Latif Mehsud is a trusted confidante of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud and is currently in custody at Bagram airbase.
American troops have captured a senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a U.S. official said Friday, in what could prove a major blow to the group amid moves to boost peace efforts in Afghanistan.
“I can confirm that U.S. forces did capture … terrorist leader Latif Mehsud in a military operation,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, describing him as a senior commander in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
She gave no details of the operation and did not say where or when his capture took place, as the news filtered out during a surprise visit to Kabul by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Pentagon officials, however, said Mehsud was still inside Afghanistan, without specifying where.
“As part of the armed conflict against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, authorized by Congress in the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, Mehsud was captured and is being lawfully held by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith.
The Washington Post reported, however, that he had been seized recently in eastern Afghanistan, and was snatched away from Afghan intelligence operatives who had been trying to recruit him as a possible go-between for the struggling reconciliation efforts between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban.
U.S. officials would not immediately comment on the report.
The TTP, which is based in the lawless areas along the Afghan border in Pakistan, is closely linked to both Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, a separate group led by Mullah Omar, which was toppled from power in Kabul in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Mehsud’s capture will be “helpful” for U.S.-Pakistan relations as Islamabad has been “calling for more help in going after the TTP in Afghanistan,” said Seth Jones, a former adviser to U.S. special forces and analyst at the RAND Corporation think tank. “For regional cooperation, the U.S. picking up a TTP commander in Afghanistan has got to be looked at in a positive way in Islamabad,” said Jones.
News of the capture came as Kerry landed in Kabul for difficult talks about leaving a residual U.S. force behind in Afghanistan after international forces withdraw by the end of 2014. The U.S. has imposed a deadline of Oct. 31 to secure the bilateral security deal.
A U.S. official said Friday’s meeting between Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said earlier this week that he was prepared to walk away if Kabul was not satisfied, were “constructive.”
“It is fair to say that the differences that exist were narrowed on the vast majority of the outstanding issues,” the official said.
It was unclear whether Karzai had raised the issue of Mehsud’s capture, after reports that he had been angered by the incident. “The Americans forcibly removed him and took him to Bagram,” a Karzai spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told the Post. Mehsud had only agreed to meet with agents from Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security after months of conversations, he said.
Bagram airbase is a military base that includes a detention facility where the United States continues to hold more than 60 foreign fighters among about 3,000 detainees.
“Mehsud is a senior commander in TTP and served as a trusted confidante of the group’s leader Hakeemullah Mehsud,” Harf told reporters, adding the group had claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Times Square, New York, in 2010. The group “had also vowed to attack the U.S. homeland again,” she said.