Pakistani "Father of Taliban" keeps watch over loyal disciples

By Maria Golovnina and Sheree Sardar

AKORA KHATTAK, Pakistan (Reuters) - He is known as the Father of the Taliban, a radical Pakistani cleric who calls the Taliban's one-eyed leader an "angel" and runs a seminary described as the University of Jihad.

Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Maulana Sami ul-Haq is a revered figure in Pakistan and Afghanistan whose views carry enormous weight among the Taliban on both sides of the border.

Tucked away in a dusty Pakistani town off the main motorway to the Afghan border, his Darul Uloom Haqqania university was the launching pad for the Taliban movement in the 1990s and is still often described as the incubator for radical Islamists.

Speaking to Reuters at the sprawling campus near his native town of Akora Khattak, Haq did little to hide his sympathies for the Taliban, a word meaning "students" in Pashto. He said he was sure the Taliban would soon sweep back to power in Afghanistan.

"Give them just one year and they will make the whole of Afghanistan happy," Haq said. "The whole of Afghanistan will be with them ... Once the Americans leave, all of this will happen within a year."

Despite Haq's openly pro-Taliban views and connections, his seminary is recognised officially in Pakistan - a symptom of Islamabad's long-running duality over the Taliban issue.

Haq would not talk about this publicly but he is believed to be close to the Pakistani security forces - a legacy of an era when Pakistan sponsored movements and supported militants, including Osama bin Laden, fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Kabul's government has long accused Pakistan of playing a double game and harbouring militants on its soil while publicly condemning extremism - a charge Islamabad fiercely denies.

Back in the 1980s, many young Darul Uloom Haqqania graduates swapped books for guns and drove west along the highway running just outside its iron gates towards Afghanistan, where they joined mujahideen groups to fight against the Russians.

One of them, Mullah Mohammed Omar, later took advantage of the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 to found the Taliban movement - a period often recalled with nervousness ahead of next year's drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Omar is now believed to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal regions on the Afghan border.

Haq's face brightened as he recalled Omar, one of his bests students, but laughed when asked about his whereabouts.

"He is a devout Muslim, very virtuous. He is hospitable. He is a very simple man, with no princely tastes," Haq said, alternating between Pakistan's official Urdu and his native Pashto language.

"He is very intelligent. He understands politics and is wise to the tricks of outsiders."

Haq added with conviction: "He is no aggressor. He is an angel-like human being."

TALIBAN ALMA MATER

The seminary, founded in 1947, is now one of biggest and most respected Islamic institutions in South Asia. It propagates a hard-line curriculum based on the radical Deobandi strain of Sunni Islam.

Fenced off from the hustle and bustle of the outside world by high walls and barbed wire, it houses 4,000 male students in its multi-storey concrete buildings.

Haq says he and his seminary have nothing to do with terrorism. He has even offered to mediate between the United States and militants in order to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Haq, who speaks fluent Arabic, said the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan visited him in July to discuss the situation in the region but added that peace was not possible as long as foreign troops were still in Afghanistan.

"As long as they are there, Afghans will have to fight for their freedom," Haq said. "It's a war for freedom. It will not stop until outsiders leave."

The Taliban were initially popular among Afghans after years of Soviet brutality and the ensuing anarchy of feuding warlords. But that quickly changed after they seized power and enforced puritanical restrictions on all spheres of people's lives.

After years of war there are hopes that the Taliban might be coaxed to the negotiating table or even turned into a political movement with the help of influential mediators such as Haq.

But would the Taliban still listen to him?

"They are my students. In our tradition, a teacher is like a father, like a spiritual leader," Haq said. "Afghans should be allowed to fight for their freedom. Foreign powers should get out and let them do what they want."

