US troops have captured a senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a US official said on Friday, in what could prove a major blow to the group amid moves to boost peace efforts in Afghanistan.
“I can confirm that US forces did capture... terrorist leader Latif Mehsud in a military operation,” US Department of State 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 US Secretary of State John Kerry.
However, Pentagon officials 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 US military forces in Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith said.
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.
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 US-led invasion.
Mehsud’s capture will be “helpful” for US-Pakistan relations as Islamabad has been “calling for more help in going after the TTP in Afghanistan,” said Seth Jones, a former adviser to US special forces and analyst at the RAND Corp think tank.
“For regional cooperation, the US picking up a TTP commander in Afghanistan has got to be looked at in a positive way in Islamabad,” Jones said.
News of the capture came as Kerry landed in Kabul for difficult talks about leaving a residual US force behind in Afghanistan after international forces withdraw by the end of next year. The US has imposed a deadline of Oct. 31 to secure the bilateral security deal.
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.
Bagram air base is a military base that includes a detention
facility where the US continues to hold more than 60 foreign fighters among about 3,000 detainees.
Mehsud had only agreed to meet with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security after months of conversations, he said.
“Mehsud is a senior commander in TTP and served as a trusted confidante of the group’s leader Hakimullah 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 US homeland again,” she said.
Botched efforts by the US in June to launch peace talks with the Afghan Taliban infuriated Karzai when the Taliban briefly opened up an office in Qatar.
Pakistan’s tribal districts near the Afghan border are rife with homegrown insurgents, al-Qaeda agents and Taliban, who are understood to use rear bases in Pakistan to plot attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.
The mountainous region lies outside direct government control and US drone strikes on militant commanders here are a key plank in the US strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and reverse insurgencies in Afghanistan.