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 recognized 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 harboring 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 draw down 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-story 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."
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.