• The Star Staff

Jailbreak attack by ISIS rages on in eastern Afghanistan

Afghan security forces near the site of an attack on a jail compound in Jalalabad, on Monday

By Zabihullah Ghazi and Mujib Mashal

A militant assault on a prison complex in eastern Afghanistan turned into a gunbattle that was still raging 16 hours later Monday, as officials scrambled to recapture hundreds of prisoners, including many from the Islamic State and the Taliban.

The attack started at the prison in Jalalabad on Sunday night with a car bomb explosion that breached its security perimeter, as attackers with assault rifles streamed in and started a gunbattle with guards. As of Monday, at least 21 people had been killed and 43 others wounded, according to Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the government of Nangarhar province. The casualties included civilians, inmates and security forces, officials said.

“After the car bomb, two of the fighters who had suicide vests, machine guns and RPG launchers climbed a plaza across from the prison and have been fighting from there,” said Ahmad Ali, the head of the Nangarhar provincial council, referring to rocket-propelled grenade launchers. “Inside the prison, from what I have heard, there are 11 attackers who are fighting, but that is difficult to confirm exactly now.”

The assault was claimed by loyalists of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, whose territory has been constricted significantly by a campaign of military operations against them over the past couple of years. But that group was not necessarily the biggest winner in the jailbreak: A senior Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that only a third of the prison’s population of 1,500 were ISIS loyalists. The rest were split among Taliban prisoners and criminals. And for a while, at least, all of them got a chance to break free.

On Monday afternoon, Khogyani said that nearly 1,000 prisoners who had tried to escape had been rearrested. But with the prison still broken open, and with the area under tight military restrictions, his claim was difficult to verify.

A military official said that about 300 inmates who were trying to escape had been taken to an army base nearby. Local news media was flooded with reports of individual prisoners who had made it to their villages.

The jailbreak came just as prisoners have become a headline issue in Afghanistan. Disagreement over the last batch of a release of Taliban prisoners has delayed the next steps of an agreement reached in February between the United States and the Taliban, and the start of direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Afghan prisons have been crucial targets for combatants through decades of war, and during the Taliban insurgency of recent years, the insurgents have freed up to hundreds of their prisoners at a time in such attacks. On Monday, a Taliban spokesman denied having anything to do with the attack on the Jalalabad prison.

Nangarhar has been a stronghold of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Intense operations by Afghan forces, often backed by U.S. air power, shrank the group’s presence significantly. Afghan officials said Saturday that they had killed a senior leader of the group in the province.

While the Taliban and ISIS have fought bloody turf wars in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan officials have long claimed that elements of the two groups have overlapped, at times sharing networks and resources for urban attacks.

The murky identity of ISIS’ branch in the country has made it a spoiler threat to the peace process. During the first cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government in 2018, the Islamic State claimed a deadly bombing in Nangarhar that killed nearly 40 people.

The attack came during the final hours of another three-day cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Afghan officials said that violence during the cease-fire had dropped significantly, with fewer than a dozen attacks reported over the first two days.

The U.S.-Taliban deal called for the Afghan government to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Taliban-held members of the Afghan security forces. The swap was supposed to take place early this year over 10 days, after which the Taliban and the government were expected to have direct negotiations.

The Afghan government at first resisted the prisoner release, and then gave in to a phased release under much pressure from the Trump administration. More recently, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said that he would not release the last 400 of the 5,000 people on a list provided by the Taliban, as they were accused of serious crimes. It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the 400 prisoners at issue were held in the prison under attack.

One Afghan official said that while it was possible that a few of those Taliban could be in Nangarhar, most of the high-profile prisoners were usually held at the central jail in Kabul or at a highly protected facility near the U.S. military base in Bagram.

While the Taliban have completed the release of the 1,000 prisoners they had committed to, Ghani has offered a compromise. He is releasing 500 other Taliban members instead of the 400 on the list presented by the insurgents, and he is calling a council of elders from across Afghanistan to consult on whether to free the 400 accused of grave crimes, as well. The grand consultation, called a Loya Jirga, is expected to happen this month.

It was not clear whether Ghani’s compromise was acceptable to the Taliban as a way to open a path for direct negotiations, expected around Aug. 10.