soldiers.

This attitude of “nowhere is safe” extended down to the provincial level on April 15th, when a suicide bomber in disguise killed Kandahar’s police chief in his own office. As a prominent official, the death of Khan Mohammad Mujahid achieved the dual goals of military subversion and political intimidation. While U.S. forces continue to occupy Kandahar, the two impressions synchronize into the Taliban’s message: the city remains under our control.

A prison break involving the guards caps this wider strategy. It also remains an opening salvo of the Taliban's summer assault.


  1. I think you are right about Taliban-creep being the zeitgeist in Afghanistan increasingly. In the fluctuations of power which have occured in Afghanistan in the last 100 years this is how it has happened - a slow creep towards a critical point and presto, new regime. I give Karzai and Nato a year max. and the rush for the exits follows complete with 'Mission Accomplished' spin galore. The Peace of Obama's speechwriters has already been written, I suspect.

  2. I doubt Obama and NATO can actually get away with that. A rapid withdrawal will be perceived as defeat and the Pentagon is determined to avoid this fate. I'm anticipating a renege on July 2011, as Obama and Gates argue that the "conditions" suddenly don't support a withdrawal. Although NATO countries want to wrap up Afghanistan, Washington is still thinking of how to go long. Who knows how long Karzai will last though - but the rest of his term appears a stretch.

  3. It seems quite likely there’s been some complicity in this escape from prison staff. But one area where Brechers analysis fails is that it wasn’t prisoners digging out, it was Taliban digging INTO the prison to spring their fellow boy-cuddlers. There was no need to carry any dirt out to the yard. The tunnel was dug from outside and then it was just a matter of breaching the floor and letting the prisoners out, which to be fair here would probably have taken some looking the other way on part of at least some of the guards.