The audacious liberation of 475 political prisoners, many of them Islamic militants, from Kabul's Sarposa prison is a publicity coup for the Taliban - and a huge blow in morale for the Afghan government - and for NATO troops. It invites doubts about what institutions the Karzai government can run effectively, if it cannot manage a prison.
The escape, coming as the spring fighting season begins, will threaten coalition gains made over the winter.
Although Afghan and NATO forces have launched a huge operation to recapture the inmates - and reportedly arrested 26 - the government must do more to show that it can be trusted to enforce the rule of law. While Canada's combat mission in Kandahar is almost over, 950 soldiers and support staff have been committed to a three-year training mission. Canada has also spent $127-million to support the rule of law in Afghanistan, and another $5.5-million to train correctional officers.
"Events like this erode the goodwill of the West," said David Bercuson, director for the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
The prisoners escaped through a 1,000-foot underground tunnel dug by insurgents that ended at the entrance of the prisoners' political cell block. A handful of inmates who knew of the plan unlocked cells and spirited away their fellow-prisoners a few at a time.
The tunnel was started in a house within shooting distance of the prison, and took five months to build. Nobody ever reported anything suspicious, which suggests collusion of prison guards or officials. And, despite security cameras around the prison, Afghan guards and NATO forces failed to detect the breakout until 4 a.m. Monday, half an hour after the escapees had left.
The prison underwent security upgrades after a 2008 attack, when Taliban militants blasted their way in, and freed 900 inmates.
This "great escape" shows that, despite the vast expenditure, enormous human sacrifice and assistance of NATO troops, the government and its institutions remain weak, especially in southern Afghanistan, where authorities are unable to carry out their most basic responsibilities.