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

Matches

MORE TOP STORIES TODAY

On Now: Kolkata vs Bangalore

On Now: Kolkata vs Bangalore

IPL 7, GAME 11—Bangalore bowl, Murali in, still no Gayle. KKR bring in Umesh, Lynn. More »

Kolkata bowling vs Bangalore batting might

Kolkata bowling vs Bangalore batting might

The likely return of Gayle will boost Bangalore, but the result could be determined by Kolkata's bowlers. More »

Boycotting IPL will not save cricket

Boycotting IPL will not save cricket

Boycotting the IPL as a means of protest against the grime in the game may not yield the desired results. More »

Gambhir a knock away from striking form - KKR coach

Gambhir a knock away from striking form - KKR coach

Gautam made an eight-ball duck in the opening game against Mumbai and in the second game against Delhi, he lasted only half those balls. More »

Rivals say Srini group delaying BCCI special general meeting

Rivals say Srini group delaying BCCI special general meeting

The group opposed to Srinivasan alleged that since BCCI secretary Sanjay Patel belongs to the president’s group, he was intentionally delaying the SGM… More »

April 24: A legend is born

As Sachin Tendulkar turns 41 - here's a look at some offbeat moments from the Master Blaster's innings. More »

Jadeja spins out Rajasthan in close chase

Jadeja spins out Rajasthan in close chase

IPL 7, GAME 10—Chennai beat Rajasthan by 7 runs after last-over scare. More »

Cleaning up the game starts with fans

Cleaning up the game starts with fans

... because, as recent events reveal, the BCCI has little intention of doing it. More »

SL in 'difficult place' after Farbrace exit

SL in 'difficult place' after Farbrace exit

Sri Lanka depart for assignments in Ireland and England in two weeks, and Sanath Jayasuriya suggested Marvan Atapattu would be interim head coach for those… More »

Vithanage, Priyanjan get T20 call-ups

Vithanage, Priyanjan get T20 call-ups

Herath has been rested, while the team will be without the veteran pair of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, who retired from T20 internationals… More »

Chandimal axed as T20 captain

Chandimal axed as T20 captain

Sri Lanka's cricket selectors on Wednesday sacked Dinesh Chandimal as Twenty20 captain and replaced him with Lasith Malinga, while Angelo Mathews was… More »

'BCCI should have picked panel with care'

'BCCI should have picked panel with care'

Dalmiya said that it was the first time that the BCCI had been faced with a situation where the apex court had hauled up the Board and it should have acted… More »

Farbrace is England's assistant coach

Farbrace is England's assistant coach

The ECB continued the restructuring of the England coaching set-up on Wednesday by announcing the appointment of Paul Farbrace as assistant coach. More »

SC asks Mudgal committee to continue

SC asks Mudgal committee to continue

Mukul Mudgal has communicated to the court his willingness to take up the investigation and has been asked to specify the terms and modalities on April… More »

Sri Lanka players resolve pay dispute

Sri Lanka players resolve pay dispute

The pay dispute between Sri Lanka Cricket and its 13 contracted players ended on Wednesday when the latter agreed to accept 10 percent of the participation… More »

Hope to be fit for next game - Pietersen

Hope to be fit for next game - Pietersen

With two heavy defeats at the hands of Bangalore and Chennai, Daredevils currently languish near the bottom of the table. More »

'SC decision could hurt BCCI's status'

'SC decision could hurt BCCI's status'

The Supreme Court prefers that the Justice Mudgal panel further investigate the IPL corruption scandal. More »

Mudgal panel drops bombshell in court

Mudgal panel drops bombshell in court

The Mukul Mudgal probe committee dropped a bombshell in the Supreme Court on Tuesday by making a sensational claim that it was forced to stop audio recording… More »

Perfect Punjab trounce Hyderabad

Perfect Punjab trounce Hyderabad

IPL7, GAME 9—Maxwell (95, 43b), Balaji (4-13) set up 72-run win. More »

Have the ECB played an unfair game?

Have the ECB played an unfair game?

Money talks, but it is in light of this ICC shakeup that the ECB's act of soliciting of another team's coach deteriorates from free-market aggression to… More »

Farbrace quits for England post

Farbrace quits for England post

He will assist Peter Moores who was unveiled as the new England coach on Saturday. More »

Moin appointed to manage Pakistan team

Moin appointed to manage Pakistan team

Pakistan on Monday reappointed Moin Khan as chief selector and manager of the national team, a week after fellow former captain Rashid Latif turned down… More »

Chennai smash Delhi for first win

Chennai smash Delhi for first win

IPL7, MATCH 8—Raina-led middle order, superlative catching give CSK a 93-run win. More »

'BCCI reputation lowest in 80 years'

'BCCI reputation lowest in 80 years'

The former BCCI president says he was "disillusioned" by the happenings at the emergent working committee meeting on Sunday. More »