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Leaked ‘cypher’ hints US pressure to remove Imran’s govt

The U.S. State Department encouraged the Pakistani government in a March 7, 2022, meeting to remove Imran Khan as prime minister over his neutrality on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to a Pakistani government document obtained by The Intercept.

The meeting, between the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and two State Department officials, has been the subject of intense scrutiny, controversy, and speculation in Pakistan over the past year and a half, as supporters of Khan and his military and civilian opponents jockeyed for power.

The political struggle escalated on August 5 when Khan was sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges and taken into custody for the second time since his ouster.

Khan’s defenders dismiss the charges as baseless. The sentence also blocks Khan, Pakistan’s most popular politician, from contesting elections expected in Pakistan later this year.

One month after the meeting with U.S. officials documented in the leaked Pakistani government document, a no-confidence vote was held in Parliament, leading to Khan’s removal from power.

The vote is believed to have been organized with the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military. Since that time, Khan and his supporters have been engaged in a struggle with the military and its civilian allies, whom Khan claims engineered his removal from power at the request of the U.S.

The text of the Pakistani cable, produced from the meeting by the ambassador and transmitted to Pakistan, has not previously been published.

The cable, known internally as a “cypher,” reveals both the carrots and the sticks that the State Department deployed in its push against Khan, promising warmer relations if Khan was removed, and isolation if he was not.

The document, labeled “Secret,” includes an account of the meeting between State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Asad Majeed Khan, who at the time was Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S.

The document was provided to The Intercept by an anonymous source in the Pakistani military who said that they had no ties to Imran Khan or Khan’s party.

The Intercept is publishing the body of the cable below, correcting minor typos in the text because such details can be used to watermark documents and track their dissemination.

The contents of the document obtained by The Intercept are consistent with reporting in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and elsewhere describing the circumstances of the meeting and details in the cable itself, including in the classification markings omitted from The Intercept’s presentation.

The dynamics of the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. described in the cable were subsequently borne out by events. In the cable, the U.S. objects to Khan’s foreign policy on the Ukraine war. Those positions were quickly reversed after his removal, which was followed, as promised in the meeting, by a warming between the U.S. and Pakistan.

The diplomatic meeting came two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which launched as Khan was en route to Moscow, a visit that infuriated Washington.

On March 2, just days before the meeting, Lu had been questioned at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing over the neutrality of India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan in the Ukraine conflict. In response to a question from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., about a recent decision by Pakistan to abstain from a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s role in the conflict, Lu said, “Prime Minister Khan has recently visited Moscow, and so I think we are trying to figure out how to engage specifically with the Prime Minister following that decision.” Van Hollen appeared to be indignant that officials from the State Department were not in communication with Khan about the issue.

The day before the meeting, Khan addressed a rally and responded directly to European calls that Pakistan rally behind Ukraine. “Are we your slaves?” Khan thundered to the crowd. “What do you think of us? That we are your slaves and that we will do whatever you ask of us?” he asked. “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.” 

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.

Asked about quotes from Lu in the Pakistani cable, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “Nothing in these purported comments shows the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan should be.” Miller said he would not comment on private diplomatic discussions. 

The Pakistani ambassador responded by expressing frustration with the lack of engagement from U.S. leadership: “This reluctance had created a perception in Pakistan that we were being ignored or even taken for granted. There was also a feeling that while the U.S. expected Pakistan’s support on all issues that were important to the U.S., it did not reciprocate.” 

The discussion concluded, according to the document, with the Pakistani ambassador expressing his hope that the issue of the Russia-Ukraine war would not “impact our bilateral ties.” Lu told him that the damage was real but not fatal, and with Khan gone, the relationship could go back to normal. “I would argue that it has already created a dent in the relationship from our perspective,” Lu said, again raising the “political situation” in Pakistan. “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 day after the meeting, on March 8, Khan’s opponents in Parliament moved forward with a key procedural step toward the no-confidence vote.

“Khan’s fate wasn’t sealed at the time that this meeting took place, but it was tenuous,” said Arif Rafiq, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and specialist on Pakistan. “What you have here is the Biden administration sending a message to the people that they saw as Pakistan’s real rulers, signaling to them that things will better if he is removed from power.”

The Intercept has made extensive efforts to authenticate the document. Given the security climate in Pakistan, independent confirmation from sources in the Pakistani government was not possible. The Pakistan Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

Miller, the State Department spokesperson, said, “We had expressed concern about the visit of then-PM Khan to Moscow on the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and have communicated that opposition both publicly and privately.” He added that “allegations that the United States interfered in internal decisions about the leadership of Pakistan are false. They have always been false, and they continue to be.” 

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