Alleged Pakistan Leaks Claim U.S. Helped Oust Jailed Islamist Ex-PM Imran Khan

The Intercept on Wednesday published a report on a long-rumored Pakistani government document that supports former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claim that the U.S. government wanted to force him out of office.

Khan was ousted by a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April 2022, about a month after the meeting with U.S. officials described in the classified Pakistani document.

The document reviewed by the Intercept was allegedly a secret diplomatic cable known as a “cypher.” It describes an alleged meeting on March 7, 2022, between U.S. State Department officials and Pakistan’s then-ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan.

The alleged meeting occurred only two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine and the invasion was a allegedly major topic of discussion, as the State Department officials, according to the Intercept, made it very clear to Ambassador Khan that Washington was not satisfied with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s neutral position on the conflict.

Imran Khan made his distaste with what he perceived to be pressure from America to denounce Russia for attacking Ukraine very public.

“Are we your slaves? What do you think of us? That we are your slaves and that we will do whatever you ask of us?” he bellowed at a rally on March 6.

“We are friends of Russia, and we are also friends of the United States. We are friends of China and Europe. We are not part of any alliance,” Khan insisted.

The State Department officials, particularly Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, allegedly told Ambassador Khan in no uncertain terms that the prime minister’s position was unacceptable, and said it would be best for all concerned if the no-confidence vote brewing against Imran Khan were to succeed:

In the meeting, according to the document, Lu spoke in forthright terms about Washington’s displeasure with Pakistan’s stance in the conflict. The document quotes Lu saying that “people here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.” Lu added that he had held internal discussions with the U.S. National Security Council and that “it seems quite clear that this is the Prime Minister’s policy.”

Lu then bluntly raises the issue of a no-confidence vote: “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister,” Lu said, according to the document. “Otherwise,” he continued, “I think it will be tough going ahead.”

Lu warned that if the situation wasn’t resolved, Pakistan would be marginalized by its Western allies. “I cannot tell how this will be seen by Europe but I suspect their reaction will be similar,” Lu said, adding that Khan could face “isolation” by Europe and the U.S. should he remain in office.

The Pakistani ambassador allegedly grumbled that the Biden administration gave his county the impression that “we were being ignored, or even taken for granted.” Assistant SecState Lu allegedly told him that things would get better after Prime Minister Khan was gone.

“Let us wait for a few days to see whether the political situation changes, which would mean that we would not have a big disagreement about this issue and the dent would go away very quickly. Otherwise, we will have to confront this issue head on and decide how to manage it,” the Intercept claimed that Lu said.

Khan was already in serious trouble at the time this conversation took place. Pakistani prime ministers never complete their term in office – it has never happened in the history of the country – although Khan was the first to be ousted with a no-confidence vote. He was targeted by an organized opposition effort to remove him as far back as 2020. The powerful Pakistani military had withdrawn its support by then, making it difficult for him to remain in office.

Some observers of the Pakistani political scene thought Khan’s fate was sealed when he slow-walked the military establishment’s choice for the next chief of the ISI, Pakistan’s infamous intelligence service. Khan became increasingly bitter toward his former military allies after 2020, insulting them as puppets of the CIA. After the vote of no confidence, he began accusing the military of conspiring to boot him from office, or even kill him.

Khan said on numerous occasions that the U.S. was behind his ouster, including in a June 2023 interview with the Intercept itself, during which he suggested his adversaries in the Pakistani military hoodwinked the U.S. into thinking he was “anti-American,” soft on terrorism, and friendly to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“I had a perfectly good relationship with the Trump administration. So I couldn’t work out what had gone wrong. But then we discovered that it was the army chief who actually engineered this feeling that I was anti-American, in the U.S.,” Khan complained.

For the record, Khan did speak with admiration of both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden while he was prime minister. He said in August 2021 that the Taliban was “breaking the chains of slavery” by violently overthrowing the elected government of Afghanistan, even as shocking videos showed desperate Afghans falling to the deaths from the wheels of airplanes in their panicked flight from Taliban death squads. Three days after Khan praised the Taliban, 13 American service members and about a hundred Afghans were killed by a bomb attack in Kabul.

In December 2021, Khan defended the Taliban for kicking Afghan women out of schools. “Every society’s ideas of human rights and women’s rights are different,” he said. “Not educating girls is part of Afghan culture.”

In June 2020, Khan hailed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden as a “martyr” and blasted the United States for killing him during a raid on his hideout in Pakistan in 2011.

“I will never forget how we Pakistanis were embarrassed when the Americans came into Abbottabad and killed Osama Bin Laden, martyred him,” Khan said. The U.S. State Department was concerned at the time that Pakistan might have been harboring more terrorist groups.

During the interview in June, Khan gave a description of a communication that matches the Intercept report on Wednesday on the alleged cypher.

“In the cipher, it said that Donald Lu [was] telling the ambassador that Imran Khan had to be removed as prime minister in a vote of no confidence; otherwise, there will be consequences to Pakistan. The next day, 7th of March, was the vote of no confidence,” he said.

The Biden administration has constantly denied reports about the March 7 meeting and insisted it played no role in Khan’s ouster.

“Nothing in these purported comments shows the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan should be,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told the Intercept on Wednesday, even though the alleged cypher describes U.S. officials doing exactly that.

Miller’s remarks implied the cable viewed by the Intercept might not be authentic.

“I can’t speak to whether it’s an actual Pakistani document,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday. “With respect to the comments that were reported, I am not going to speak to private diplomatic exchanges.”

Miller added that even if the conversation transcribed in the cypher was accurate – a concession that would represent a huge walkback from the Biden administration’s previous position – it merely represented U.S. criticism of Khan’s unfortunate “policy choices.”

The Intercept said that the unstable “security climate” in Pakistan made the document very difficult to authenticate, but it noted that Khan’s successor as prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has both “confirmed the existence of the cable” and stated the remarks about Khan made by Lu and the other State Department officials were “inappropriate.”

In fact, the Sharif administration is so convinced the cable is authentic that it might prosecute Khan for leaking it. Khan’s populist political comeback appears to have ended last week when he was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges. On Tuesday, Khan was stripped of his status as a member of Parliament and barred from holding public office for five years by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Prime Minister Sharif dissolved the parliament on Wednesday, paving the way for elections within 90 days, although the process could take much longer because the election commission is busy redrawing districts based on the last census.

Khan supporters found it rather convenient that Sharif’s leading rival was tossed in jail and banned from politics only a few days before the next election was announced. 

In July, Khan said he would form a new party and win the election even if his PTI party was banned by the government; on Wednesday, buoyed by a big local election victory, PTI voters predicted their party would sweep the national elections even if Khan could not run for prime minister. Some Pakistani political observers worried that Sharif might extend his 90-day “caretaker” administration indefinitely, effectively canceling the next election, because he is worried about that very possibility.

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