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Aftermath of Mass Breakout: Taliban Threatens New Wave of Prison Raids

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Western forces in Afghanistan are worried that last Friday's well-organized prison raid that freed 1,000 inmates -- including around 400 Taliban fighters -- will further embolden the militant group. It has already vowed to mount further attacks to free its members from Afghan jails.

On Saturday, Qari Yousef Ahmadi was beside himself with joy. "We planned it for a long time, we observed very closely and we won," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE by telephone from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. "Our brothers are now in safety." Ahmadi added confidently that so far the commanders have reintegrated 400 former Taliban prisoners into their ranks and that the others will soon rejoin the Islamist fighters.

Ahmadi is the Taliban's spokesman in Afghanistan and is known to have often exaggerated his side's accomplishments in the past. Regarding Friday night's actions, however, Ahmadi did not have to add much embellishment. In Western military circles, the raid on the prison in Kandahar, the provincial capital in southern Afghanistan, has been labeled a "nightmare." A commando raid freed nearly 1,000 prisoners, including 400 fighters and some low-level commanders of the Taliban.

Ahmadi was only too happy to report on the Taliban's mission. Approximately 80 fighters participated in the raid, which they initiated by blowing up the prison's main gate with a truck bomb. Following the blast, dozens of fighters drove into the prison's main yard on motorcycles, shot the guards and freed the prisoners. Eyewitnesses have even reported that the freed prisoners were shuttled away in minibuses.

'You Can't Do Something Like This Alone'

For the Taliban, the raid is a major success. For Afghanistan's government and the soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it's the third big setback of the year after the attack on a parade attended by President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in April and the January assault on Kabul's luxury Serena hotel, a five-star establishment favored by Westerners. Carlos Branco, NATO's normally unflappable spokesman in Afghanistan, had to admit that the Taliban had pulled off a "very successful operation."

An initial analysis of the attack confirms the massive doubts about the ability of the Afghan forces to guarantee security in the country without foreign assistance. Western intelligence agents suspect that this operation -- like the two before it -- was facilitated by informants or collaborators within the Afghan security forces. "You can't do something like this alone," a German intelligence agent told SPIEGEL ONLINE:

Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, Munid Mangal, who rushed back to Kandahar after the attack, rejected such suspicions as speculation on Saturday. He said no evidence had been found so far that Afghan police were involved in the plot.

However, the governor of the prison is being investigated. It's already known that the attackers had lain in wait around the prison for days and had coordinated the assault with the prisoners on the inside via mobile phone.

Taliban spokesman Ahmadi made new threats. "The liberated fighters will immediately rejoin the ranks and plan the next attacks against ISAF and all those who collaborate with the Afghan government," he said. He also announced that, in the weeks to come, the Taliban would attempt to raid other prisons "in order to finally liberate all our brothers and sisters."

It's regarded as unlikely that the escaped inmates -- around 400 of whom are believed to be Taliban members -- will be recaptured. "Our people are in safety in areas where even NATO would not dare to go," said Ahmadi.

NATO has announced that it will support the Afghan army by providing aerial reconnaissance assistance as well as soldiers in the field. Nevertheless, experts doubt that these efforts will meet with success.

The raid had already been preceded by a spectacular hunger strike among the prisoners in May which was barely noticed in the West but which attracted a lot of attention in Afghanistan. Hundreds of inmates joined the strike in protest against alleged torture and to demand fair trials. There was also much publicity when a dozen imprisoned Taliban members sewed their mouths shut.

'The Escapees Will Now Become Heroes'

NATO has tried very hard to play down the success of the raid. "We should not draw any conclusion about the deterioration of the military operations in the area," Branco said. "We should not draw any conclusion about the strength of the Taliban."

At the same time, however, observers believe the operation has had a significant psychological effect. "The Taliban has shown that it is not only capable of dispatching suicide attackers but is also in a position to launch complicated operations," comments one high-ranking member of the intelligence community. "There will be consequences."

One of these consequences is that the Taliban spokesman has been organizing interviews with some of the escaped prisoners. Even if the accounts of the men -- who are always only identified by their noms de guerre -- cannot be substantiated, members of the Western military fear that interviews of this type will have a strong effect in Afghanistan. "The escapees will now become heroes," says one US officer, "and symbols that the government is more than weak."

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