When American special forces plucked the second in command of the Pakistani Taliban from the hands of Afghan officials this October, they laid bare the extent of a largely covert war between Afghanistan and Pakistan that has been going on for several years. With a drawdown – perhaps even to zero – of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, the secret war might just become an open one.
The capture of Latif Mehsud proved to be an embarrassment for the Afghans, and a vindication for Pakistan, which has long complained that the Pakistani Taliban – called the Tehrik -e-Taliban (TTP) – receives support from Karzai’s government. Afghanistan and the United States, for their part, have laid the blame for a 12-year insurgency at Pakistan’s feet, saying its intelligence agencies support the most effective insurgency group, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Latif Mehsud was a close confidant of Qari Hussain, who was one of the candidates to take over the TTP after the killing of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, by an American drone strike in 2009. When Hussain was similarly eliminated in October 2010, Latif took over as the TTP’s second in command, operating under its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. (The two Mehsuds are from the same tribe, but not closely related.) Latif’s capture provided the intelligence the U.S. needed to kill Hakimullah, in a drone strike just a few weeks later.
Latif spent much of his time since 2010 between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is believed he was a conduit for funding to the TTP. It now appears some of that funding might have come from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).
On October 5, Latif was being taken by Afghan officials to a meeting with agents from the NDS when American special forces stopped his convoy, taking Latif to Bagram, where the U.S. runs a prison of its own.
The TTP has been blamed for tens of thousands of deaths in Pakistan, in brazen attacks on government and civilian targets alike that began in 2007. The group has also claimed responsibility for an attempted car bombing in New York City in 2010. It’s not the kind of group Karzai’s government would ostensibly want to be associated with.
Yet, the president’s spokesperson, Aimal Faizi, openly told reporters the NDS had been working with Latif “for a long period of time.” Latif, Faizi said, “was part of an NDS project like every other intelligence agency is doing.”
The Afghans evidently decided it was time to cultivate their own proxies for leverage with Pakistan. The Haqqani insurgent network, which has inflicted the most damage on Afghan and U.S. forces, is based in North Waziristan, where Pakistan has thousands of troops stationed, but has held off on trying to clear the area of militants. It is also home to a number of senior TTP members, and has borne the brunt of American drone strikes.
“The Haqqani network…acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency,” Admiral Mike Mullen, the then top American military official told Congress in 2011. U.S. officials were irate, saying as far back as 2008, they had tracked the communication lines of Haqqani militants during attacks in Kabul to control rooms in Pakistan, which was directing the operation in real time. None of the evidence was made public, but the NDS was apparently motivated to offer funding to the TTP through operatives like Latif Mehsud. The TTP has a stated goal of toppling the Pakistani state, just as the Afghan Taliban hope to topple the Karzai government.
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Umar Farooq is based in Pakistan, where he works as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. He has also written for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Globe and Mail, and The Nation.