AKORA KHATTAK, Pakistan (AP) - At the hard-line Islamic school that spawned a generation of Afghan Taliban leaders, the top cleric still lectures his students to go to Afghanistan to fight Americans. But he says he's willing to help bring insurgents to peace talks.
The offer by the influential "father of the Taliban" raises some hope for American attempts to find a negotiated end to the 10-year-old war - not necessarily because he will indeed be brought in as a mediator, but more because it gives a sign that there is a willingness among the Taliban and their allies to talk, something that has been thrown in doubt by months of setbacks in efforts to start negotiations.
"There must be some way out," Maulana Sami-ul-Haq told the Associated Press. "A way out that can also give America a respectable exit. Bloodletting is not a solution."
America's public commitment to peace talks is stronger then ever as it works to bring the bulk of its troops home from Afghanistan by 2014. It has called on Pakistan to bring insurgents into the process, but so far there has been little progress. American officials believe greater military pressure against the insurgents is still needed - through operations in Afghanistan and drone strikes in the Pakistan border region, an approach it calls "fighting and talking."
"We are pounding them, and there is some evidence that people would like to come to an agreement," said a senior U.S. official, who didn't give his name because of the diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the reconciliation process. "The Pakistanis tell us that there are guys that want to talk."
In a new pressure move, the United States on Tuesday designated Mali Khan, a commander in the militant Haqqani network, as a specially designated global terrorist. The designation freezes any assets or property he may have in U.S. jurisdictions and barring Americans from providing him with material support.
Haq, in his 70s, is a respected figure among militants on both sides of the border. His religious school, Darul Uloom Haqqania, counts among its graduates the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, as well as leading figures in the Haqqani network, the militant group based in the Pakistan border region the U.S. counts as its most dangerous opponent. The family that heads the network took its name from the school, which is close to the main northwestern city of Peshawar, just off a main highway to the Afghan border.
On a recent day, Haq walked across his campus to deliver a lecture to around 500 young men set to graduate soon. The students, many of whom had been in the institution since they were young boys, sat cross-legged on the floor in rows in a cavernous hall as he urged them "to make preparations for jihad" in Afghanistan.
As Haq left the hall, hundred of students crowded around him to shake his hand, a measure of the regard he is held in. The school, which was founded in 1947 and has about 3,000, has a hard-line curriculum, instilling not only calls for jihad but also the extreme puritanical strain of Islam that the Taliban imposed on Afghanistan during their rule in the 1990s.
Speaking to AP, Haq said ongoing resistance to the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan was justified, and he said he and other Taliban supporters are deeply suspicious of the peace process. He said many militants believe that the U.S.'s moves for talks aim to weaken the insurgency by dividing it into different, competing factions.
Haq said the government or the army had not asked him to mediate, but that he would do if asked.
"They will listen to me. We have a relation of respect and knowledge," he said of insurgent groups, pausing to sort through the invitations for his son's upcoming wedding. "But America has to come clean that it will not deceive the Taliban. The Taliban are very clever people. They understand all these deceptions."
The Taliban's public line is that they will not talk so long as American troops remain in Afghanistan.
But representatives are known to have had exploratory talks with the U.S. - including a commander in the Haqqani network.
The Haqqanis and other insurgents leaders are widely believed to be based in Pakistan and have connections with the security forces dating back 20 years, when they worked with the CIA to use them as proxies against Soviet-rule in Afghanistan. That means Pakistan has a potentially key role to play in any peace process, something it uses as leverage in its troubled ties with Washington.
The U.S. wants Pakistan to pressure the Haqqanis inside their base in the North Waziristan border region, but is not asking for a full-scale offensive there, said the U.S. official. Pakistan's army has said it does not have enough troops to do that effectively and it could spark a destabilizing backlash.
In talks late last month with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other American officials, Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani recognized the need to "squeeze the Haqqanis," the official said. Greater intelligence sharing, cutting financing networks and stopping fighters from crossing the border would make life difficult for the group were discussed, he said.
Haq has his own close ties to Pakistan's military. In late September, he attended a meeting with the prime minister, army chief and leading politicians in Islamabad to discuss Pakistan's response to U.S. allegations its spy agency aided the Haqqanis in an attack on its embassy in Kabul. The meeting ended in a resolution that called for peace with militants on both sides of the border.
Still, Rahimullah Yousafzai, a local journalist and expert on the Taliban, doubts Haq has much sway with the Taliban or that Pakistan's main spy agency - which is controlling the negotiation process - needed intermediaries.
"They can go direct," he said.
The meat of any deal, which would presumably involve talk about power-sharing with the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan and prisoner releases, is a long way off - assuming discussions even reach that stage. Pakistani officials, who have complained about being left out of the process in the past, are now concerned they will be blamed if talks with the militants fail or they can't bring them to the table.
"The Pakistan government can possibly make a bridge to these people," said Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, who fought alongside the Haqqanis against the Soviets in the 1980s and is now influential in Islamist circles. "But no one has the remote control for them."