A quiet, little-know bureaucrat has emerged as Pakistan's point man for concluding peace with the Taliban, whose ruthless decade-old insurgency has killed tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers.
Decades of work in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas has given Habibullah Khattak a unique status among his civil service colleagues. They extol his detailed knowledge of the numerous militant factions and their secretive leaders as the best hope for striking a peace deal with them.
His closeness to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's younger brother led to Khattak’s appointment to represent Islamabad in talks with the Taliban on March 12. Since Khattak joined the process, the insurgents have already held direct talks with the government.
Having served as a civilian administrative officer in the northwestern tribal areas and Malakand region since the 1980s, Khattak knows the lay of the land well. He has long-standing relations with Pakistani Islamist leaders who are the precursors of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organization of Islamist radicals with links to Al-Qaeda that is blamed for most insurgent violence in Pakistan.
A former colleague of Khattak’s told Radio Mashaal, "He was in close contact with Maulana Sufi Muhammad, whose Tehreek-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi (TNSM, Movement for the Implementation of Shari'a) emerged as the first militant push for imposing Islamic law through violence in 1989."
Khattak, the source said, even used to wear a black turban similar to the TNSM leader while serving as an administrative officer in Dir, a district of the mountainous Malakand region in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the movement first emerged. "I have heard in the official circles that Khattak had a curious role in the emergence of TNSM."
But the TNSM remained largely peaceful until early 1990, while Khattak was in Dir. Sources said that Khattak’s influence prevented the organization from fomenting a rebellion. Years later in 1994, after Khattak had left the region, the organization engaged in a major military showdown with security forces.
Khattak's role in staving off an Islamist rebellion in Malakand endeared him to policymakers in Islamabad.
He was subsequently given a top post as Political Agent in South Waziristan, Khyber and Mohmand, three districts belonging to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. As the Taliban insurgency in South Waziristan expanded in 2004, Khattak took charge of all administrative affairs in FATA. The position required him to work with Western diplomats whose countries backed anti-Taliban counterinsurgency efforts, including reconstruction and development schemes in FATA.
He was skeptical of the heavy-handed military approach, which relied on airstrikes, artillery shelling and large-scale population displacement to fight guerillas. "The army is trained to fight only on the plains of [the eastern province of] Punjab," he told visiting U.S. National Intelligence Officer for South Asia, Peter Lavoy. Khattak added that the people of FATA were, in effect, held hostage by the militants, and that the Taliban lacked the strategic support of the region's population.
The conversation, reported in a June 2008 secret U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks website, quoted Khattak as backing peace talks with the Taliban because it would "buy the Government of Pakistan time to instigate in-fighting between militant groups [operating out of FATA]."
That same year, Khattak found a new, powerful patron after Shahbaz Sharif, the prime minister’s younger brother, was elected Chief Minister, the most senior civilian leader of Pakistan's eastern Punjab province.
As the Sharifs had lived in exile following the military coup in 1999, Shahbaz turned to Khattak for help in dealing with militant threats.
"One day Shahbaz called in Khattak for a half-hour meeting," a close friend said of Khattak's first meeting with the politician. "But what Khattak told him prompted Shahbaz to cancel his engagements, and the two kept on talking for hours."
During the next five years Khattak worked closely with Shahbaz. "It is said that Khattak has a role in keeping Punjab calm," the friend said. Pakistan's most prosperous and populous province is still largely immune from Taliban violence.
Now in his 60s, Khattak faces the unenviable task of trying to reconcile with the TTP, whose declared aim is to bring down Pakistan's current political system through violence. "If there is anyone in Pakistan who can pull off this feat, it is him," a friend of Khattak’s told Radio Mashaal.
He says that Khattak is helped by being discreet in his work. He has avoided media attention and has only rarely given interviews. In addition, Khattak is acceptable to many leaders in Pakistan's divided power corridors.
A senior official in Islamabad said that Khattak’s appointment was recommended both by the civilian government and the military, while having the backing of many senior politicians. "He has a knack for making the impossible, possible," the official said.
Written by Abubakar Siddique, based on reporting by Abdul Hai Kakar.