KABUL — U.S. and Afghan commandos rescued the son of a former Pakistani prime minister Tuesday in eastern Afghanistan, three years after he was kidnapped and apparently held by militants linked to al-Qaeda.
The success of the mission to free Ali Haider Gilani, a former candidate for Parliament, prompted joy on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
For Pakistani leaders, Gilani was one of the most high-profile figures caught in the country’s struggle against Islamist extremists over the past decade. Gilani’s father, Yousuf Raza Gilani, served as prime minister from 2008 to 2012.
For Afghanistan’s military, the operation was further confirmation that the country’s special operations forces are becoming more adept at high-stakes counterterrorism missions, albeit still working in conjunction with the U.S. military.
In separate statements, the U.S.-led military coalition and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the raid that freed Gilani occurred early Tuesday in Paktika province.
“The counterterror mission was planned and launched after evidence of terrorist activity was confirmed,” the U.S.-led coalition said in a statement. It said four suspected militants were killed during the operation.
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s foreign affairs adviser, said Gilani’s transfer to Pakistan is being arranged following a required medical checkup.
In a statement posted to Facebook, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, said Gilani had been held by an “al Qaeda-affiliated group.”
Gunmen snatched Gilani on May 9, 2013, as he was campaigning for a seat in Parliament in the eastern Pakistani city of Multan. Two other people were killed during the assault, which at the time served as a reminder of the growing potency of the Islamist militant threat in Pakistan.
He is the youngest son of Yousuf Raza Gilani, whose family is part of the leadership of the moderate Pakistan Peoples Party.
Pakistani officials had suspected that Ali Haider Gilani — believed to be in his early 30s — was being held in Afghanistan.
The detention, as well as allegations that some of Pakistan’s most-wanted terrorists also find refuge in Afghanistan, has complicated efforts by U.S. and Afghan officials to get Pakistan to do more to target Taliban leaders who seek haven on the Pakistani side of the border.
Tuesday’s raid could now increase the pressure on Pakistan’s military to do more in targeting Afghanistan’s foes.
“We are committed to fight terrorism and clearly showed to Pakistan our willingness, and we urge Pakistan to show its commitment, too,” said Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesman for the Afghan president.
The rescue is another sign that the U.S. military remains a major player in the 14-year Afghan conflict.
On Friday, the U.S.-led coalition issued a statement saying that American forces helped Afghan commandos raid a Taliban prison over the weekend in Helmand province, freeing more than 60 people.
In recent weeks, U.S. military officials have also become more frank in talking about how American forces are still deployed in Afghanistan.
Generally, the 9,800 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan are constrained from unprovoked operations against the Taliban insurgency.
But President Obama has authorized the U.S. military to continue both defensive and offensive operations against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, including airstrikes and ground operations.
Since the start of the year, for example, the U.S.-led coalition has carried out more than 70 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, Afghan officials say the coalition has also become more engaged in launching allegedly defensive strikes against Taliban fighters seeking to tighten their grip on provinces that surround the Afghan capital.
On Tuesday, officials in the country’s northeastern Kunduz province reported that a U.S. drone killed 12 Taliban fighters, including one of the insurgent group’s senior commanders.
Meanwhile, Taliban fighters claimed they shot down a U.S. drone this week over Afghanistan’s volatile region near the Pakistani border, a boast the insurgent group has falsely made before.
Officials with the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan confirmed Tuesday that they lost contact with the drone that was flying over the country’s Nangahar province. Taliban forces in that area have made advances in recent months, and Islamic State militants are believed to have a small presence there.
But downing a drone would be difficult, given the craft’s small size and high-altitude operation.
“We can confirm that we have lost contact with a remotely piloted aircraft,” officials with Resolute Support, the NATO operation in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “At this time we cannot confirm the cause.”
Craig reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.