- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said Monday that the U.S. would make a “disastrous” mistake if it withdrew from Afghanistan and warned that a delay in sending more troops would be seen as a sign of weakness.

Mr. Musharraf also denied that Pakistan’s elite Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was giving secret support to the Taliban, which the ISI helped build in the 1990s.

Asked by reporters and editors at The Washington Times whether the U.S. and its allies might be seen as weak because of the prolonged debate over whether to send more forces to Afghanistan, Mr. Musharraf said, “Yes, absolutely. … By this vacillation and lack of commitment to a victory and talking too much about casualties [it] shows weakness in the resolve.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commands U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, submitted a request for more troops over the weekend to the Pentagon. A U.S. defense official told The Times that Gen. McChrystal presented several scenarios that could require as many as 40,000 troops.The official spoke on the condition that he not be named because he was discussing internal deliberations.

The Obama administration has said it will not be rushed into a decision on sending forces beyond the 68,000 Americans scheduled to be in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

Mr. Musharraf, a former army chief of staff who seized power in a 1999 coup and resigned last year under threat of impeachment, now resides in London and is on a speaking tour in the U.S.

He said al Qaeda was less of a threat than the Taliban, which he said is growing in strength among ethnic Pashtuns who straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We must win in Afghanistan,” Mr. Musharraf said, warning that otherwise it would become a haven again for al Qaeda as it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Quitting is not an option,” he said. “We should not delay. Earlier the better.”

As Mr. Musharraf spoke, Pakistani soldiers traded rocket and mortar fire with militants in Waziristan, a tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. Hundreds of civilians fled and a suicide car bomber killed five people, including a prominent tribal elder, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Musharraf said U.S. commanders shouldn’t “pursue [the Taliban] in areas” where they have the advantage but “draw them out” into areas where the U.S. coalition has the upper hand.

The Taliban “move with bread and onions,” Mr. Musharraf said, and don’t require the elaborate logistical support that U.S. troops do.

Gen. McChrystal, in a dire assessment of the Afghan war that was leaked to the press last week, wrote that “Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan” and that senior leaders of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents “are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI.”

Mr. Musharraf conceded that insurgents cross the border but said that money and weapons were flowing primarily from Afghanistan into Pakistan, not the other way around.

Asked whether the ISI was still helping the Taliban in order to hedge against a U.S. withdrawal and oppose Indian interests in Afghanistan, he denied it.

“I don’t think that is correct at all,” Mr. Musharraf said. “ISI behaves as they are ordered by the government. They never go against government policy.”

He added, “If our attitude is that the [Pakistani] army and ISI are the culprits, God save all of us.”

Asked about Pakistan’s previous support of the Taliban, Mr. Musharraf said that Pakistan had no other option after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan but to recognize the Taliban because a rival movement, the Northern Alliance, was supported by India and other opponents of Pakistan.

“Is it in our interest to be on the Taliban side now? No,” Mr. Musharraf said.

Mr. Musharraf also denied reports that Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan sold nuclear weapons materials and designs to Iran, North Korea and Libya with the knowledge of the Pakistani government. A purported letter from Mr. Khan making such assertions was delivered to a British journalist, Simon Henderson, who wrote about the exchange in the Sunday Times of London earlier this month.

In 2004, Mr. Musharraf, still Pakistan’s leader, pardoned Mr. Khan but put him under house arrest, which continued until February this year.

Mr. Musharraf, noting that Mr. Khan was considered a “hero to the man on the street” in Pakistan, said dealing with him after the exposure that he sold nuclear material to other countries was “the most difficult situation I ever confronted” but denied that the Pakistani government was complicit in Mr. Khan’s nuclear black market.

“It is absolutely wrong to think that the Pakistan government was involved in proliferation,” he said. “It was done by himself as an individual who proliferated.”

He would not elaborate on how much influence Mr. Khan had in aiding Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear aspirations and stated that every nation with nuclear weapons has received nuclear information from some other state.