Deep in reverence, over 1,800 turban-clad young clerics with flowing beards were packed into every inch of the huge lecture hall at the Darul Uloom Haqqania — the oldest and largest Islamic seminary in Pakistan. The graduating students were listening raptly, absorbing the final lecture of the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) by the chief cleric Maulana Samiul Haq, in pin-drop silence.
After addressing the assembly of students in Pashtu, Maulana Haq, who also heads a religio-political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-Sami group), met groups of visiting Taliban in private before sitting down to speak with me. Haq’s close relationship with the Taliban, and role educating many of its key figures, including the group’s leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, has earned him the nickname "Father of the Taliban."
"There’s no other way but to have meaningful talks with Taliban," Maulana Haq authoritatively declared when we talked recently at his residence adjacent to the seminary, which boasts over 8,000 regular students. The madrassah is regarded as the most prestigious seminary and center of the Taliban movement. It is located in the town of Akora Khattak, about 60 miles from Islamabad, and its alumni include Mullah Mohammed Omar, insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani (his last name denotes his time spent at the madrassa).
While Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan have repeatedly denied having engaged in talks with the United States or the Pakistani government, Maulana Haq, who freely admits supporting various Taliban groups including the Haqqani Network, emphasized the necessity of holding talks with the insurgents in order to establish regional peace.
Talks are needed now, more than ever, as the jihadist scene along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has moved far beyond the Haqqani Network and the ‘Mujahideen Shura of North Waziristan’ — a conglomerate of al-Qaeda-linked firebrands of various nationalities associated with the Taliban – to become the "North Waziristan Militants Complex".
"If the talks fail," septuagenarian Maulana Haq said, "Then the solution would be jihad — that would be a public uprising against the Pakistani rulers and America."
During the war in Afghanistan, NATO forces have made several controversial incursions into Pakistani territory near the border with Afghanistan. Maulana Haq, who also heads an organization named ‘The Defense of Pakistan Council’ warned, "If America steps into Pakistan, the war would escalate and the U.S. will be trapped in it."
That said, one reason why the United States has avoided placing the entire Haqqani Network on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations is likely because the Haqqanis can still be a viable group to talk about a future broad-based national government in Afghanistan, local analysts believe. American allegations of a relationship between the Haqqanis and the Pakistani state also complicate efforts to designate the group, as such an effort would likely require the United States to also designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.
A mediator role for the Haqqanis would suit both Pakistan and the United States, as the United States moves towards its planned 2014 departure from Afghanistan. However, what seem to worry the U.S. about this option are the elements that continue to endanger U.S. interests in the region. While U.S. drone strikes attempt to wipe out al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, American officials feel not enough is being done by the continuing Pakistani Army operation in the same region.
Additionally, engaging the Taliban in dialogue is difficult as there is no one "Taliban" movement, but many, in addition to numerous affiliated militant and criminal networks operating on both sides of the Durand Line. However, this does not mean that it would be easy to deal with the groups separately, or pursue a "divide and conquer" strategy.
"The Taliban can’t afford to detach from the Haqqani Network," said Maulana Hamidul Haq, a former legislator and son of Maulana Samiul Haq. "In fact, Taliban leaders consider the Haqqani Network as their patrons," he added, emphasizing that "the Haqqani Network can play an important role in talks with Taliban, as both Haqqani and Taliban are one."
Local analysts believe that the trick is not just to consolidate talks with Taliban hardliners at various levels, but to break the ice with those who might be brought around by Pakistani negotiators — such as members of the security establishment — who understand the militants and their movement best.
Certainly, some groups of militants and criminal elements are unlikely to be reconciled through negotiations. However, gaining locals’ confidence in North Waziristan and across Pakistan would be the key to strengthening the Pakistani military’s hands. It would help alleviate several major headaches, including the band of thugs safely operating their businesses under the Taliban franchise in North Waziristan and elsewhere. The Punjabi Taliban is one such element, and has become not only a painful liability, but also a serious threat to Pakistan’s national security.
Secondly, these talks would assist in countering the likely spate of terrorism that would occur after a massive operation against militants is launched in the so-far insurmountable North Waziristan — no matter who executes it, Pakistan or the United States.
And third, the document endorsed by many Pakistani political and religious leaders during the All Parties Conference (APC) in September further guaranteed the Pakistani public’s support for all actions of the military, which has undergone a successful image building exercise at home.
If soaring inflation, fumbled governance, and unbridled terrorism reflects the administrative failure of the elected government at home, it also presents an opportunity for the Pakistani military to step in and find a solution with the Taliban. This would create a win-win situation for both domestic politics and for Pakistan’s sinking relationship with the United States.
Maulana Hamid also had a suggestion for the United States. In order to alleviate the complex nature of coordinating talks with an active insurgent group, "Americans should talk to genuine religious leaders and get the governments out from in-between." American officials must ultimately adopt a similar course of action to that proposed here for the Pakistanis, in order to protect its long terms interests in the region, and facilitate an end to a conflict that straddles borders and interweaves two nations’ strategic goals.
Syed Moazzam Hashmi is an Islamabad-based political and security analyst, a senior journalist, and former Political Affairs Advisor to the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi, Pakistan.