Pakistani "Father of Taliban" keeps watch over loyal disciples

Pakistani "Father of Taliban" keeps watch over loyal disciples
Hafiz Mohammad Saeed (R), chief of Pakistan's outlawed Islamic hardline Jamaat ud Dawa (JD), former Pakistani intelligence ISI chief Hamid Gul (C), and Chairman of the Defence of Pakistan coalition Maulana Sami ul-Haq (L) join hands as they attend an anti-India rally in Islamabad on September 6, 2013 to mark the country’s Defence Day. Thousands supporters of Pakistani Islamist groups and Defence of Pakistan coalition marched against India in Islamabad as they celebrated Defence Day, a commemorative day of the war fought against neighboring India in 1965.

AKORA KHATTAK, Pakistan - 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 US 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."

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