The departure of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan could push India and Pakistan toward a proxy war in the troubled state, former president General Pervez Musharraf has warned in an interview with AFP.
As Pakistan’s ruler, Musharraf was a key U.S. ally in its “war on terror,” but he now lives under tight security in his Karachi home, facing Taliban death threats and a litany of criminal cases dating back to his near decade-long rule that ended in 2008. The 71-year-old, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, praised new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who made his first official trip to Pakistan last week in a bid to reset fractious ties with Islamabad. Pakistan’s support is seen as crucial to Afghan peace as U.S.-led forces pull out by the end of this year after 13 years battling the Taliban.
But Musharraf said calming tension between India and Pakistan, running high at the moment after some of the worst cross-border firing in years, is key to peace in Afghanistan. “The danger for Pakistan is … the Indian influence in Afghanistan,” he said at his house in Karachi. “That is another danger for the whole region and for Pakistan because Indian involvement there has an anti-Pakistan connotation. They [India] want to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan.”
India and Pakistan—bitter and sometimes bloody rivals since gaining independence from Britain in 1947—have long accused each other of using proxy forces to try to gain influence in Afghanistan. While India has tried to gain traction with the Tajik ethnic group, which dominates in northern Afghanistan, Pakistan has sought to use its leverage with the Pashtuns of the country’s south and east who make up the majority of the Taliban.
“If Indians are using some elements of the ethnic entities in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will use its own support for ethnic elements, and our ethnic elements are certainly Pashtuns,” Musharraf said. “So we are initiating a proxy war in Afghanistan. This must be avoided.”
Musharraf blamed India for supporting separatist rebels in Balochistan province via training camps in southern Afghanistan—a common accusation in Pakistani military circles.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai routinely accused Pakistan of secretly backing the Taliban as a hedge against Indian influence in his country. Pakistan denies the accusation, though it was one of only three countries to officially recognize the Afghan Taliban regime, in power from 1996 until 2001 when the U.S.-led invasion resulted in its overthrow.
Musharraf criticized Karzai for sending officials for training in India and not Pakistan, saying “these small things add up to strategic problems.”
New president Ghani and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged at the weekend to move on from the sniping and bitterness of the Karzai years, with the Afghan leader saying three days of talks had undone 13 years of differences. But Musharraf warned that regional rivalries could flourish again once NATO’s 34,000-strong combat contingent leaves by the end of next month.
“When there is an absence of all these forces, then yes there would be a vacuum … in that case there can be more serious repercussion,” he said. He said he stands by his decision to ally Pakistan with Washington in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But he said that the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban had “failed to convert a military victory into a political victory” when it handed power to Tajiks and thereby alienated many Pashtuns.
Pakistan’s ambiguous stance toward Afghanistan was highlighted on Monday night in a BBC interview with Sharif’s chief foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz. Aziz said Pakistan was “not against the Afghan Taliban—that is the problem of Afghanistan,” while also calling for them to take part in talks. The foreign office quickly issued a clarification saying Aziz was speaking in a “historical context” and Pakistan was now committed to “taking action against all groups without any distinction or discrimination.”
Musharraf’s home in a well-heeled Karachi neighborhood is decked with photos of him with world leaders, but his dreams of a triumphant homecoming last year were dashed amid allegations of treason and murder. He came back to Pakistan in March 2013 after four years of self-imposed exile to run in the May general elections, vowing to “save” the country from Taliban violence and economic ruin. But he was barred from running in the election, and was then put under house arrest and hit with numerous criminal cases, including treason, the first former Army chief to face the charge.
Despite the setbacks, he said he has no regrets about returning. He also said recent anti-government street protests led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have touched a nerve. “The people are for change, there is no doubt in my mind, and there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the people of Pakistan, the masses of Pakistan, widely and very strongly want change,” he said.