With initial reports claiming that the Taliban had collaborators among the prison staff, the breakout will be seen as just one more indication of official corruption. The timing is particularly unfortunate given the U.S. and NATO strategy emphasizing a hand-over of security functions to the Afghans.
Nonetheless, there are some sober observations to bear in mind. First of all, it is unlikely that all of these men were "experienced fighters," as has been claimed. Some detainees may have been jailed for providing materials or other support for the planting of land mines, or other support for terrorist acts. That does not make them experienced fighters.
Moreover, the claim that the prisoners honed their skills seems improbable if this is taken to mean paramilitary or operational skills. Numerous previous reports have described how Taliban inmates exert a strong influence in the prisons where they are held. Typically, without interference from their jailers, Taliban prisoners hold daily indoctrination sessions inculcating their beliefs among fellow inmates. The Taliban view incarceration foremost as a means to attract new recruits and enhance the jihadist resolve and ideological purity of their own members.
This is not unique to Afghanistan. Prisons throughout the world serve as centers of radical recruitment and indoctrination. Thus, the 500 escaped prisoners probably are more radicalized than when they went in, but I have seen no evidence that they honed their fighting skills in the overcrowded confines of an Afghan prison.
The biggest impact on the insurgency is that the Taliban's credibility will be boosted considerably and their clandestine infrastructure strengthened. We can expect that some of these men will take part in the awaited spring offensive. However, it is not likely that their newfound freedom alone will significantly alter the current military correlation of forces.
This op-ed was part of a NYT Room for Debate discussion: "The Taliban Jailbreak and Afghanistan's Future"
Arturo Munoz is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution. He has made multiple research visits to Afghanistan, and is a retired 29-year veteran of the C.I.A. with extensive experience in the region.
This commentary originally appeared on NYTimes.com on April 26, 2011. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.