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The War Nerd / April 25, 2011

You can’t keep a good Talib down. Or in jail, apparently. The Taliban just staged a classic secret-tunnel escape from Saraposa Prison in Kandahar. The latest estimate is that about 500 prisoners made it out through this tunnel, but I’d bet the total will go up. Saraposa is designed to hold 1200 prisoners and there’s no shortage of Talibs in the neighborhood, since Kandahar is the big Pashtun city in the south, and used to be Mullah Omar’s HQ.

The authorities are shocked, in the Nevada Gaming Commission sense of “shocked,” that this could have happened. At least it gave us one great quote:

Afghan presidential spokesman Waheed Omar was blunt.
“This is a blow,” Omar told The Associated Press. “A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability.”

Oh, I wouldn’t go that far, Omar. I wouldn’t use the V-word, just because the Taliban just strolled out of your big prison for the second time in three years.

Omar says it points to a “vulnerability,” but when you translate that into English it points to something much simpler: total corruption of the prison staff.

The official story, which is just plain ridiculous, is that this is one of those classic POW escapes like some old British WW II drama about Stalag 17. Sure. The Talibs secretly dug a tunnel more than 300 meters long, right under the guards’ noses, right in the middle of a big city, and nobody noticed.

Afghan prison: You can check out any time you like.

That’s a major construction operation. Just think of the volume of dirt you’d have to move, the amount of noise you’d have to make. I’m not buying the idea that this was a Hogan’s Heroes operation with the Talibs sneaking out the excavated dirt inside their baggy pants and then opening the drawstring to let it fall out in the yard while they were getting their exercise. Even in Afghanistan, where dust was invented, that’d be enough dirt to be noticed. The prison yard would be a good-sized hill before the tunnel was finished. And the noise! This is something you know about if you grew up in Bakersfield. My friends and I would try to dig out forts in the dirt like Civil War soldiers used to, and we’d be shocked—in the real sense of shocked—because the dirt is so dry in Bakersfield that shovels bounced off it with this noise like they’d hit a car fender. You couldn’t dig yourself a fort unless you soaked the ground down for days, unless you had picks and bigger shoulders than we did. It wasn’t that different from digging in concrete.

And Bakersfield is only “semi-arid,” a humid jungle compared to Afghanistan. In a place like that, the dirt is either rock or dust. If it’s rock, you need heavy equipment to dig; if it’s dust, you need half a lumber yard to make supports for your tunnel. Either way, they didn’t do it with spoons.

The only question is whether it was threats, bribery or outright double agents helping the inmates. Although realistically, it could be all of the above. Siting a Taliban prison in Kandahar is stupid in the first place; any locals you recruit for your staff are going to be Pashtun, and that means Taliban. And even if they weren’t sympathetic to begin with, they’re living and breathing in Talib notions every day in a place like that. Prime the pump with a few thousand in cash or gold from your ISI friends and it wouldn’t be hard to recruit the whole prison staff to help you stage your big breakout. Cough up a few extra dollars for a boom box to play the Mission Impossible theme while they’re going through the tunnel and you’ve got the next big Taliban DVD.

One reason the prison staff would’ve been in a cooperative frame of mind is that they’d remember the last time the Taliban broke this prison wide open, in June 2008. That was a full-scale guerrilla operation, with at least 30 Taliban attackers breaking into Saraposa to free their friends inside. That attack had everything you’d want for a great action film: RPG teams ready to fire on the guard towers, a couple of suicide bombers loitering around the main entrance, and a huge fuel truck full of explosives parked by the gate. The signal was the the explosion of the truck, which blasted down the outer wall. The RPGs fired when they heard the explosion, pinning down the guards. Then suicide bombers ran through the gap and detonated against the inner walls. Every single prisoner in the place ran out, close to a thousand men.


Saraposa 2008: “Now THAT’S a break!”

And about a dozen guards were killed in the RPG and bomb attacks, crushed under adobe walls. You can see some of the damage in this bizarre news clip, voice-over’d by a lady who chirps along in a happy computer voice like she’s inviting you to join Verizon while she describes all the chaos and treachery that led to so much broken concrete.

