| Guillaume Lavallee |
KARACHI (AFP) – The departure of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan could push India and Pakistan towards a proxy war in the troubled state, Pakistan’s former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf warned in an interview with AFP.
As Pakistan’s ruler, Musharraf was a key US ally in its “war on terror”, but he now lives under tight security in his Karachi home, facing Taleban 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 Af-ghan 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 US-led forces pull out by the end of this year after 13 years battling the Taleban.
But the former strongman said calming tension between India and Pakistan – run-ning 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 told AFP 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.”
Nuclear-armed neighbours 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 domi-nates 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 Taleban.
“If Indians are using some elements of the ethnic entities in Afghanistan, then Pa-kistan will use its own support for ethnic elements, and our ethnic elements are cer-tainly Pashtuns,” Musharraf said.
“So we are initiating a proxy war in Af-ghanistan. This must be avoided.”
Musharraf blamed India for supporting separatist rebels in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan via training camps in southern Afghanistan – a common accu-sation in Pakistani military circles.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai routinely accused Pakistan of secretly bac-king the Taleban as a hedge against Indian influence in his country.
Pakistan denies the accusation, though it was one of only three countries to officially recognise the Afghan Taleban regime, in power from 1996 until 2001 when the US-led invasion resulted in its overthrow.
Musharraf criticised former Afghan pre-sident Hamid Karzai for sending officials for training in India and not Pakistan, sa-ying “these small things add up to strategic problems”.
Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Na-waz 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 ri-valries 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.
Musharraf said he stands by his decision to ally Pakistan with Washington in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
But he said that the US-led coalition that invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taleban had “failed to convert a military victory into a political victory” when it handed po-wer to Tajiks and thereby alienated many Pashtuns.
Musharraf’s home in a well-heeled Kara-chi neighbourhood 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 election, vowing to “save” the country from Taleban 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.