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04.25.11

Taliban Prison Break: How They Did It

In a stunning escape, nearly 500 Taliban fled an Afghanistan prison through an underground tunnel on Monday. Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai talk exclusively to two freed men about how they pulled it off, what their next move is—and why this is a big blow to the U.S. war effort.

Mullah Asadullah Akhund had a hunch that something was going on—but he wasn’t sure what. He recalls that over the past few months there was a “sort of smile in the eyes” of one of the top Taliban commanders who was incarcerated with him in the political wing of the Kandahar jail.

Early Monday morning he learned the secret the commander had been hiding. At about 2 a.m., as he was sleeping on his cell’s hard cement floor, he was awakened by someone tugging on the big toe of his right foot, Akhund told The Daily Beast exclusively in a cell phone call. It was the senior commander, who told him in a whisper to quietly get up and go to another adjoining cell, where someone would show him the way to freedom. Hardly believing what he had heard, he quickly did as he was told and soon found himself in an underground tunnel with a line of other Taliban prisoners who were making their escape.

As he began moving through the narrow passageway in a crouch, he says another Taliban commander holding a flash light ahead of him told him to be calm, and that more Taliban were waiting at the end of the tunnel to take care of them. “It was the greatest escape of my life,” he says. “It was like a dream.”

Akhund, a 30-year-old Taliban commander who was arrested in Marjah last year and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison, was one of nearly 500 Taliban fighters and commanders who made a storybook escape from the high-security Kandahar prison in the predawn hours of Monday. As the Taliban tell the tale, insurgents and their supporters had worked like ants for more than five months to dig the tunnel from inside a sympathizer’s house, secretly removing the earth bit by bit in pickups, tractor-pulled trailers and even donkey carts. The tunnel ran from the house, then under the main Kandahar-to-Herat highway and finally into a central cell block of the prison’s political wing.

The jailbreak is not only a major psychological victory for the insurgents—who are being hard-pressed by U.S. troop reinforcements in Kandahar and Helmand provinces—but it also re-infuses the Taliban’s ranks with some of their most experienced, respected and savvy commanders.

“Among us are some of the strongest commanders from Kandahar City and the region,” says a 28-year-old Kandahar City commander who freshly escaped and who requested anonymity as he spoke to The Daily Beast by cell phone.

It’s clearly a major blow to the U.S. war effort in the south that had prided itself on how many Taliban commanders it had killed and captured over the past few months, and on how those loses seemed to have reversed the previous momentum that the insurgents had enjoyed in the region where Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Taliban was born. The great escape also calls into question—once again—the ability of the Kabul government and its security forces to maintain security in areas that are not directly controlled by American forces.

“Among us are some of the strongest commanders from Kandahar City and the region,” says a 28-year-old who freshly escaped.

“Faith has overcome and defeated technology for the second time,” crowed a Taliban website Monday, referring to another daring, but violent, jailbreak in June 2008 when Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen broke though the walls of the same prison, killing some 15 guards and freeing some 1,200 prisoners, among them more than 350 Taliban. “We are poor in technology, but with the help of All Mighty Allah we embarrassed the enemy with all its technology and weapons,” says the Kandahar City commander, who was captured three years ago and sentenced to 15 years in jail, as he enjoyed his first day of freedom by sipping green tea in a Taliban safe house inside the city with his friends. “We dedicate this victory to Mullah Omar.”

The escapees sounded more committed than ever to rejoin the fight. “Getting out of jail does not mean I will say goodbye to the jihad,” says Akhund. “I’m even more determined to drive the foreigners and their puppets out of Afghanistan.” “We will now be fighting in the jihad with a clearer, smarter mind,” adds the Kandahar commander. They both sound more radicalized by their jail time. “We experienced the worst beating and torture in prison,” says the Kandahar commander. “But what was worse was the abusive language they used against our leader, Mullah Omar. Now I hate the Americans, the (Afghan) army and police even more.”

Both men, and presumably their recently freed fellow combatants, emphasize how grateful they are to the Taliban’s organization, which is often viewed as being disjointed, if not completely chaotic, that never forgot them and worked so hard for their release. “I’m glad our mujahideen didn’t forget us and cared for us,” says the Kandahar commander. “We salute that mujahideen who did this long-term project and kept the secret for so long.”

As the two freed commanders recount their escape, they marvel at the secrecy and organization that went into the successful plot.

At one point as he moved through the tunnel, Akhund feared it would collapse. He says he felt a rumbling and some dirt falling from the tunnel’s roof when a heavy truck moved along the highway overhead. At the tunnel’s exit, he says there were five or six Taliban suicide bombers wearing explosive vests and carrying heavy weapons, guiding the men as they emerged from the hole in the house’s floor to pickup trucks, buses, and motorcycles for their final getaway. Akhund was taken away in a pickup (its lights switched off) with 10 other escapees on a 20-minute drive to a Taliban safe house in the city. The vehicle then went back to pick up more escapees. From there he and a couple of other freed prisoners hired a local truck in the village that took them to the town of Geresk just inside Helmand province, where he is celebrating his release with friends. “I never thought I’d ever get out from behind those high, thick walls of my enemies,” he says.

The Kandahar commander says the operation on the inside was headed by three senior commanders. He too was awakened just after midnight by one of the three commanders, who confiscated each man’s contraband cell phone to prevent anyone from phoning the good news and giving away the plan as they escaped. His journey through the tunnel, which was perhaps two meters wide and two and a half meters high, took five to 10 minutes, he estimates. He too says that several suicide bombers wearing explosive vests were waiting at the end. He was transported in a large truck with 50 other escapees to a safer location immediately after he emerged from the hole.

The original plan, the commander says, was that the suicide bombers would go into the jail through the tunnel after the last men had escaped and wait for the guards and officials to discover that the political prisoner wing was empty. They would then blow themselves up, killing everyone. But that plan was aborted at the last minute. According to the Taliban, prison officials only discovered the great escape and the empty political wing at 7 a.m., several hours after the prisoners had already fled into Kandahar City and the surrounding towns and villages. After a brief rest, they will begin plotting their revenge, they say.

Sami Yousafzai is Newsweek's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.