Graeme Smith, The Globe and Mail
July 2, 2008
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — The prison cells that once held Taliban sit almost empty, with little remaining except rubbish: plates of rice ready for meals never eaten, and sandals discarded by fugitives who ran away in bare feet.
Some of the debris inside Sarpoza prison offer hints about what happened amid the chaos last month when the Taliban accomplished one of the largest jailbreaks in modern history, freeing at least 800 prisoners and rampaging into Kandahar without facing any serious resistance from Canadian troops or the other forces assigned to protect the city.
Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, the top Canadian commander in Kandahar, confirmed that NATO surveillance tracked the fugitives as they fled. But he said it’s not Canada’s job as part of the International Security Assistance Force to hunt down escaped prisoners.
“You can ask yourself the rhetorical question, what if we find 100 fugitives in the fields?” Gen. Thompson said. “What is ISAF’s duty in that circumstance? Is it to go arrest people?”
The commander continued: “We’re not policing this country, right? It’s not our role to police this country. Our role is to stand behind our Afghan partners and assist them.”
But the Afghan forces stationed nearby did not consider themselves capable of standing up to the Taliban that evening, as police in three outposts around the prison hunkered down behind their fortifications and refused to intervene.
Local and foreign intelligence agencies also failed to understand glaring signs of trouble at the jail in the weeks before the attack, including a mass poisoning of prison guards just eight days beforehand. Taliban fighters warned local shopkeepers about an impending battle in the hours before they struck, but nobody passed the warning to the correct authorities.
Corruption likely helped the Taliban that night, too, as some indications have implicated a senior Afghan official in the jailbreak planning.
Sifting through the rubble at Sarpoza prison, it’s obvious that the attack was not just a successful Taliban operation. It was a failure of the institutions that protect Kandahar city, despite the Canadian money and lives expended to build a zone of security here in the past two years.
Three of the city’s top Afghan security officials have been fired in the aftermath of the jailbreak, and the prison director has been arrested. A review by Afghanistan’s intelligence service concluded that the prison needed more guards, better weapons and stronger fortifications. But the lessons of Sarpoza may prove more fundamental, pointing to the fragility of the international efforts in Afghanistan.
Prison officials say a few members of the prisoners’ committee also held regular meetings, in private, with prison director Colonel Abdul Qadir. It’s not known what they discussed; one of the prison officials who helped arrange the meetings was shot in the head during the jailbreak, and Col. Qadir was arrested soon afterward.
An insurgent who escaped, a 28-year-old father of two children who didn’t want his name published, said the Taliban planners were helped by jail officials.
“Important officials from the jail helped us bring in pistols and mobile phones, and we also bought some explosives for the bombing,” the fugitive said.
The insurgents shepherded the groups of escapees down narrow alleyways, through vineyards, and across streams. When they heard aircraft, they took cover under trees or lay down in fields of wheat.
Mr. Ahmad’s group spent the night camped in a village about 12 kilometres south of the prison, but others didn’t go as far, flopping down to sleep one or two kilometres away from the scene of the jailbreak.
Many of them expected the government or foreign troops to chase them, and expressed amazement at the lack of pursuers. Canada’s Quick Reaction Force, deployed from Camp Nathan Smith about six kilometres away, was seen by one Western observer arriving at Sarpoza around 11 p.m., after the shooting had stopped.
Roughly 400 Taliban escaped the national-security wing, and only three were recaptured.
“I thought that there would be big fighting, aerial bombardments, and many Taliban would be killed some arrested,” said a Taliban fighter, now enjoying freedom with his family in Kandahar city. “But when we reached our safe houses we were surprised, because there was no fighting, nothing.”
He added: “I didn’t think we would succeed like we did.”
HOW IT HAPPENED:
Some events may have happened simultaneously and therefore not in the sequence given here.
1. In the hours before the bombing, insurgents warn people to evacuate the area because of an impending attack.
2. Minutes before the attack, rockets or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) explode near Dand Chowk and Gendama police barracks.
3. A fuel tanker drives up to the main gate of Sarpoza prison. Moments later, RPGs hit it, and the explosion knocks out windows a kilometre away.
4. A metal chunk of the main gate lands in the criminal section, and other bits of debris shower down on the rest of the compound.
5. Guard towers at each corner of the prison walls have been recently constructed with Canadian funding but are unfinished. Guards return fire against the Taliban only from the southwest tower.
6. An office for the traffic police is partly destroyed by the blast.
7. A guard is blasted into pieces by a rocket-propelled grenade as he’s taking cover at this location.
8. Three more guards are killed at these locations.
9. Inmates open fire from a cell in the national-security wing that contains Taliban prisoners.
10. Six guards in the main tower, which stands in the centre of the jail, take cover and survive.
11. The Taliban go straight for the national-security wing and shoot the locks off the gates. A few go a distance inside and distribute weapons to comrades.
12. This is the national-security wing, containing accused Taliban, murderers and kidnappers.
13. After opening the national-security wing, the insurgents break open the criminal wing.
14. There is damage in the rehabilitation wing of the prison.
15. Taliban break down the door of the women’s section.
16. Most of the prisoners run across the ruins of the main gate and go south.
Full Story | See Also: Canadian military silent on Afghan civilian deaths: UN investigator | US Counterinsurgency Manual Leaked, Calls for False Flag Operations, Suspension of Human Rights | Report: U.S. Gave Green Light For Taliban Prison Attack | Don’t look, don’t tell, troops told in response to Afghani child abuse | Post-traumatic stress disorder’s hidden scars | Over 100 complaints about access to govt. info on Afghan mission: report | Canada sets up new military spy unit | Bid to Block Afghan Detainee Inquiry Slammed | Army begins using $150,000 artillery shells | FBI documents contradict 9/11 Commission report | Truth or Terrorism? The Real Story Behind Five Years of High Alerts | 9/11 widows call for new investigation after revelations of White House, commission ties | Director of 9/11 commission “secretly spoke with Rove, White House” | Eight U.S. State Department Veterans Challenge the Official Account of 9/11 | Twenty-five U.S. Military Officers Challenge Official Account of 9/11 | Ex-Italian President: Intel Agencies Know 9/11 An Inside Job | Afghan poll not as clear as it seems | 9/11 – the big cover-up? | New Bin Laden Video: 100% Forgery | What Ottawa doesn’t want you to know: Government was told detainees faced ‘extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial’ | The Lies that Led to War | U.S. Government Caught Red-Handed Releasing Staged Al-Qaeda Videos | US Allowed Taliban, Al-Qaeda Airlift Evacuation