Pakistan watchPetraeus to Pakistan: The enemy is not India, but home-grown extremists

Published 22 April 2009

Petraeus says Pakistan should get over its fixation on India as enemy No. 1, and recognize instead the growing danger to Pakistan’s existence from home-grown Islamic extremists

For more than six decades, Pakistan and India have been bitter enemies: The two countries fought three series of wars, the most recent of which left an estimated 4,000 Pakistanis dead. Last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai were traced to a Pakistani militant group with government ties. Yesterday, at a forum at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, U.S. Central Command commander General David Petraeus offered a message for the Pakistanis: Get over it. These days, Pakistan’s biggest enemy is not India, but rather Pakistan’s own home-grown extremists.

For decades, Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence services have viewed India as enemy number one. According to Petraeus, this strategic fixation on India persists, despite the rising power of home-grown extremists. The general said that the biggest challenge in Pakistan was persuading those institutions to overcome that relentless focus on India. “The biggest of the big ideas with respect to Pakistan is that the existential threat to the country is the internal extremist threat, not the Indians — and that is a pretty big idea,” Petraeus said. “It is an intellectually dislocating idea for the institutions of Pakistan, for the military, for others that have spent — just as we spent decades faced off against the Warsaw Pact and were almost comfortable with that.”

Petraeus said the United States was working to bring India and Pakistan closer, but the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, which India has blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, dealt a serious blow to those efforts, he added. “Reducing the tensions, by the way, is an effort that has to be undertaken as well — and we are working at that, and Mumbai was a big setback in that regard,” he said.

On Afghanistan, Petraeus warned that “it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” much as the surge in Iraq was initially greeted by a spike in violence. But he noted that some of the principles of the Iraq surge — such as moving units into Iraqi neighborhoods to provide security — would not translate well in Afghanistan’s rural, traditional society. You have to apply it [counterinsurgency] in a way that is culturally appropriate for Afghanistan,” he said. “We don’t move into a village in Afghanistan the way that we were able to move into neighborhoods in Iraq. You have to move on the edge of it — or just near it — but you have to have a persistent security presence.”

In many respects, that sounds like the patented Petraeus “curb your expectations” PR strategy. During the Iraq surge, Petraeus often referred to the “Washington clock” — i.e., U.S. public opinion — ticking faster than the “Baghdad clock.” It looks like he has his eye on the “Kabul clock” now as well.