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Did the USA orchestrate a regime change because Imran Khan visited Moscow? Secret Pakistan cables reveal Americans wanted him removed

In April 2022, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn published a report claiming farewell lunch between State Department officials, and the then-ambassador triggered the regime change. The report was extensively based on sources from Dawn that provided the details of the lunch-turned-meeting. The report mentioned that the US officials expressed their dismay as Imran Khan did not postpone his Russia visit soon after the military action against Ukraine.

On 9th August (local time), classified Pakistani government documents accessed by news portal The Intercept revealed the US State Department “encouraged” the Pakistani government in a March 2022 meeting to remove Imran Khan as PM. The steps taken by the US state department came in light of Khan’s neutral stand on Russia’s military action against Ukraine.

The cable named “cypher” was not in the public domain. An anonymous source in the Pakistani military leaked it to the intercept. Intercept mentioned that the “source” claimed they had no tie to Khan or his party.

Notably, when Khan was removed from his post after a no-confidence vote in Pakistan’s Parliament, he alleged the US was behind his removal. The no-confidence motion was moved only a month after the said meeting between the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and two State Department officials on 7th March 2022.

As per the cable, the US State Department used all tactics to encourage Pakistani lawmakers to remove Khan. It included 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 then-Pakistan’s ambassador to the US Asad Majeed Khan.

Cypher was a topic of discussion in the Pakistani media for over a year

Notably, In April 2022, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn published a report claiming farewell lunch between State Department officials, and the then-ambassador triggered the regime change. The report was extensively based on sources from Dawn that provided the details of the lunch-turned-meeting. The report mentioned that the US officials expressed their dismay as Imran Khan did not postpone his Russia visit soon after the military action against Ukraine.

Reportedly, the ambassador pointed out that the invitation to Khan was extended after years of trying to visit Moscow, and the Pakistani government couldn’t deny or postpone the visit. Furthermore, the sources revealed though the State Department officials’ remarks raised concerns, they did not directly threaten a regime change.

Though US State Department did not directly seek the removal of Khan from the post of Prime Minister of Pakistan, its remarks did start a chain reaction in the neighboring country, leading to a no-confidence vote followed by Imran Khan’s conviction in a corruption case.

Interestingly, in October 2022, after the cabinet approved an inquiry into the audio leaks featuring Khan and his party leaders, the ‘cypher’ was deemed a reality in the Pakistani political circle. Khan is currently facing a total of 37 cases filed against him in different parts of the country.

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing [PDF of the transcript], in response to a question about Pakistan’s stand on Ukraine, Lu had 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.”

According to the leaked document, Lu expressed displeasure over Pakistan’s stance in the conflict. He 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.”

Furthermore, he bluntly talked about the no-confidence vote. He said, “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 if it did not happen, the road ahead for Pakistan in terms of relations with the US would be tough. He also warned about similar reactions from European countries.

The no-confidence motion

Just a day after the meeting, Khan’s opponents moved the first step towards a no-confidence vote. In April 2022, Khan alleged there was a cable about the US’s interference in Pakistan’s political structure. However, the US denied any involvement. On 22nd March, Khan waived a set of papers, allegedly copies of cypher, at a rally and claimed the US was meddling with Pakistan’s internal affairs.

In September last year, when audio clips were leaked where Khan and his party’s leaders talked about cypher, Khan categorically said he was not interested in doing anything about it but is using it for political gains. Speaking to Azam Khan, he said, “We only have to play it up. We don’t have to name America. We only have to play with this, that this date [of the no-trust vote] was [decided] before.”

US State Department refused to comment

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller refused to comment on the cable leaked to the Intercept. He said the comments in the documents did not reflect the US took any position on who should be the leader of Pakistan.

He said, “Yes, it’s a report – reported to be a Pakistani document. I can’t speak to whether it is an actual Pakistani document or not; just simply don’t know. With respect to the comments that were reported, I’m not going to speak to private diplomatic exchanges other than to say that, even if those comments were accurate as reported, they in no way show the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan ought to be. We express concern privately to the Government of Pakistan, as we express concern publicly, about the visit of then-Prime Minister Khan to Moscow on the very day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We made that concern quite clear.”

“But as the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States himself has stated, the allegations that the United States has interfered in internal decisions about the leadership of Pakistan are false. As we’ve stated, they’re false. They’ve always been false, and they remain false,” he added.

Lu had raised an objection to India’s stand in a committee hearing

During the committee hearing, which the Intercept mentioned, Lu had raised objections over India’s stand towards Russia’s military action. He said, “Many of my colleagues and I are puzzled by India’s equivocation in the face of the biggest threat to democracy since World War II. At a time when democracies are closing ranks to condemn Russia’s invasion, it is troubling, to say the least, to see India, the world’s largest democracy, sitting on the sidelines.”

“I understand India has a history of nonalignment in foreign policy matters, but this is a unique moment that demands clear-eyed conviction about right and wrong, sovereignty, and democracy. I note India abstained on today’s vote before the UN while, at the same time, many countries that had previously declared neutrality voted with us. We hope that India soon will get on the right side of history,” he added.

Though the overall stand towards India was positive during the hearing, one may wonder what would have been the US’s stand if India’s foreign policy was not as strong as it is today under PM Modi. The way Pakistan and Sri Lanka were talked about during the hearing and how strong objections were raised over their stand towards Russia was in sharp contrast to the US’s views on India. In fact, the US saw India as a way to curb China’s dominance in the region in the future.

While the US and other Western countries have tried extensively to change India’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, India has held its position to stay neutral.

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