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SOURCE: BLOOMBERG

Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf warned a proxy war between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan would erupt in Afghanistan if U.S. forces exit the country.Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup before stepping down amid protests against his rule in 2008, said Pakistan wants a peaceful solution to the 17-year conflict next door. But the ex-four star general also blamed India for using Afghanistan as a base to foment separatist insurgencies and attacks in Pakistan. In interviews after leaving office he has hinted that Islamabad used proxy forces in Afghanistan to counter its larger neighbor India.

“You can expect a proxy war in Afghanistan if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, definitely, 100 percent,” Musharraf said in an interview at his penthouse apartment in Dubai, where he now lives in self-exile.

War-ravaged Afghanistan has long been a battleground for the broader geopolitical rivalry between India and Pakistan. Musharraf’s comments underscore the fear of Indian encirclement that motivates Pakistan and its powerful military, which has ruled the country for almost half of its 71-year existence. U.S. President Donald Trump has stoked those concerns by pushing for New Delhi to take on a larger role in Afghanistan as the Washington looks to exit America’s longest war.

Proxy War

Musharraf said “India should remain out” of Afghanistan, which Pakistan sees as its area of influence. He also warned that even if U.S. forces depart after a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, India and Pakistan would likely move in by supporting rival factions in Afghanistan.

“The situation will return to Taliban versus Northern Alliance, and in that Pakistan and India will fight a proxy war,” he said, alluding to a military coalition that fought against the Taliban in the 1990s and early 2000s.

India’s foreign ministry declined to comment. Indian officials, who frequently blame Pakistan for cross-border attacks in both Afghanistan and India, have long said their presence in Afghanistan is focused on development and infrastructure.

Pakistan Influence

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Pakistani counterpart on Wednesday and “emphasized the important role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Pompeo “agreed that there was momentum to advance the Afghan peace process, and that the Afghan Taliban should seize the opportunity for dialogue.”

However, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah told an audience last month in New York that he’s seen no change in Pakistan’s policies toward the Taliban since Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power after elections in July.

Pakistan continues to wield “significant” influence over the Taliban, Abdullah said, though he added the two countries are working together.

Criminal Cases

Frail and recovering from an unspecified illness, 75-year-old Musharraf said it was unlikely he would return to Pakistan any time soon to face what he calls “politically motivated” criminal cases.

Those include treason charges for suspending the constitution and a trial over the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in which Musharraf was named an absconder last year. Bhutto’s son Bilawal blames Musharraf for her death in December 2007. Musharraf has previously said he would return to Pakistan if his security could be guaranteed.

Musharraf has tried multiple times to reenter politics with limited success. Under the cloud of his legal issues he was barred from contesting Pakistan’s elections in July. When he last returned to Pakistan in 2013 he was placed under house arrest the following year. He was eventually allowed to leave in 2016 to seek medical treatment abroad.

The former general remains a divisive figure in Pakistan. Some praised him for ushering in a level of economic stability, though many saw him as an American puppet after the Sept. 11 attacks. Musharraf also drew criticism for constitutional and human rights violations and was blamed for failing to tackle widespread violence in the later years of his rule.

With former cricket star Khan breaking the rotational and dynastic grip of Pakistani politics, Musharraf said he backed the current government, and there was no need for him to return as a “third force.”