What the messy, violent style of that 2008 break means is that maybe that one was a genuine secret plot, at least partly. I mean, that the guards may not have been in on it, at least not all of them. There were probably—Hell, there were almost certainly—Taliban supporters on the staff, but it looks like some of the staff weren’t on-board with the big break. That’s why they had to go in with bombs blazing and kill a few guards. In that way, the 2008 break was a disaster but at least it was a clean disaster, doesn’t mean your guard staff is totally infiltrated by Talibs.

This latest break does mean that. You have to figure every single guard at that prison has a few more gold coins buried in the corner of his house after not noticing all the heavy construction work for that tunnel. That’s if they even had to be bribed. Maybe they were just good patriotic Pashtun who were all for the break and took their turns with the pick and shovel.

Happy ending: Forrest Al-Gump runs for home

And maybe…well, this is where it gets weird…maybe the collusion went much higher than that. There’s a precedent, that’s for sure, for the idea that letting Taliban go free had the OK from the White House. I’m talking about one of the biggest unreported stories of 2001, the “airlift of evil,” in November 2001, when Dick Cheney personally approved a Pakistani request to fly thousands of Taliban and their ISI handlers out of Kunduz, which was about to be overrun by Northern Alliance Tajiks and Uzbek who were drooling at the thought of all those helpless Talib bastards finally at their mercy. Thanks to Cheney, every one of those stinking pederast killers made it safely out of Afghanistan for a little R&R in Islamabad before being infiltrated back into Afghanistan to kill Gis and slit schoolgirls’ throats. That was the first, and worst, of the big Afghan prison breaks, and it had CIA written all over it.

You can read about that 2001 airlift, which made US advisors on the ground so pissed off they called it the “Airlift of Evil,” in this great, brave story written by a guy called Michael Moran back in 2001. One thing I always look for out there, and don’t find much, is courage from the press. Not our press, anyway. Well, credit where it’s due: This Michael Moran wrote about Cheney’s sleazy moves back in November 2001, without groveling or flinching. And that wasn’t easy. I remember what it was like back then: if you didn’t squirt a few tears every time they showed the WTC, you were a Muzzie-loving traitor and deserved to hang. If you were brave back in the Fall of 2001, then—to quote that line about the prawns in Apocalypse Now—you’ll never have to prove your courage again. I’d never heard of Michael Moran before I found his story by googling for Afghan escapes, but I have to give him all honor now. Read his story and see if you can think of anybody now who’s that clear and brave about this stuff. We’ve come a long way in ten years, all of it down.

Read more:, Gary Brecher, The War Nerd

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28 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. my talkative ringpiece  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Prison escapes stop being funny when Dick Cheney’s behind them.

    Normally, yeah, they’re a laugh. Remember the guy who put a picture of Eddit Murphy on a fake ID card and walked right out, passing himself off as a staff member? “Black guy, black guy, check!” lol. Prison escaped usually involve some comical dumbness on the part of the prison.

  • 2. Jack Boot  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Why isn’t Cheney on trial for this?

    Silly question; the War on Terror is nothing more than a lethal version of Pro Wrestling…

  • 3. Charles  |  April 25th, 2011 at 9:09 am

    This was quite amazing when I heard this. And the reactions from the internet commentariat were astounding- even the Telegraph, the most rightwing paper in Britain, the retired colonels choice organ, well, here are some of the most recommended comments…..

    “Good for the escapees, I say. And exactly why are we trying to impose democracy in this tribal country? Bring our guys home now. ”

    “They might be our deadly enemies, but they are some of the finest fighting men in the world. They are going to win in the end because they care enough to die for their cause and we and Karzai’s men don’t.”

    Everyone in Britain knows the war is a lost cause, except the political class. It is not worth a single western soldier for that hellhole, not to mention the many more wounded and psychologically traumatised. And we have the human rights industry who are clamouring to throw out British passports to so many, many even with terrorist links.

