Afghan Prison Break: Will It Hurt U.S. Strategy?

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Allauddin Khan / AP

An Afghan policemen takes a look at the opening of tunnel at the main prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan which prisoners escaped through on Monday, April 25, 2011.

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The escape is not the prison's first. About 900 inmates broke out in June 2008 during a coordinated attack by Taliban insurgents in which a huge truck bomb blew open the front gate of the compound and a suicide bomber attacked the rear of the complex. A second attack, in March 2010, saw four suicide bombers kill more than 30 people as they struck a hotel and police station near the prison, possibly in an attempt to free insurgents.

Now, after months of relative peace and quiet in the Arghandab River Valley — the scene of heavy fighting at this time last year — there is fear among U.S. and Afghan security forces that this mass escape will lead to a dramatic uptick in violence. "If I was a Taliban commander right now, I'd be thinking this is a great recruiting opportunity," one soldier says. "Obviously a lot of time and money went into this. The leadership wouldn't spend all that money to free these guys just to give them a monthlong vacation. They freed them to fight. I guarantee we'll see something happening in Arghandab soon. I give it a week, two max."

After months of bloody firefights in which the Taliban laid dense belts of IEDs that caused heavy casualties among coalition forces, the Arghandab River Valley has seen relative stability over the fall and winter. Historically, fighting has begun in Arghandab around early April as leaf cover becomes denser. But this year the fighting has been delayed by growing popular support — or at least grudging acceptance — of coalition forces, a dramatic increase in the number of combat outposts across the area with the Obama Administration's surge and the unearthing of high numbers of weapons caches.

Because of the saturation of troops, the Taliban had changed tactics from head-to-head firefights and IED placement to putting pressure on local leaders. "I'm expecting more intimidation, for sure," says Lieut. Colonel David Flynn, commander of the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, the unit tasked with securing most of the western side of the Arghandab River Valley until mid-April. "What I see happening is, they're going to come back in groups of three to five. They might stay together, they might not stay together. The larger they are, the easier they are to find. They will put in some IEDs in places that we don't have under direct observation, and they will intimidate the maliks [traditional village leaders]. One malik has already been assassinated. So if another malik is assassinated, it would certainly be in line with the strategy that we think is unfolding right now." Just a couple weeks ago, Taliban fighters assassinated the Kandahar provincial police chief at his headquarters after several previous attempts.

Lieut. Colonel Mike Kirkpatrick, commander of the 3-71 Cavalry Squadron of the 10th Mountain Division, the unit that replaced the 101st last week in Arghandab, believes that U.S. forces will see more than just intimidation this fighting season. "I think we're going to see a shift in the enemy's tactics this season. What did they lose last year that they really want back? I think they're going to consolidate their efforts to try and make that one gain, to get a foothold back into the western Arghandab. I think they're going to try and re-establish a foothold into the western Arghandab by making some kind of attack to regain some piece of key terrain that they had last year," Kirkpatrick told TIME in an interview late last week.

With its ranks repopulated with escaped fighters, the Taliban may just be prepared to go back to head-to-head fighting this spring.

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