On 25th April, a week before the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, nearly 500 Taliban prisoners escaped from Saraposa prison on the western edge of Kandahar City. Their escape route was a tunnel dug from a compound outside the prison, rented for the purpose by local insurgents. The breakout was described by Hamid Karzai as a “disaster.”
Although the attention of both political leaders and the public has now turned to the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, the consequences of this prison break are likely to be profound for Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and, therefore, western prospects in Afghanistan.
In July 2010, ISAF launched a key element of their new surge strategy in Afghanistan. Operation Moshtarak (Together) was intended to secure Kandahar City and the surrounding area, long regarded as central to the success of the current campaign. The operation involved the insertion of a US airborne brigade into three nearby provinces and major deployments of the Afghan national army and police in and around the city of Kandahar itself. The aim was to form three security rings around the centre of the city. The operation also involved the construction of a completely new security infrastructure: vehicle check points, police stations and, in the countryside, long barriers intended to neutralise the Taliban and secure the population in Kandahar. Moshtarak also involved furious military activity, including major air assault operations and massive rocket bombardments.
The operation did achieve some of its aims, but the prison break seems to mock ISAF’s prodigious efforts. Saraposa prison is located five kilometers from the government buildings in central Kandahar city. For all ISAF’s effort over the last 18 months, a large hole has appeared at the very core of a putatively secured zone, out of which 500 Taliban insurgents crawled to freedom. Worse, there was a breakout from the same prison in 2008, following which there was a major reform of security at the site. Oscar Wilde’s comment about the loss of one parent being unlucky but the loss of two being careless seems relevant here. The Saraposa tunnel represents a breach in the credibility of the surge strategy and, perhaps, the US counter-insurgency doctrine itself.
Although 500 Taliban fighters and commanders have escaped, the main setback is, in fact, not military. The prison break seems to have been planned and executed by Taliban operatives outside the prison. However, a breakout of this scale could not have happened without the systematic and high-level collusion of Afghan security forces, local political leaders and, indeed, members of the regime itself.
Why would they collude with their apparent enemies? Operation Moshtarak may well have threatened the autonomy of local tribal, political and business leaders and their clients. With their immediate interests jeopardised, some of these leaders seem to have made an alliance with the Taliban in order to undermine the surge and to re-assert the status quo in the south.
The Saraposa breakout suggests that the surge will not be as decisive as ISAF commanders hoped. Why? Because it implies that a sufficient number of political actors in the south are happy to team up with their enemies to undermine their supposed western allies. It seems the military surge has been and will be of limited utility in Afghanistan because the locals reorganise political dynamics to undermine external interference—be it from Kabul or the west. Political order is difficult to impose from outside in Afghanistan.
Finally, while the assassination of bin Laden has been trumpeted as a major victory in the ‘global war on terror,’ it may well complicate the campaign in Afghanistan. The assassination is likely to radicalise elements of the Pashtun population on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It is also likely to reduce the willingness and ability of the Pakistani government to assist the US in stabilising the region. Indeed, it is possible that their position on Afghanistan and the Karzai regime will harden into outright, rather than just covert, opposition. The stabilisation mission in Afghanistan just got a whole lot harder.