Kandahar, Afghanistan (AFP) April 26, 2011
An audacious jailbreak which saw hundreds of Taliban escape an Afghan prison through a tunnel threatens to undermine war gains claimed by US-led troops at a crucial time, experts say.
NATO forces in the south, the key battleground in nearly a decade of fighting and the Taliban's heartland, claimed major progress in operations last year following a troop surge led by the United States.
Western officials have said the coming months would be a litmus test of whether they could hold on to the gains made, and the war as a whole.
But after 488 Taliban, including what the militia said were 106 commanders, disappeared from Kandahar jail this week through a kilometre-long tunnel, there are fears that unrest could escalate.
Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network predicted the jailbreak would prove "deeply troubling" to international forces, saying it threatened to undo much of their progress in the south and give the Taliban a motivational lift.
"I don't think this is just an issue about extra numbers or the fact that you have got experienced commanders going back out," she said. "There's also the issue of the huge morale boost that this has given to the Taliban."
She stressed that the "intelligent, clever operation" -- which reportedly saw insurgents selling dirt excavated from the tunnel at Kandahar's bazaar -- would lend the Taliban a sense of momentum in the eyes of many Afghans.
But a key question in the aftermath of the breakout is how senior are members of the Taliban who managed to escape.
It seems unlikely they are top figures, who are usually transferred to bigger prisons such as at Bagram and Pul-e-Charki in Kabul, after being captured.
Some could be mid-level commanders, though. International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman Brigadier-General Josef Blotz said it was "too early" to comment on who escaped and the likely impact on the battlefield.
But a Western military official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP the number of commanders was "way below" the 106 claimed by the Taliban. Another Western security source said it could even be as low as three or four.
Clark described such mid-level commanders, who could have dozens of foot soldiers serving under them, as the "backbone of the insurgency".
Other experts predicted that the experience of insurgents in an Afghan jail, where conditions are frequently insanitary and overcrowded, could bolster their determination to fight pro-government forces.
"These people will have bad memories from the time of their detention, they will have bad memories from interrogations and I'm sure they will come back and wreak revenge," said Noor-Ul Haq Ulumi, a former Afghan general with extensive experience in the south.
The Taliban itself issued a fresh salvo in its slick propaganda campaign with spokesman Tariq Ghazniwal on Tuesday predicting foreign forces faced "more military and political defeats".
Disillusioned locals in Kandahar seemed resigned to more bloodshed in the aftermath of the massive breach.
"This prison break has made everybody extremely worried," said Gul Mohammad, a shopkeeper in the city.
"The Taliban say there were 106 Taliban commanders among them. This means now they are freed, they will be involved in insecurity again," he said.
"They will create another 106 groups (of fighters) and carry out attacks and NATO forces will bomb them in return and civilians will get killed."
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