South Asia

Afghanistan: Kandahar raid exposes security weaknesses

An Afghan border police keeps watch from a building which was used by the Taliban forces to attack the Kandahar governor"s office in Kandahar city May 8, 2011
Many of the insurgents killed over the weekend had escaped from a central jail just weeks beforehand

One of the most audacious raids by the Taliban in recent months paralysed the southern city of Kandahar over the weekend, as militants launched a co-ordinated assault on the very heart of government there.

Dozens of insurgents were involved as they positioned vehicles packed with explosives across the city and fought street battles with security forces.

Kandahar is no stranger to violence. But the frequency of attacks in the past few weeks has shocked even the most pessimistic officials in the Afghan administration.

"Forget humans, even the birds have fled the city," one shopkeeper in Kandahar's Chowke Madad district said.

Prison escape

The attack comes as a major blow and an embarrassment to the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai less than two weeks after hundreds of Taliban, among them field commanders, managed to escape from Kandahar's main prison.

A senior Kandahar police official blamed the latest attacks on last month's escape.

The official, who did not want to be named, told the BBC: "If Taliban field commanders - some of them the very backbone of the insurgency - had not escaped from the prison, attacks like this would not have occurred."

Many believe the complex nature of the Taliban assault was due to the presence of these experienced fighters. Most of the insurgents killed in this incident were in fact those who had escaped from the jail.

Nato says up to 60 militants took part in the attack. The Taliban puts the number at 100. Twenty-five of them were killed as well as three civilians and two Afghan security personnel. Many other people were left injured.

The Taliban has warned of attacks to avenge the death of Osama Bin Laden, but it says the Kandahar raid was not connected to the al-Qaeda leader's death - a point disputed by President Karzai.

No matter what the motivation, life has ground to a halt in Kandahar, the commercial hub of southern Afghanistan and the home province of both Mr Karzai and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

The streets are empty and the shops are shut. With people too afraid to go out, it raises yet more questions over the security situation ahead of a fighting season.

Police loss

Less than two weeks, ago I met the acting police chief of Kandahar, Sher Shah Yousafzai. He predicted it all.

Afghan border police fire at the Taliban forces from a rooftop during clashes in Kandahar city (8 May 2011)
Police were positioned in government buildings across the city during the two-day assault

"The past 17 days were the worst in 30 years of my police service," Mr Yousafzai said when I met him shortly after the prison break in late April.

He explained how the authorities and civilians were trying to come to grips with a chaotic situation throughout April. Taliban fighters had carried out a string of bomb attacks, assassinations and suicide attacks in the city.

Then on 15 April, a suicide attacker, dressed as a policeman, entered the police headquarters in the city and detonated explosives attached to his body. That attack killed the police chief of Kandahar and Mr Yousafzai's boss, Khan Mohammed Mujahid.

Mr Mujahid's loss was a big blow to the war on the Taliban and the authorities were still in mourning when the Taliban freed 488 of their fighters in the prison break shortly afterwards.

"We have many challenges ahead of us this summer," Mr Yousufzai said.

"Number one is the escape of 106 Taliban commanders. My force has paid in blood to capture these men. Now that they are out, this will have an impact on Kandahar's security."

One official in Afghanistan's spy agency told me that some of those who escaped had been responsible for roadside bombs, suicide attacks and the supply of weapons to the Taliban.

No life

People in the city say Kandahar has become a war zone.

"As soon as it gets dark, there is no life in Kandahar city,'' says Haji Malik, a secondary school teacher. "Shops and businesses close. The only thing you see are Afghan and international forces patrolling the city."

"There is no life for common people here," said another, a local tribal elder.

Back in the city, I met a senior officer working with the country's spy agency. He said he was frustrated that the prison break took place despite alerts issued by them. The official asked one of his aides to bring a file.

The bulky file contained dozens of NDS reports warning the prison directorate of Taliban's plan to launch an assault on the prison.

''Credible intelligence from our operatives in the field and our sources indicate the enemy wants to attack the prison, please review your security inside and outside of the prison,'' one of the reports said.

The obvious question was what does this mean for the security of the province ahead of the summer?

''This is a disaster," the NDS officer said. "We lost dozens of our officers, police, army and international forces in trying to capture these men. They are the backbone of Taliban insurgency.

"But there is no point in moaning now when the genie is out of the bottle."