US captures senior commander of Pakistan Taliban

State Department announces that Latif Mehsud of Tehrik-e-Taliban is in custody

Pakistani Taliban commander Latif Mehsud in 2009.
Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP

U.S. troops are holding a senior Pakistani Taliban commander they captured in Afghanistan a week ago, an Afghan provincial official said Friday. The State Department has confirmed the capture, according to Reuters.

This action could be a significant blow to the Pakistani Taliban group known as Tehrik-e-Taliban, which has waged a decadelong insurgency against Islamabad from sanctuaries along the Afghan border. The group has also helped the Afghan Taliban in their war against U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Latif Mehsud was arrested by American forces as he was driving along a main highway in the district of Mohammad Agha in eastern Logar province, said the Logar governor, Arsallah Jamal. The road links the province with the Afghan capital, Kabul.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters that Mehsud's group had claimed responsibility for the attempted 2010 bombing of Times Square in New York, as well as for many attacks within Pakistan.

Mehsud has served as a senior deputy to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud.

The Pakistani Taliban confirmed the capture, but claimed Mehsud was seized by the Afghan army at the Ghulam Khan border crossing in the eastern province of Khost on Oct. 5.

He was returning from a meeting to discuss swapping Afghan prisoners for money, said Pakistani Taliban commanders and intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The Pakistani intelligence officials said that American forces seized Mehsud while he was with the Afghan army, and that they no longer know where he is.

Mehsud, believed to be around 30 years old, once served as Hakimullah Mehsud's driver but eventually worked his way up the ranks to become a trusted deputy. The two are not related; Mehsud is a common name in the region.

Jamal said Mehsud was in a car with two or three other men when the U.S. military arrested him.

The U.S. military in Kabul referred all questions to the Defense Department in Washington. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, said the Pentagon had no comment on the report.

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai told The Washington Post that a senior Taliban commander was captured in Logar as he was being driven for questioning to a facility operated by the intelligence service. The spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said the commander, whom he did not name, was then taken to an American detention facility in Bagram.

There was no immediate comment from Karzai's office on the report.

The detention apparently angered Karzai and may have contributed to a series of emotional outbursts he made this week alleging that the U.S. and NATO inflicted suffering on the Afghan people and repeatedly violated his country's sovereignty.

There were reports that talks on a bilateral security agreement, which have been ongoing in the past two weeks, were delayed because of the incident. American and Afghan officials have been meeting in recent days to negotiate the final details of the deal.

Karzai has ruled out signing the U.S.-Afghan deal until disagreements over sovereignty issues are resolved. The U.S. wants a deal in October and is reportedly ready to abandon talks and leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014 if one is not quickly reached.

The U.S.-led international coalition plans to withdraw all its troops by the end of 2014, and the United States and its allies are considering keeping a small residual force in the country to train and assist Afghan security forces and go after the remnants of Al-Qaeda.

But almost a year of negotiations on the deal has failed to yield an agreement — and it's possible the two sides will never produce one.

Without the United States on board, it is unlikely NATO or any of its allies will keep troops in Afghanistan. Germany has already indicated it will not commit the 800 soldiers it has promised.

Karzai has called a tribal meeting of Afghan elders, known as a loya jirga, for next month to discuss the state of the U.S.-Afghan agreement and advise him on what to do.

The Taliban, meanwhile, condemned a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to extend the mandate of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan for the last time before it hands over total responsibility for security to Afghan forces at the end of 2014.

The resolution adopted by the council said the situation in Afghanistan "still constitutes a threat to international peace and security."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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