Musharraf sees role for Taliban in Afghanistan
KARACHI: Former President Pervez Musharraf has said that Kabul must share power with the extremist group and block Indian influence if it wishes to see peace.
The former military ruler told The Wall Street Journal in an interview this week that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ’s September inauguration presents a new opportunity for reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban and related insurgent groups.
“Ashraf Ghani is a balanced man,” he said. “I think he’s a great hope. And Pakistan and India both must stay away, and not to have this kind of a proxy war going on there.”
Given his close links to defense and intelligence officials, Mr. Musharraf’s remarks offer a window into official Pakistani thinking on the peace process, a policy that is often obscured by careful diplomatic language.
Mr. Musharraf also acknowledged—rare for a top Pakistani official, even a former one—that India and Pakistan had been engaged in a long-running proxy war on Afghan soil that fed the conflict. But he said his and Islamabad’s role in nurturing the Taliban and allied militant groups operating in Afghanistan were a legitimate counterweight against its rival India there.
“There are enemies of Pakistan that have to be countered,” Mr. Musharraf said. “Certainly if there’s an enemy of mine, I will use somebody to counter him.”
Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said: “We don’t need to respond to voices from the wilderness. Such voices just try to occupy news space.”
Pakistan’s foreign ministry declined to comment on statements it hadn’t yet seen.
Afghan and international officials say Pakistan will be instrumental in any deal to bring the Taliban into peace negotiations. The insurgents maintain their headquarters and recruiting base in Pakistan, which has long backed the Taliban, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. The movement’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, not seen since late 2001, is widely believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
“The world must realize that we may not like the face of Mullah Omar…but that is how life is, that is what Afghanistan is,” said Mr. Musharraf. Mr. Musharraf’s remarks come as Mr. Ghani’s administration plays up hopes that Afghan officials will be able to negotiate with the Taliban leadership in the coming weeks.
Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s powerful army chief of staff, traveled last week to Kabul, where he met with Mr. Ghani and his co-leader Abdullah Abdullah. Gen. Sharif said the Taliban were ready to begin talks within weeks, according to Afghan officials. The Taliban say they don’t recognize the Afghan government, though they acknowledge they have engaged in preliminary talks.
Previous attempts to launch formal talks have failed before. A U.S.-backed effort to talk peace with the Taliban in the Gulf emirate of Qatar fell apart in 2013 after the militant group opened an office in Doha with the trappings of an embassy, infuriating the Afghan government.
“We are at a trust-building stage with Pakistan so far,” said an Abdullah aide. Mr. Musharraf, like the current Pakistani government, sees the new Afghan president as a more reliable partner than former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Pakistan’s ruling establishment viewed Mr. Karzai, a strident critic of Pakistan, as heading a government that was too close to India and that didn’t adequately represent ethnic Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group. While Mr. Karzai, like Mr. Ghani, is a Pashtun, the Pakistanis have often portrayed the Taliban as representing a legitimate voice for Pashtuns.
“We have to get the Pashtuns on board,” said Mr. Musharraf. “If there are Taliban who are for peace and they want to join President Ashraf Ghani in sharing power and having a system which is workable in Afghanistan, by all means they should be included.”
Pashtuns are the main ethnic group in northwestern Pakistan, sharing tribal and kinship ties on both sides of the border. Pakistan’s government believes that instability on its own territory cannot be solved without addressing Pashtun grievances in Afghanistan.
Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup that toppled the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with Mr. Sharif returning to power in 2013. As the country’s army chief of staff and then also as its head of state until 2008, Mr. Musharraf was helped manage his country’s relations with Afghanistan.
Islamabad was one of the few governments to recognize the Taliban regime in the 1990s, and U.S. and Afghan officials long charged that Pakistan continued to play a “double game” after the Taliban government was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, by providing support to an insurgent movement that reconstituted on Pakistani soil, while remaining a major U.S. ally and partner of the American-led coalition that was fighting the Taliban.
Mr. Musharraf spoke openly of Pakistani-backed militant groups that also staged attacks on US and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, or ISAF, when he led the country.
But he said those groups were an instrument to counter India’s influence on the ground in Afghanistan and insisted that former US President George W. Bush “knew that I am not playing a double game” with Washington.
“Pakistan’s interest comes first,” he said. “But is this also the interest of ISAF? I don’t know.” Mr. Musharraf said India had provided weapons, training and equipment to ethnic Baluch separatists inside Afghanistan. Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province, which shares a border with southern Afghanistan, has seen a long-running armed separatist movement.
Musharraf said the US and its allies had consistently failed to consider Pakistan’s concerns, forcing Islamabad to rely on other militant groups inside Afghanistan to prop up its interests.
One of the groups that carried out some of the deadliest attacks on U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan is the Haqqani network, a group based in northwestern Pakistan that originally fought the Soviets during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Haqqanis, Mr. Musharraf said, were “the best fighters of the ’80s….They were our champions of the uprising against the Soviet Union.” The U.S. government, however, blames the Haqqanis for a number of high-profile terror incidents, including a September 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
?Mr. Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March 2013, after almost five years of self-imposed exile and became entangled in multiple legal cases stemming from his period in power, including a charge of treason.
The cases have appeared to stall in recent months, and he moved last year from his mansion in Islamabad to a villa in the giant southern city of Karachi. Mr. Musharraf acknowledges that the military, including the current army chief, have supported him behind the scenes.
?”These people know me—they won’t forget,” said the career military man. “I can’t imagine this army will not be with me. Always.”