  • 4. Brad  |  April 25th, 2011 at 9:18 am

    I grew up in Kern County. You’ll be proud to know that Bakersfield gets the same amount of rain as Kandahar. Lot less irrigation is happening over there, of course.

  • 5. globehead  |  April 25th, 2011 at 10:16 am

    There is a great German movie about the challenges of digging a long escape tunnel, from East to West Berlin in the 1960s. Appropriately titled, The Tunnel.

  • 6. Mac  |  April 25th, 2011 at 10:50 am

    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.

  • 7. Homer Erotic  |  April 25th, 2011 at 11:10 am

    This latest break does mean that. You have to figure every single guard at that prison has a few more gold coins buried in the corner of his house after not noticing all the heavy construction work for that tunnel. That’s if they even had to be bribed. Maybe they were just good patriotic Pashtun who were all for the break and took their turns with the pick and shovel.

    Or maybe they just didn’t want to be one of the dozen guards who would die a futile death in the next brazen Taliban raid. And if there’s really that much sympathy for the Taliban devil in Kandahar, any guards who would perish in such a raid would be widely viewed as having gotten what they deserved.

  • 8. C. of V.  |  April 25th, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Dear War Nerd,

    Do you really believe the Talibs had to dug a tunnel?
    I bet they were just told to go home, and the guards are covering their asses with this tunnel BS story.
    It is not as if any reporters from the West will be that eager to go there and personally check out the tunnel to verify the story. Not with that many Talibs on the loose around…

  • 9. Peter  |  April 25th, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I loved your article Gary. But then I read the news story, and it says the tunnel was made by Taliban working from the outside in.

  • 10. PJ  |  April 25th, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    According to the story in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/25/afghanistan-great-escape-taliban), all the digging happened from the outside in- some local talibs bought a building across the street from the prison and began the tunnel there, and dug until they came up inside the walls. So that takes care of the dirt issue. As for guard collusion, the talib escapee they interviewed laughed hard when the reporters suggested it; according to him the guards just didn’t give a shit and spent all their time smoking dope and napping, literally slept through the whole escape.

    Hanlon’s Razor: never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

  • 11. Destro  |  April 25th, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    There was that escape out of the American Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo where a Kosovo Albanian with CIA links who was in jail on charges he blew up a bus of Serb civilians was allowed to walk out and no one saw anything and the guards were all Americans.

  • 12. Karel  |  April 25th, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Gary

    The way i get it that they tunneled in, _not_ out.

    Like any number of these bank robberies, real or movie-style.

  • 13. allen  |  April 25th, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/23/AR2005082301525.html

    Here’s an article about how Iraqi detainees were just hours away from breaking out of the biggest American run prison via tunnel. They did dig the tunnel from the inside, and they really did spread the dirt around “the yard”.

    The only reason they got caught is that some miserable snitch fingered them, ruining what would have been a very entertaining news story for us all …

  • 14. Hanko  |  April 25th, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Do the Taliban take prisoners?
    And if so where do they keep them?

  • 15. pimp of the Balkans  |  April 25th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    The obvious lesson is to move the prisoners to an area across the world, or, failing that, establish the prison/camp smack in the middle of an enemy tribe’s area. Afghanistan’s a patchwork of warring tribes. How long would a bunch of Pashtun escapees survive in the hands of the friendly Tajik, say? They’d hunt them down like rabbits.

  • 16. APetteri  |  April 25th, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    http://www.shahamat-english.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6646:kandahar-prison-break-541-prisoners-freed-detailed-report&catid=1:news&Itemid=2

    “As per plan, Mujahideen started digging a 360 meter tunnel to the prison from the south side, which was completed after a 5 month period, bypassing enemy check posts and Kandahar-Herat main highway leading directly to the political prison.

    The tunnel reached its target last night, from where the prisoner Mujahideen were led away through the escape route by 3 previously informed inmates in a period of four and a half hours, starting from 11:00 pm last night and ending at 3:30 am this morning. Mujahideen later on sent vehicles to the inmates who were led away to secure destinations.

