US transfers Taliban commander to Pakistani custody

The US military turned over Latif Mehsud, formerly a senior commander in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, to the Pakistani government within the past week. Latif was snatched by US forces from Afghan intelligence officials in the Afghan province of Logar in October 2013. [See LWJ report, US grabs Pakistani Taliban commander from Afghan intel.]

Latif’s movement to Pakistani custody was first reported by Dawn, and US military officials later confirmed the transfer. Two of Latif’s bodyguards were also transferred to Pakistan, according to Reuters.

Latif formerly served as the driver to Hakeemullah Mehsud, the previous emir of the al Qaeda-linked Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan who was killed in a US drone strike less than a month after Latif was captured. Before his capture, Latif was promoted to serve as a senior aide to Hakeemullah. He was rumored to be the second in command for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, although this was not confirmed. He was also said to lead the Pakistani Taliban’s forces in Miramshah in Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan.

It remains unclear why Latif was being escorted by Afghan intelligence personnel when US forces snatched him from them in October 2013. Some reports indicated that he was negotiating the release of members of the Pakistani Taliban in Afghan custody. Others claimed he was negotiating a peace agreement with the Afghan government.

As Reuters notes, Latif’s release is part of the US military’s mad scramble to empty Bagram prison of all third country nationals in its custody. The US did the same thing before withdrawing from Iraq, with devastating consequences. Top jihadist leaders, including senior Hezbollah military leader Musa Ali Daqduq and Asaib al Haq emir Qais Qazali, were handed over to Iraqi custody and subsequently freed.

It isn’t likely that Pakistan will free Latif anytime soon, as he is a member of what Pakistani elites call the bad Taliban, or those that advocate attacking the Pakistani state. However, Pakistan has a history of releasing jihadists who seek to destroy the Pakistani state if the government feels it will further its goals of destabilizing Afghanistan or India. Two examples of this phenomenon are the releases of Abdullah Aziz, the leader of the Lal Masjid who incited insurrection in Islamabad, and Sufi Mohammed, the emir of the pro-Taliban Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammed, who led the Swat uprising from 2007-2009.

Additionally, Pakistan refuses to keep known jihadist leaders in custody for any lengthy time. Over the past several years, Pakistan has detained several jihadist leaders, only to free them when it is no longer in their interest to hold them. Hafiz Saeed, the emir of Lashkar-e-Taiba, has been in “protective custody” numerous times, and yet continues to remain an influential jihadist commander in Pakistan.

Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the spiritual leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI, or the Movement of Islamic Holy War), was released in early December 2010 after being taken into protective custody in August 2010. HUJI is closely linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Jaish-e-Mohammed emir Masood Azhar was briefly detained after the November 2008 suicide assault in Mumbai, India, but was quietly freed from custody shortly afterward. JeM also is closely linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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