Ahmad Nadeem/ReutersInmates that escaped from a prison in Kandahar were recaptured and presented to the media on Tuesday
from New York Times By ALISSA J. RUBIN
KABUL, Afghanistan — Government officials struggled on Tuesday, but with limited effect, to contain the damage from a spectacular jailbreak that freed 475 inmates, most presumed to be Taliban fighters, from southern Afghanistan’s largest prison. Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar Province, where the prison break occurred, announced that security forces had detained steadily mounting numbers of escaped detainees throughout the day. By day’s end, however, he conceded that while 71 people had been detained, the descriptions of only 41 men matched those of escapees.The effort to reassure people with news of the captures failed to instill much confidence, and the most immediate effect of the jailbreak was a mounting sense among Afghans that government corruption, incompetence and complacency were as much to blame as the Taliban.
In comments on a Facebook page linked to an interview program on Tolo, a major television network here, viewers expressed anger and a complete lack of faith in the government.
“The escape of 500 Taliban from prison?” Jahanbakhash Ahmadi wrote. “This is impossible that it can happen without the help of the government.”
Another, Mard Arya, said: “Is it possible for prisoners to dig tunnels more than 100 meters long over five months and none of the prison officials knew about it? Don’t be ridiculous.”
It did not help that the prison escapes came after a month of security lapses, which have left people feeling insecure and distrustful of the government, even though assassinations and attacks in Kandahar have fallen sharply this year.
In early April, Kandahar security forces fired on crowds, killing nine people, during protests over the burning of the Koran by a pastor in the United States. On April 15, the security forces were unable to protect the Kandahar police chief (or were bribed not to), allowing a suicide bomber to enter the police headquarters and reach an area near his office where the bomber killed him and two other police officers.
Then, early Monday, despite the presence of dozens of prison guards and police officers, nearly 500 prisoners escaped, leaving many Kandahar civilians fearful that the escaped prisoners will soon launch attacks in Kandahar.
“We don’t know what the security forces are doing,” said Hajji Khairullah, a shopkeeper in central Kandahar. “If you look at the prison, it is fortified with berms and T-walls all around — you can’t imagine that an ant could get in there — but now we heard the huge and shocking news that hundreds of inmates have managed to escape through an underground tunnel.”
“This escape will affect the civilians,” he added. “I blame these security forces for not taking action. This is not the first time.”
The provincial governor, who has been critical of the security forces after each of the recent breaches, has seemed powerless to improve the situation, leaving people unsure whom to turn to.
“How do prisoners break locks in jail?” asked a Kandahari who has watched the security forces closely over the years, but asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. He was referring to prisoners’ ability to leave their cells in order to go to the cell with the tunnel entry.
“How can it be that no one noticed? What was the National Directorate of Security doing?” he said, referring to Afghanistan’s intelligence service. “Why weren’t they watching?”
A memorandum from the Justice Ministry to President Hamid Karzai’s senior aides appeared to confirm people’s fears that there was no one who could be trusted — a point the Taliban have been eager to make in carrying out their attacks.
“This is an information campaign by the Taliban; that’s the main point of these operations,” said a Western official, adding that the insurgents want to send the message that the Afghan government is weak.
The Justice Ministry’s memo raised questions about complicity by people working in the prison and the surrounding neighborhood where the tunnel emerged. The memorandum noted that digging such a long tunnel and emptying the soil could not have gone unnoticed by neighbors and security forces because “it takes a lot of time and a means of transportation to carry the soil away.”
Also noted in the memo was that the police supposedly searched the house where the tunnel began two and a half months ago, yet noted nothing suspicious.
Finally, the memo said: “Escape of all inmates through a tunnel in one room indicates cooperation and planning from inside the prison.”
The head of the team investigating the escape, Mohammed Tahir, further cemented the likelihood that there was complicity from a number of people. He described the tunnel as so carefully planned and sophisticated that it appeared that engineers must have been involved, not merely men with shovels.
“The tunnel was dug in a very professional way,” he said. “They have used an electrical system and a ventilation system and small shovels and pickaxes for digging and wheelbarrows for removing the soil.”
The conclusion reached by some Kandaharis was almost melancholy: the Taliban care more about their fighters than the government of Afghanistan does about its own people.
“The prison break indicates how much the Taliban are loyal to each other,” said Abdul Naji, a businessman in Kandahar.
“It shows how much they are trying to free their men, even digging a several-hundred-meter-long tunnel despite heavy security forces in the area,” Mr. Naji said. “It is beyond imagination.”