Was Afghanistan’s “Great Escape” actually a great big sham?

Escape route or stage set? The Afghan justice minister insists that this tunnel was not used to help Taliban detainees escape from Kandahar's Sarposa Prison.</p>

Escape route or stage set? The Afghan justice minister insists that this tunnel was not used to help Taliban detainees escape from Kandahar's Sarposa Prison.

Truth can be stranger than fiction in this land of endless conspiracies.

I have a source I’ll call “Deep Throat.” For all you post-boom babies out there who do not remember Watergate, go get a copy of “All the President’s Men” if you want to understand the cultural reference. My source and I do not meet in parking garages, and I actually do know his real name, but you get the idea.

Working inside the Afghan government, he comes up with juicy tidbits that are almost always too far-fetched for me to use. In fact, until a few days ago, I thought he was a bit bonkers.

The news item that rehabilitated Deep Throat for me was buried in a report by Tolo, Afghanistan’s most popular private television station. The Afghan Justice Minister, Habibullah Ghalib, had just announced that the widely publicized prison break that had titillated the country and embarrassed the government was a fake.

According to the minister, the 500 or so “escapees” had not tunneled their way to freedom through 1,000 feet of dirt and clay, but had instead been let out through the front gate

The minister was pretty stingy with details after his electrifying assertion, and few new organizations have pursued it. Collusion between prison guards and the Taliban was assumed, but this level of cooperation surpassed anything that had been reported so far.

I was taken aback because Deep Throat had said as much the day after the news of the escape had broken in the media. I had rejected his report, thinking, perhaps naively, that even in Afghanistan that was just too strange to be believed.

According to DT, the much-vaunted tunnel, complete with ventilation, lighting, and support beams, that was shown to journalists a few days after the break-out actually only extended a few dozen meters. It was more or less a stage set.

In fact, according to the Associated Press, journalists were not allowed into the tunnel, but were given just a glimpse through a shaft dug into it from above.

“None of those Talibs were going to get down into that hole,” laughed DT. “They were too afraid it would collapse.”

The big getaway, he insisted, was actually a secret deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It was a way of agreeing to one of the insurgents’ major demands — prisoner release — without being seen to caving in to pressure from the insurgents.

This would, presumably, sweeten the Taliban for future negotiations, without unduly annoying the Americans, who have refused to make concessions while the fighting continues.

I cannot substantiate this version of events — the government, of course, pooh-poohs it entirely, while admitting that the security forces failed in their duty.

The prison’s warden, Ghulam Dastagir Mayar, has been sacked, and President Hamid Karzai has promised an extensive investigation into the possible complicity of prison staff.

But conspiracy-happy Afghans have embraced the thought of a back-room deal; strangely enough, they seem more disposed to believe in their government’s perfidy than in the total incompetence of their security forces.

“I certainly hope the government was involved,” said one Kandahar resident the day after the escape. “If almost 500 Taliban can escape from the prison without anybody noticing, we are really in trouble.”

Wahid Mojda, a Kabul-based political analyst who worked as a civil servant in the Taliban administration in Kabul, dismisses the government-Taliban conspiracy theory.

“The Taliban would not have agreed to do this so secretly,” he said. “They do not gain any political capital from the prisoner release if it is all done behind the scenes. It seems to me this is a very weak hypothesis.”

While the Taliban may not be able to boast of any political concessions wrung from the Kabul government, they did gain ample bragging rights over the brazen escape. Their gloating reports to the media emphasized their daring and cunning, as well as the sheer incompetence of the security forces.

The official story is that on the night of April 24-25, beginning at approximately 11 p.m., nearly 500 detainees in the political wing of Kandahar’s Sarposa prison were able to crawl through a narrow tunnel to a nearby house, get onto pre-arranged buses and get safely away from the city before the prison guards finally noticed that something was up. For some reason all of the prisoners’ cells had been left unlocked overnight, ostensibly so they could use the communal toilet facilities in the cell block.

Security officials did not raise the alarm until nearly 7 a.m., almost four hours after the final prisoner had crawled, walked or hobbled away.

So which is more unbelievable: that the Afghan government would negotiate a massive prisoner release and then lie to their own people about it, or that a small band of Taliban sympathizers could spend months constructing a fully ventilated, well-lit and properly supported tunnel stretching over 1,000 feet into the heart of Afghanistan’s harshest prison without word leaking out?

Whichever version of unreality you choose, it does not bode well for a sane and successful future for Afghanistan.

But I have resolved to pay more attention to Deep Throat in the future.