By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
KUCHLAK, Pakistan (Reuters) - For 15 years until his sudden disappearance in May, the new leader of the Afghan Taliban insurgency openly taught and preached at the Al Haaj mosque in a dusty town in southwestern Pakistan, associates and students told Reuters.
Details of Haibatullah Akhundzada's life in Kuchlak, near the city of Quetta, have not previously been reported, and could put further pressure on Pakistan to do more to crack down on militants openly living there.
The row over how far Islamabad will go to get rid of jihadi fighters and leaders has hurt relations between Pakistan and Washington, in part because nearly 10,000 American soldiers are in Afghanistan supporting the war against insurgents.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department's South Asia bureau said it was not "not in a position to confirm Haibatullah Akhundzada's whereabouts, past or present."
Akhundzada is now believed to be in hiding after crossing the long and porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but not before going untouched in Kuchlak, located in Baluchistan province, as he rose up the ranks of the Afghan Taliban.
He was promoted to "emir" in May after a U.S. drone killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in another part of Pakistan, a strike that infuriated Islamabad but reflected growing impatience over what Washington sees as ambivalence toward its enemies.
Five years earlier, U.S. forces stormed a compound near the Pakistani capital and killed al Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden.
"Once he became Emir, he left with his whole family," said Hafiz Abdul Majeed, who runs the Al Haaj mosque, adding that he himself studied for several years under Akhundzada.
"You can't teach religion and run (the Taliban's) government at the same time. And it would of course have been dangerous for us and the students and the mosque if he remained here."
Pakistan says it does all it can to go after militants. The Interior Ministry did not reply to written questions about Akhundzada's time in Kuchlak.
A military spokesman said the army would not comment.
Analysts say Pakistan has historically backed the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against the influence of arch-rival India, with whom Pakistan has fought three wars, in its backyard. Pakistan denies this.
"I strongly reject any organized presence of Taliban in Baluchistan," Sarfaraz Bugti, home minister for the province, told Reuters.
"MAN OF FAITH"
At the Al Haaj mosque, scores of teenaged boys wearing turbans and traditional "shalwar kameez" robes attended classes at a religious school, typical of remote parts of Pakistan, where they provide education for millions of boys.
On a recent visit, the metal door of the room where Akhundzada is said to have rested between lessons was padlocked and the curtains on the windows almost fully drawn.
But Akhundzada's name could be seen painted on a wall inside in large calligraphic text.
Colleagues and students described Akhundzada, thought to be in his mid-50s and originally from Kandahar in Afghanistan, as a studious disciplinarian who slipped out of Kuchlak two days before being named Taliban chief.
Majeed, the mosque administrator, said Akhundzada taught students from 8 a.m. to noon every morning at the mosque, and was paid a monthly salary of 10,000 Pakistani rupees ($100).
"We are sad that he is gone because he was a great teacher and a great asset for this mosque," he said.
Several other people at the mosque confirmed his account, although they did not want to be quoted.
Asked how someone closely associated with the Taliban could live so openly, Majeed replied: "He was just a man of faith. He was a 'Sheikh-ul-Hadith' (scholar of Islam's Hadith texts). And when he became Emir, he left here. That's all we know."
Several associates said Akhundzada lost family members in the Afghan war following U.S.-led military intervention to drive the Taliban from power in 2001.
One former pupil at Al Haaj, Pai Khan, says he heard Akhundzada speak at a public rally in Quetta in 2014 commemorating the death of an Afghan Taliban commander.
"He spoke with a lot of force about the U.S. and the war and that we would not give up our jihad, that we would never negotiate with the puppet government in Afghanistan or talk to the U.S.," said Khan, now an activist for a pro-Taliban party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, in Quetta.
Reuters was unable to confirm this account.
Khan said Akhundzada taught him at the mosque for several years nearly a decade ago.
"If you met him in the street you would never think he would be one of the world's greatest leaders one day," Khan told Reuters in a bustling Quetta bazaar.
"DEFENDERS OF ISLAM"
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that, after fleeing Afghanistan, Akhundzada lived for years in the Kuchlak mosque and religious school while he was the movement's shadow chief justice.
However, he disputed the timeline given by Akhundzada's associates, saying he left Kuchlak soon after being named deputy leader in 2015.
"Do you believe a most wanted figure like ... Akhundzada would live in a prominent place like Kuchlak and run a madrassah there when U.S. and Afghan forces and their security agencies are desperately trying to either kill him or capture him?"
There are no known photographs or written records of Akhundzada's tenure in Kuchlak. Reuters could not independently verify the accounts given of his time there.
Elsewhere in Baluchistan province, supporters of the Afghan Taliban said Akhundzada was well known.
"Akhundzada lived for many years in Kuchlak. I met him many times. He used to come to Quetta often," said Syed Abdul Sattar Shah Chishti, spokesman for the hardline Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Nazriati political party in Quetta, another pro-Taliban group.
Western diplomats believe some seminaries in the Quetta area have long been fertile ground for Islamist militancy.
In Quetta itself, pro-Taliban jihadi ideology is openly embraced, and Taliban sources say the group's "Quetta shura", or council, has met sporadically in recent years to make important decisions including choosing new leaders.
Pakistan, however, denies the Taliban leadership operates openly.
Bugti, Baluchistan home minister, said Pakistan had taken measures to stop militants criss-crossing the frontier, including tougher checks that would stop Taliban fighters using fake Pakistani documents to travel, as Mansour did before he was killed.
He said authorities cannot keep track of up to 4 million Afghan refugees who have lived in Pakistan, some for decades.
"It is not possible for us to predict who among the refugees will become the president of Afghanistan or the leader of the Taliban," Bugti said.
(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmed in PESHAWAR, Kay Johnson in ISLAMABAD and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Mike Collett-White)