A prisoner looks out of the window of Ghazni jail. (photo: Rahmat Alizada)
When the Taliban freed 350 inmates from a prison in Ghazni province in mid September, many Afghan government officials, local and international military experts thought it was another case of the militant Islamic group freeing their jailed comrades. However, when the militants closed on in Ghazni’s capital city from three directions almost a month later, it became clear that the jailbreak was just the first step in a complex plan to capture of the city.
Some 150 of the prisoners set free during the prison attack were Taliban, including a number of top commanders, who were captured by Afghan security forces during military operations in the past years. Some of these former jailed Taliban went on to play a leading role in the thwarted bid to seize control of the province in October.
According to several Afghan officials, the Taliban had initially planned to simultaneously attack Ghazni and the northern province of Kunduz, but due to logistical issues, the offensive on Ghazni was postponed. The militants took control of Kunduz city in late September, marking the first major victory for their 14-year-insurgency. Kunduz was retaken after three days when thousands of Afghan Special Forces were deployed to free the city.
Muhammad Ali Ahmadi, deputy governor in Ghazni province, told Afghanistan-today that the escaped Taliban commanders took the lead in the attack seeking to seize control on Ghazni city in mid October. “The Taliban escapees planned the attack on Ghazni city,” Ahmadi said, adding that the men had “accurate geographical information” of Ghazni city.
Ahmadi said that a Taliban commander named Ma’awaya, who had been a prisoner for twelve years, led the six men who attacked the prison. After the fall of Kunduz, the Taliban planned to use the escapees to capture Ghazni city but Afghan security forces fought back and two hundred and three Taliban were killed. No figures were available on how many Afghan troops died.
Ghulam Hussein Changiz, a member of the provincial council of Ghazni, said that the prison security officials helped the Taliban pull off the prison break. Mr. Ghulam Hussein Changiz said the Taliban escapees were immediately armed and sent to fight Afghan security forces. “Mullah Abdullah who is a resident of Mughelan village in central Ghazni is a local Taliban commander. Just two days after he escaped, he killed two police officers in the vicinity of a police checkpoint in Mughelan village and managed to escape,” he said.
An official at the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service, who opted to remain anonymous, confirmed the identities of those who escaped.
He added that three would-be suicide bombers named Fazel Bary, Zar Wali and Kefayatullah, who had planned to attack local police headquarters in the province, also managed to escape. He added that eleven police officers, including the head of the prison security have been arrested for negligence and involvement with the Taliban.
Muhammad Ali Karimi, Chief Judge at the Appeals Court of Ghazni, said he too had been offered bribes to collude with the Taliban. “The Taliban called me from Quetta, Pakistan and offered me anything in return for releasing three would-be suicide bombers named Fazel Yari, Zar Wali and Kefayatullah, but I did not accept the offer.” Karimi said, adding that at the trial, these three individuals later called judges 'infidels that must be killed'. According to Karimi, these three men were sentenced to death.
Police involved in the prison break
After midnight on September 14, 2015, the Taliban attacked Ghazni prison and freed three hundred and fifty-two prisons after a ten-minute firefight. Six Taliban members donning in uniform of Afghan security forces, led by Ma’awaya, blasted open the gate of the prison with an explosive-laden vehicle. Muhammad Ali, deputy governor in Ghazni, said that when the Taliban entered the prison wearing the uniform of Afghan police: they called out, “The Taliban have attacked the prison and if you do not want to get killed, leave the prison as soon as you can,” Ahmadi said. “The Taliban took serious security measures to make sure the prisoners get out as fast as possible. All security bases were attacked that night.” He said that thirty mobile phones, which the Taliban inside had used to coordinate with their organization outside of the prison, as well as contraband, were seized from the Taliban.
Khaleqdad Akbari, Chairman of the provincial council in Ghazni, said government employees were involved in the attack. “We contacted the Ministry of the Interior and managed to replace Hakeemullah Engaar, the former Chief of Police in Ghazni Province, with Aminullah Amarkhail. Eleven prison guards have been arrested, too,” Akbari said, adding that without the help of the police, the Taliban would never be able to break through several police checkpoints to get into the prison.
Shah Hussein Ahmadi, Acting Judge of the Military Court of the Provincial Police in Ghazni, said that seven police officers were arrested and are currently under investigation. Ahmadi did not provide further details.
Inmates shot dead by the Taliban
A prison escapee, who goes by the nickname Noorullah Qasim, is from the center of Ghazni and said that the Taliban killed a number of former inmates: “After the prison break, the Taliban took us all out and walked us for three hours until we reached a mosque in an area called Mangoor. The next day, judges asked about our crimes and made decisions,” Qasimi said. “The government employees, kidnappers and those arrested for moral crimes were all shot dead. The rest were released.”
Officials at the court of Ghazni province confirmed that some of the inmates have been shot dead by the Taliban. Muhammad Ali Karimi, chief judge at Ghazni court, said these included Enayatullah Taqat, a candidate for the provincial council of Ghazni province, and two local police who the NDS had arrested for kidnapping. He said the Taliban shot dead criminal prisoners and government employees on several occasions and released their bodies to their families.
Most of Ghazni is under the Taliban
Ghazni is one of the most insecure provinces of Afghanistan. It is largely under Taliban control. Ghazni has eighteen districts of which only Jaghoori, Qarabagh, Malestan and Khaja Omari are fully under the government rule. In other districts, the government only controls districts or villages and the Taliban controls the rest.
Ahmadi said that thousands of local Taliban and foreign fighters have gathered around Ghazni city and its districts. He told Afghanistan-today, that he had witnessed a recent upsurge in Taliban activity, spurred on by their successful bid to free inmates. “The Taliban are more active this year. After the prison break, the Taliban gained morale,” he said.
Shir Muhammad, a resident of Khak-e-Ghariba area in central Ghazni, said that the Taliban roam freely two kilometers from the city and collect taxes from people. “Every year, the Taliban send a letter to our mosque asking us to send our Islamic taxes to them,” he said. “They come to this area and fire rockets at government buildings.”