By David Stout, Sajjad Tarakzai
Maulana Yousaf Shah cracks a wide smile as he rattles off a list of former students turned Taliban leaders, revelling in their victories over superpowers on Afghanistan’s battlefields after graduating from Pakistan’s “university of jihad”.
The Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary has churned out a who’s who of Taliban top brass — including many now on the hardline group’s negotiating team holding talks with the Kabul government to end a 20-year war.
“Russia was broken into pieces by the students and graduates of Darul Uloom Haqqania and America was also sent packing,” beamed Shah, an influential cleric at the seminary that critics have dubbed the “university of jihad”.
“We are proud.”
The sprawling campus in Pakistan’s Akora Khattak, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) east of Peshawar, is home to roughly 4,000 students who are fed, clothed and educated for free.
It has sat at the crossroads of regional militant violence for years, educating many Pakistanis and Afghan refugees — some of whom returned home to wage war against the Russians and Americans or preach jihad.
Despite its infamy in some quarters, it has enjoyed state support in Pakistan, where mainstream political parties are heavily boosted by links with religious factions.
This month, Darul Uloom Haqqania’s leaders boasted of backing the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan in a video posted online — outraging the Kabul government, which is battling a surge in violence across the county as the US prepares to withdraw troops.
Seminaries like Haqqania “give birth to radical jihadism, produce Taliban and are threatening our country”, Sediq Sediqqi, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman, told AFP, demanding their closure.
Afghanistan’s leaders argue that Pakistan’s approval for the madrassas is proof that it backs the Taliban.
Shah scoffed at the notion the madrassa encouraged violence, but he defended the right to target foreign troops.
“If someone armed enters your house and you are threatened… then definitely you will raise a gun,” Shah said.
-‘Father of the Taliban’-
The seminary’s late leader Sami-ul-Haq boasted of advising the Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar — earning him the moniker “the father of the Taliban”.
Haq later sent students to fight for the movement when it issued a call to arms during its rise to power in the 1990s.
The Haqqani network, the Taliban’s ultra-violent faction, is named after the madrassa where its leader once taught and subsequent leaders studied.
Some Pakistani extremists who later attacked their own country have also been linked to the seminary, including the suicide bomber who assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
“The Haqqania madrassa sits at the heart of one of the most important and influential hardline Sunni clerical networks,” said analyst Michael Semple.
“There’s an expectation that large proportions of the Afghan graduates will move seamlessly into accepting positions of responsibility in (Taliban) structures.”
Semple however dismissed notions the madrassa served as a “terrorist factory” where students received combat training or had a hand in militant groups’ strategic decisions.
Rather, like elite Western universities feeding new talent into corporate boardrooms and political parties, Haqqania’s contribution to insurgencies rests in the bonds forged in its classrooms.
Graduates insisted they received no military training at Haqqania and were not obliged to join the fight in Afghanistan, but admitted jihad was discussed openly, including in “special lectures” by Afghan instructors.
“Any student who wanted to go for jihad could go during his vacations,” said cleric Sardar Ali Haqqani, who graduated from the seminary in 2009.
Hardline madrassas received a major boost and an influx of cash during the 1980s when they served as de facto supply lines to the anti-Soviet jihad backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, and have remained close to Pakistan’s security establishment ever since.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party has also lavished the Haqqania seminary with millions of dollars in return for its political support.
Madrassas have long served as vital lifelines for millions of impoverished children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where social services are chronically underfunded.
Government officials and activists have warned of an over-reliance on madrassas, claiming students are brainwashed by hardline clerics who prize rote learning of the Koran over core subjects such as maths and science.
Even the Pakistan military — which has been routinely accused of supporting the Taliban — has admitted that madrassas have injected further uncertainty into the region.
“Will they become [clerics] or will they become terrorists?” asked Pakistan military chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in 2017 of the estimated 2.5 million students enrolled at the tens of thousands of madrassas across Pakistan.
Others wonder what an insurgent victory in Afghanistan would mean for hardline seminaries, fearing the return of a Taliban government in Kabul could inspire a new wave of violence in Pakistan.
“Now when the Americans pull out of Afghanistan, we’re going to be saddled with a huge problem, because it is essentially their victory,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading anti-extremist activist in Pakistan.
“Their victory is going to make them bolder.”