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Internal extremists, terror groups are Pak’s real ‘existential’ threats: Petraeus

New York: Pakistan’s real “existential threat” is not India but  its “internal extremists” and the terror groups like the TTP, former CIA Director Gen David Petraeus has said as he hoped that Prime Minister Imran Khan will be able to deal with the challenges facing the country.

Petraeus, during an interactive session at the Indian Consulate here on Tuesday following his address on the topic of the Indo-Pacific, said Prime Minister Khan is facing a daunting challenge in his country where the economy is “very distorted” and the “realities of the situation are really quiet difficult.”

“The challenge for Pakistan, of course, is that the existential threat is not the country to its east, it is not India. It is the internal extremists. It is a very diabolically difficult problem to deal with,” he said.

Petraeus, a partner in the international investment firm KKR and Chairman of the KKR Global Institute, was the special guest for the ‘New India Lecture’ series organised by the Consulate General of India, New York in partnership with the US India Strategic Partnership Forum.

Responding to a question on US-Pakistan relationship, Petraeus said he has experienced the bilateral ties “on a very first hand basis” as the Commander of the US Central Command around the year 2009 and there have been some “positive” as well as “disappointing and frustrating periods” in ties between Washington and Islamabad.

He added that the US has always provided “enormous” support to Pakistan, recalling that he and former special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke went to the US Congress and got US$ 7.5 billion for economic assistance for Pakistan over a five-year period, which was in addition to the US$ two billion already extended in various categories of defence assistance and counter-terrorism support.

“At the end of the day, of course there was a degree of disappointment,” he said.

On Afghanistan, the veteran and decorated US military officer said while the Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, “sadly the momentum of recent years has been against Afghanistan rather than for it”.

“That’s  why I have some reservations about the prospects for a peace agreement that we would all support. What adds to my concern is the fact that the Taliban has not even been willing to allow the democratically elected government of Afghanistan to sit at the same negotiating table with them,” he said.

He, however, expressed hope that President Donald Trump’s special adviser to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad “can produce magic here and can produce an agreement that would allow us to draw down further, still achieve our objectives and ensure that our Afghan partners are taken care of as well.”

“But yet I think it is a very challenging situation,” he said, recalling that the US was not able to get a negotiated agreement at a time when he commanded 150,000 coalition forces and “when we had the momentum on the battlefield… So it is a little difficult to see why the Taliban would agree to much more than our departure.”

Petraeus also highlighted that what is more challenging is that the Taliban is just one group of many insurgent and extremist elements operating on Afghan soil.

“You also have the Haqqani group. I am not at all confident that they are reconcilable , if some of the elements of the Taliban are. By the way, not all of them would necessarily agree to a peace agreement.”

He added that among the other groups operating in the region are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, remnants of al-Qaeda, Islamic State. “And you even have the other Taliban – the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban which along with some other groups, I want to contend is the true existential threat to Pakistan, not Pakistan’s neighbour to the east,” again a reference to India.

Further, the challenge has always been putting pressure on an enemy whose senior leaders are “beyond our reach in sanctuaries either in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or in Balochistan.”

Petraeus said that the biggest lesson that the US has taken from the fight against the Islamic extremists since 9/11 is that “this is a generational struggle”.

“This is not the fight of a decade or a few years. You can defeat this enemy but you have to keep your eye on it. If you take your eyes off, what happens is that al-Qaeda in Iraq rises back up into the Islamic State, goes into Syria and takes advantage of the Syrian civil war and roars back into Iraq with an army.”

He added that just as the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan after it was destroyed in Afghanistan, it is essential that the pressure is kept on to defeat the terror groups and support the host nations, enabling them to do the frontline fighting, political reconciliation and reconstruction.

“I always remind folks that we went to Afghanistan for a reason and we have stayed for a reason. We went there because the 9/11 attacks were planned in eastern Afghanistan when al-Qaeda had a sanctuary there. We went in to eliminate that sanctuary and we have stayed to ensure that it is not re-established,” he said adding that the challenge now is that it’s not just the al-Qaeda trying to reestablish, it is the Islamic State that also has a “fascination” with this area (eastern Afghanistan).

He noted that the US has been helping the Afghan government and forces, who are fighting very hard and sustaining casualties. “India has helped Afghanistan considerably as well,” he said.

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