The meeting between the Pakistani ambassador to the US and two US State Department officials has been a matter of intense scrutiny, controversy, and speculation in Pakistan over the past year and a half, as the former Pakistan PM and his military and civilian opponents struggled for power.
The political struggle further escalated on August 5 when Khan was sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges, according to The Intercept report. However, Khan’s supporters have denied the charges, terming them baseless. The decision announced by the court also blocks Khan from contesting polls expected in Pakistan later this year.
One month after the meeting with US officials was revealed in the Pakistan government’s document, a no-confidence vote was held in Parliament, resulting in Khan’s ouster from power. The vote in the Pakistani parliament was believed to have the support of Pakistan’s army.
The vote is believed to have been organised with the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military. Since his ouster, Khan and his supporters have been involved in a struggle with the army and its civilian allies, whom the former Pakistan PM engineered his removal from power at the request of the US.
In March last year, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Imran Kha raised “foreign conspiracy” charge. Addressing the nation amid his coalition government seemingly losing the majority after losing the support of some allies, Khan said a foreign power sent a message that he needs “to be removed” or Pakistan will face consequences.
“A foreign nation sent a message to us (Pakistan) that Imran Khan needs to be removed else Pakistan will suffer consequences,” he said. Referring to “foreign conspiracy letter,” he said its language “was threatening and arrogant”.
On March 27, Khan had waved the “letter” at a public rally saying a foreign conspiracy was afoot to oust him. He had sought to link the opposition’s no-confidence motion with a “foreign-funded” move to topple his government.
The text of the Pakistani cable, known as “cypher”, produced from the meeting by the ambassador and transmitted to Pakistan has revealed the methods used by the US State Department in its push against Khan, promising warmer ties with Islamabad if Khan was removed, and isolation if he was not, The Intercept reported.
The document, titled ‘Secret’, includes an account of the meeting between US State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu and Asad Majeed Khan, who was then-Pakistan’s ambassador to the US. An anonymous source in the Pakistani military has provided the document to The Intercept.
The cable includes the carrots and sticks used by the US State Department in its push against then-Pakistan PM Imran Khan. The dynamics of the Pakistan-US ties mentioned in the cable were subsequently borne out by events, according to The Intercept report. In the cable, the US has raised objections to the foreign policy of Imran Khan over the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The stance taken by Imran Khan over Ukraine was quickly reversed post his removal from office.
The diplomatic meeting between US State Department officials and the Pakistani government took place two weeks after the conflict between Russia and Ukraine started, as Khan was heading to Moscow. Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan’s visit to Russia angered the US.
On March 2, 2022, just days before the meeting, Lu had been questioned at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing over the neutral stance taken by Pakistan and other nations on the Ukraine conflict. Responding to the question from Senator Chris Van Hollen, 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,” The Intercept reported.
A day before the meeting, Khan, addressing a rally, said, “Are we your slaves?” He asked, “What do you think of us? That we are your slaves and that we will do whatever you ask of us?” In his remarks, then-Pakistan PM said, “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.”
According to the document, Lu, in the meeting, expressed US’ displeasure over Pakistan’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Lu said, “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”, The Intercept quoted Lu as saying in the document.
Lu further said that he had held internal discussions with the US National Security Council and it “seems quite clear that this is the Prime Minister’s policy”.
On the issue of the no-confidence vote, The Intercept quoted Donald Lu as saying, “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.”
He added, “I think it will be tough going ahead.”
Lu had warned that Pakistan would be marginalised by its Western allies if the situation was not resolved. He had said, “I cannot tell how this will be seen by Europe but I suspect their reaction will be similar,” adding that Khan could face “isolation” by Europe and the US should he remain in office.
Asked about Lu’s quotes in the Pakistani cable, US 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, however, said he would not react to private diplomatic discussions.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani ambassador voiced frustration with the lack of engagement from US leadership. He said, “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 US expected Pakistan’s support on all issues that were important to the US, it did not reciprocate.”
According to the document, the discussion concluded with the Pakistani ambassador expressing hope that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would not affect the bilateral ties between Islamabad and Washington. Lu had said the damage was real but not fatal and with Imran Khan gone, the ties could return to normal, The Intercept reported.
Lu said, “I would argue that it has already created a dent in the relationship from our perspective.” He further said, “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.”
On March 8, 2022, a day after the meeting, Imran Khan’s opponents in Parliament moved forward with procedural steps towards the no-confidence vote. The US State Department has previously and on repeated occasions denied that Lu urged the Pakistani government to remove Khan as Prime Minister.
On April 8, 2022, US State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter, responding to the allegations levelled by Imran Khan, said, “Let me just say very bluntly there is absolutely no truth to these allegations”, The Intercept reported.
A month after the meeting was described in the cable and just days prior to Khan’s ouster from power, Pakistan’s then-army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa termed the Russian-Ukraine conflict a “huge tragedy” and criticised Moscow.
His remarks backed the public picture with Lu’s private observation, described in the cable, that Pakistan’s neutrality over the Russia-Ukraine conflict was the policy of Khan and not of the military.