Last week, Intercept journalists Ryan Grim and Murtaza Hussain published a bombshell investigation into Pakistan’s political crisis. Grim and Hussain were provided a Pakistani intelligence document by an anonymous source, outlining how the U.S. government pressured the Pakistani government to oust former Prime Minister Imran Khan. This week on Deconstructed, Grim and Hussain discuss their reporting, the leaked cable, and the fallout from the political crisis in Pakistan.
Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed.
MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.
In the past year, widespread demonstrations have rocked Pakistan, as supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan continue to rally in his support. Last year, Khan was ousted after a no-confidence vote in the Pakistani parliament. As people have taken to the streets in support of Khan, the military has engaged in widespread repression, leading to what many are calling the most serious political crisis in Pakistani history. Khan and his supporters have said that the U.S. State Department supported and even encouraged his ousting last year.
Khan has been pointing to a secret Pakistani intelligence document as proof of the U.S.’ role in the crisis. No one had access to it, until now. Ryan and I were provided the document by an anonymous source in the Pakistani military, who said that they had no ties to Imran Khan or Khan’s party.
Before we jump into it, some developments have taken place since we recorded this conversation. Earlier this month, Khan was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges. Khan’s defenders dismissed the charges as baseless. The sentence also blocks Khan — Pakistan’s most popular politician — from contesting elections expected in Pakistan later this year.
Ryan and I discussed the developments in Pakistan, the U.S.’ role in the crisis, and the document that we obtained.
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RG: So, Maz, what we have today is a story about U.S. interference in the internal politics of Pakistan. Can you help us understand the context of how the U.S. has related to Pakistan over the years?
MH: So, for a period of several decades, almost dating back to the existence of Pakistan in the 40s, the United States has been almost effectively part of the ruling compact of the Pakistani government. There’s a saying in Pakistan which is somewhat humorous, somewhat serious, that the country rests on three pillars — three A’s, as they call it: army, Allah, and America. And the meaning behind the saying is that America’s say and America’s role in Pakistan politics is considered determinative — or at least extremely influential — by pretty much all the powerful power brokers in Pakistan society.
And, for those who don’t know, Pakistan, since its creation, the military has taken a very disproportionate role in governing the country. They’ve removed civilian leaders, they’ve engineered the rise of certain civilian leaders, they’ve even executed prime ministers who fall afoul of them at times.
So, the Pakistani military continues to play this sort of shadowy role behind the scenes; sometimes they govern directly, but more often they use civilian puppets to govern. And their own perspective on Pakistani politics is very, very much shaped by what America thinks.
America has been a strategic relationship, an economic relationship, a political relationship for the Pakistani military and its leaders. And they take very, very strongly their cues from what America thinks is acceptable for the Pakistani government.
Now, Imran Khan was elected a few years ago on the basis of a very populist candidacy. And, at the time, though he had the support of the military, much of his public persona was based on, if not anti-Americanism, certainly asserting greater independence from America and Pakistani domestic and foreign policy. In office, he made many comments to the effect that we want to have a relationship with the U.S., but we want to be more independent. And he’s not exactly someone who’s subtle; he would phrase it sometimes, “we’re not your slaves,” and things like that.
So, this obviously was antagonistic to the U.S. at some point, and Imran Khan and the Pakistani military eventually fell out, and today he’s in the opposition fighting to come back to power. He’s still an extremely popular prime minister in Pakistan, but he’s on the outskirts, and this issue of his relationship with the U.S. and the U.S.’ relationship with the Pakistani army is very, very much at the core of the tension, which is currently wracking Pakistan.
RG: And speaking of that blunt talk, there was a crucial interview he gave with Jonathan Swan.
Jonathan Swan: Will you allow the American government to have CIA here in Pakistan, to conduct cross-border counter-terrorism missions against Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or the Taliban?
Imran Khan: Absolutely not. There’s no way we are going to allow —
Jonathan Swan: Seriously?
Imran Khan: Any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan. Absolutely not.
RG: So, there you have Imran Khan, in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, with a very undiplomatic and direct rejection of a request that hadn’t actually been made publicly, but was raised by Jonathan Swan. And our understanding is that, in Washington, that was taken to be a huge offense. Not just that he was going to make this rejection, but that he was going to do it so publicly, and that it was going to undermine Biden’s post-withdrawal strategy.
