KARACHI - The departure of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan could push Pakistan and India towards a proxy war in the troubled nation, 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 Taliban death threats and a series 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 to try to reset fractious relations.

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 Taliban.

But the former strongman said calming tension between Pakistan and India - 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 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 Pakistan and India - 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 rebels in Balochistan via training camps in southern Afghanistan.

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.

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 which 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 towards its western neighbour was highlighted in a BBC interview by 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 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 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.