Ottawa Citizen

Prison break proves Taliban far from waving white f lag

- DAVID PUGLIESE ANALYSIS

The word doesn’t appear to have reached the Taliban that they’re a force on their last legs.

That message has been one that NATO has been pounding home over the last several months. Canadian commanders hailed their latest mission, Operation Rolling Thunder, as proof coalition forces could pretty much go where they wanted in southern Afghanista­n.

A couple of weeks ago, the top NATO commander in the country, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, told a journalist that the Taliban in southern Afghanista­n had been routed and were fleeing toward safe havens in Pakistan.

In February, Britain’s Brig. Andrew Mackay said the Taliban had been brought to their knees in Helmand province. The insurgency was lacking fighters because of the large numbers killed by coalition troops, he added.

But yesterday, insurgents launched a bold attack on the Sarpoza prison in Kandahar, freeing a large number of inmates. Afghan officials say as many as 1,100 prisoners, including 400 Taliban, escaped into the night. Other reports put the number at between 750 and 800.

The attacks appear well coordinate­d and planned, beginning with a large explosion at the entrance of the prison that caused its front walls to collapse. PRISON BREAK:

CANADIAN TROOPS DEPLOYED TO AID IN ROUND-UP,

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That was followed by insurgents on around 30 motorcycle­s, armed with rocket propelled grenades and small arms, moving into the prison itself.

At least two guards were killed.

Kandahar’s Sarpoza prison is one of the showcases for the work the Canadian government has been doing in Afghanista­n. More than $1 million has been spent on improving the facility and officials from Correction­s Canada run a program to train guards and ensure prisoners are humanely treated.

The attack could indeed be a last-ditch attempt by a failing insurgency to replenish its ranks.

That, however, seems unlikely, says Colin Kenny, head of the Senate’s committee on security and national defence.

“The message this attack sends is that the insurgents can act with relative impunity even into downtown Kandahar,” said Mr. Kenny, a Liberal senator whose committee has called for more Canadian police and NATO troops to be assigned to the Afghan mission.

“The other message it sends is to the insurgent rank and file; if you get captured, we’ll get you out.”

The attack also raises questions about recent claims that insurgents are no longer capable of operating in a cohesive manner.

Insurgents still use coordinate­d attacks when it suits their needs; but instead of attacking coalition forces they have concentrat­ed their efforts against Afghan police.

In a two-day period on May 26 and 27, insurgents launched seven IED attacks, one ambush and one co-ordinated raid, all on Afghan police installati­ons or per- sonnel, according to an intelligen­ce report obtained by the

Citizen. The raid involved an estimated 200 insurgents who seized a police station in the Spin Boldak area in Kandahar province. Thirty-two police officers were taken hostage and four killed in the raid, according to the report.

At the same time, NATO can expect the Taliban to make use of the prison break as a propaganda tool. Unlike the rural areas, Kandahar is supposed to be firmly under Afghan government and NATO control.

The raid shows the insurgency is still a force to be reckoned with.

The attack also has the potential of allowing insurgents to gain some extra support among the local population. The majority of those in the prison were Afghans accused of regular crimes.

It isn’t uncommon for innocent people to be taken into custody because they have crossed local security officers or because of disagreeme­nts with well-connected tribal or Karzai government officials.

By freeing those innocent people, the Taliban can position itself as striking out against what they will claim is a corrupt Karzai government.

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