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Did the U.S. Push Imran Khan from Power? Leaked Cable Shows How State Dept. Pressured Pakistan

StoryAugust 17, 2023
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Image Credit: The Intercept

An explosive leaked document obtained by The Intercept appears to show direct U.S. involvement in former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster in 2022 because of his stance on the war in Ukraine. Khan is currently jailed and facing trial over a slew of corruption charges that his supporters say are intended to keep him from running for office again. The former cricket star was elected in 2018 but lost power in 2022 after a no-confidence vote in Parliament, which he says was engineered by the country’s powerful military with support from the U.S. The diplomatic cable published by The Intercept shows State Department officials pressured their Pakistani counterparts to push Khan out because of his neutrality over the war in Ukraine, promising that “all will be forgiven” if he was to be removed. “This document has been at the center of Pakistan’s political crisis for the past year and a half,” says Murtaza Hussain, senior writer at The Intercept. “Now that we’ve seen this document for the first time, it does seem to validate many of [Khan’s] claims.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with a new report by The Intercept, “Secret Pakistan Cable Documents U.S. Pressure to Remove Imran Khan.” It follows up on their recent story that begins, quote, “The U.S. State Department encouraged the Pakistani government in a March 7, 2022, meeting to remove Imran Khan as prime minister over his position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” The cable describes a meeting between the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and two State Department officials that Imran Khan has repeatedly cited as leading to his political ouster after a no-confidence vote in Parliament, believed to have been organized with the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military. The meeting came after then-Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine last February 2022. He could be heard telling a Russian official, “What a time I have come, so much excitement,” as he arrived in Moscow’s airport. On the day Russia ordered the invasion, Khan went ahead with his scheduled meeting with President Putin.

AMY GOODMAN: The State Department officials present at the meeting described in the secret cable, now published by The Intercept, included 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 cable says Lu raised the issue of the no-confidence vote: quote, “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,” unquote. Lu continued, quote, “Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead,” and said Khan could face “isolation” by Europe and the U.S. should he remain in office.

For more, we’re joined by Murtaza Hussain, senior writer at The Intercept.

Can you lay out what you have found?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, this document has been at the center of Pakistan’s political crisis for the past year and a half. For the first time, we’ve actually seen what it says. And what it seems to reveal is very extraordinary pressure which was put by the U.S. on Imran Khan over his stance on Ukraine, which in that document U.S. officials refer to as “aggressively neutral.” So, shortly after this meeting depicted in this document, known as a cipher in Pakistan, took place, Imran Khan was removed from power in a no-confidence vote, which State Department officials had not just encouraged, but actually threatened Pakistan over, that should Khan survive that vote, Pakistan would be isolated, and should he be removed, quote, “all will be forgiven.” So, Khan himself had been saying for the past year and a half, since his removal, that U.S. officials have played a very integral role in encouraging the Pakistani military to take him out of power. And now that we’ve seen this document for the first time, it does seem to validate many of his claims about the events which led up to his removal from power last year.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to go, Murtaza, to political activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, who Democracy Now! spoke to on Wednesday. We got his response. He’s a longtime left-wing political activist, and we got his response to the report in The Intercept. This is part of what he said.

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: I think The Intercept story is much ado about nothing, at least in Pakistan. And I’m talking about critical progressive circles. I’m not talking about government or the PTI or IK supporters. The truth is that IK fell out with the military, and that’s the reason he was booted. I mean, what he really wanted to say was that “Bajwa wanted me out,” but he couldn’t say that at the time. As the right tends to do everywhere, and IK is a classic example of a populist right-wing demagogue, you know, steals the anti — he’s not even anti-imperialist, but he, at best, could have called himself anti-American. Of course, we didn’t have the kind of — or, don’t have the kind of purchase, especially in the mainstream media, to be able to say, “Well, no, a real anti-imperialist looks and does, you know, X, Y, Z.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, left-wing political activist in Pakistan. If you could respond, Murtaza, to what he said? And also, you know, a question that’s been raised a lot in the Pakistani media, namely that Pakistan had already long been isolated well before this — I mean, Biden didn’t even give Imran Khan a call after he was elected. So, it you could respond?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Well, the first thing to understand, it’s a very polarized political environment in Pakistan, perhaps more so than it’s been in many, many decades, so people’s perceptions of this reflect that polarization inside Pakistani society.

I think, looking at Pakistani history, one thing which is undeniable is that the military does not make a move — the U.S. is effectively part of the governing compact of Pakistani society. At the time this meeting took place, Imran Khan was already on thin ice with the military. He’d fallen out with them after initially having his rise sponsored in part by their support. But as we see in this document, the military was waiting, in many ways, for some sort of green light from the U.S. Had they not gotten that green light or had the U.S. said that we have no position on Pakistan’s internal politics, it’s much harder to imagine the subsequent events which took place.

And one thing which is very important that we learn from this, the disclosure, is that it specifically was about the war in Ukraine and Pakistan’s foreign policy, which is usually part of the military’s ambit. And after Khan was removed, we didn’t just see a change of power; we saw a very distinct change in Pakistan’s stance on the Ukraine conflict. Just a few days before he was removed, General Bajwa actually gave a speech contradicting Khan’s stance, which was very neutral on the Ukraine conflict. And now Pakistan has emerged as a major supplier of arms to the Ukrainian military, brokered by the United States. So, you have to take it into the broader context of what’s taken place in the year and a half since he’s removed from power.

And now Mr. Khan, who polls show is the most popular politician in Pakistan, one way or another, is specifically being jailed and banned from politics to prevent him from taking part in elections expected for later this year. So what we’re seeing right now is a very thoroughgoing development towards a full-blown military dictatorship in Pakistan, which is taking place with the support of ostensibly Democratic parties, who have co-signed the marginalization of democracy in Pakistan for many years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Murtaza Hussain, I want to thank you so much for being with us, senior writer at The Intercept. We’re going to link to his piece, “Secret Pakistan Cable Documents U.S. Pressure to Remove Imran Khan.”

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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