    The most astonishing thing throughout the operation, as reported by Mujahideen informants was that all the enemy forces inside the prison, which includes foreign invaders, did not notice the results of the operation even 4 hours later and hence has not released any statements. Mujahideen had also placed a Martyrdom seeking group near the prison, whose need did not arise due to the inaction shown by the enemy.”

  • 17. luuletaja  |  April 25th, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Actually, they dug from the outside, not it would matter much as there was inside corruption as well, for the keys of the cells and etc but I presume those guards ran as well, no need to wander around anymore inside the walls when deed is done.

  • 18. derpotism  |  April 25th, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    This just reminds me of Iron Man for some weird reason and now I just want to see a war nerd article about the pros/cons of power armor because that’s a nerd shitstorm worth investigating

  • 19. Michal  |  April 25th, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Jesus Christ. Did that “Airlift of Evil” actually happen or did someone make that up? I’m reading about it on wiki and…holy fuck. Was Cheney really that much of an asshole? What on earth was that guy thinking
    Please tell me those people made it up.

  • 20. Victorvalley Villain  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    @18, (I know the WR fans arn’t exactly into left politics, but. . . )

    China Mieville trued to shop an idea for a class war Iron Man comic – Scrap Iron Man.

    http://boingboing.net/2011/04/07/class-war-comics-scr.html

  • 21. Victorvalley Villain  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    * tried / trud. (damn I murdered that.)

  • 22. coldequation  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    This Moran guy seems to have made a few good calls: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Moran_(journalist)

    One column in particular, written in December, 1999, was entitled “Times’s Up for the Taliban”[7] and, citing the threat Osama bin Laden presented to major cities in the United States, advocated a U.S.-led coalition of like-minded states invade and capture the al-Qaida leader. He broke the 2004 story of inadequate armor on American Humvee patrol vehicles, a revelation which, combined with the quick, angry response of service parents, ultimately forcing the Pentagon to spend tens of millions to “back-armor” the vehicles.[8][9]

    But there’s not much demand for truth, so guys like Tom Friedman, David Brooks, Kristof the Klown, Kristol the NeoKlown, etc, are the ones we’ve heard of.

  • 23. Dejo  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Nobody would’ve tried this with the Bolsheviks in power. You fuck up, the Bolsheviks kill you and your entire family. It makes a man think twice about being a sloth or being a spy, even if he’s a Pashtun. Want to discipline and efficiency to the Afghan National Army and its contingents? Introduce Bolshevism there. I mean real Bolshevism, not the kind of shit Brezhnev tried to pull there.

  • 24. captain america  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    if i infer correctly, cheney calculated that letting a few pakistani mujahideen go in return for pakistan letting us use their airspace and territory for waging war in afghanistan was an acceptable tradeoff. not saying that’s right, but i think that was the logic. seriously, how would you guys wage this war without at least partial cooperation from pakistan?

  • 25. fajensen  |  April 26th, 2011 at 12:06 am

    how would you guys wage this war without at least partial cooperation from pakistan?

    Well, It would be harder and more expensive to fly jihaddis in from Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Saudi Arabia than it is to just let Pakistan do all the sourcing, but I am sure that with the unlimited resources provided by the reserve currency something could be arranged.

  • 26. Q30  |  April 26th, 2011 at 5:25 am

    This is the first time I’ve heard of the airlift of evil.

    Wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened. During the Balkan wars, it was known that Islamic fundamentalists were fighting alongside Bosnian Muslims; Iran was supplying arms in violation of the embargo and the US looked the other way (the US may have even flown-in weapons to Tuzla at night in ’94 and ’95). The Dutch govt released a rather detailed report about it a few years later.

    See: “Intelligence and the war in Bosnia 1992 – 1995: The role of the intelligence and security services,” Dr. Cees Wiebes.

  • 27. Tim McGovern  |  April 26th, 2011 at 6:19 am

    “where dust was invented”

    Ha!

  • 28. David  |  April 26th, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Just in time for easter sunday, 500 Talibs rise from the earth in a halo of light, reflected and sparkling off the dust in their safehouse.


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