He kept talking about “over the horizon,” we’re still going to be able to have influence in Afghanistan because we’re going to be over the horizon; the way you’re going to be over the horizon is to be in Pakistan. And now, here’s Imran Khan saying, actually, no, you’re not going to be in Pakistan.
How did the military establishment react to that, and what’s your understanding of how the U.S. responded to that?
MH: So, it’s very important to note that a lot of Imran Khan’s initial popularity came from opposition to this issue of drone strikes in Pakistani territory that were taking place during the height of the War on Terror. These drone strikes carried out by the U.S. were taking place with the permission of the Pakistani military, but they were extremely unpopular amongst the public for pretty understandable reasons. There were civilians being killed, it was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. It became a cash cow, the U.S. military, for the Pakistani military, the U.S. government for the Pakistani military became a cash cow during that time.
So, they had very strong incentives to allow this to happen, irrespective of threats to sovereignty or civilian casualties and things like that. It was in the military’s own interest to allow it to go forward, and Imran Khan tapped into the popular discontent over this. And he went from someone who was, just up to that point, not a politician — he was just a private citizen, mostly known for his philanthropy and his cricketing career — to becoming a political figure in Pakistani society.
So, that issue of drone strikes is very, very core to his own emergence in the first place, so it’s not surprising that he would state very strongly that, in office, he’s not going to allow that to continue under his own tenure. But the problem is, the Pakistani military is always looking for ways to make itself useful to the United States. To the tune of billions of dollars, they managed to cash in on the War on Terror and, with the end of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has, obviously, less interest in the region.
But one of the ways that Pakistan can help, or can be seen as a strategic partner — the [Pakistani] military can be seen as strategic partner — is allowing these over-the-horizon strikes to take place, so that the U.S. can continue conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan without presence on the ground in the country. So, his rejection, so forthrightly and bluntly, of this request, in a very relatively undiplomatic way, certainly antagonized the U.S. military, the U.S. government. You can imagine it did.
There’s also a very interesting and important article which was published in The New York Times last year by a Pakistani American political analyst named Arif Rafiq, and he mentioned very closely that — this was before Khan was moved from power — he mentioned that, based on analysis and discussions, the Pakistani military is very uncomfortable with Imran Khan’s anti-American streak, or his rejection of U.S. overtures, and requests, and so forth. And they’re afraid that Pakistan will get cornered into its relationship with China without another pole to balance, and it was not that long thereafter that Imran Khan was removed from power.
So, there were clearly rumblings of discontent surfacing more and more over his stance on this issue, which is very uncompromising, and very popular with the Pakistani public which, as I mentioned, was not in favor of these drone strikes at all. But the implications for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship — and, by extension, the Pakistani military — would be very dire if that relationship were to end, or be scaled back to its bare bones.
RG: Yeah, and I interviewed Imran Khan in early June and, just briefly, here’s what he had to say about that particular question, and the relationship to the Taliban as well.
Imran Khan: I think my opposition to the War on Terror also was perceived as being anti-American, which it’s not; it’s just being nationalistic about your own country. When the Taliban took over, frankly, whichever government is in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to have a good relationship with them. We have a two-and-a-half-thousand kilometer border with them. We have 3 million Afghan refugees here.
And when the Ghani government, before that, I went to Afghanistan — at Kabul — to meet him. I invited him to Pakistan. We tried our best to have a good relationship with them. So, whoever is in power in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to have a good relationship because, at one point during the previous government, there were three different terrorist groups using Afghan territory to attack Pakistan. The ISIL, Pakistani Taliban, and the Baloch Liberation Organization. Three different groups were attacking us.
So, therefore, you need a government in Afghanistan which would be helpful. So it was not pro-Taliban; it’s basically pro-Pakistan as anyone who cares about his country would make those decisions.
RG: OK, so that’s mid-2021. So, fast forward to February, 2022. Russia invades Ukraine. Russia invades Ukraine just as Imran Khan is in the air on the way to Moscow for a bilateral meeting with Putin. Maz, pick it up from there.
MH: Yeah. So, the timing was very inauspicious and — according to Iman Khan himself, and figures in his government — it wasn’t planned, they weren’t aware of it. But Imran Khan arrived in Moscow on the eve of the beginning of the Ukraine war and, certainly the image that portrayed of himself or the Pakistani government endorsing tacitly or implicitly the invasion was very antagonizing to the U.S. and to the U.S. government.
So, in the days and weeks after, Imran Khan denied that he’d been aware of it, he denied that he endorsed the war, but he also didn’t exactly condemn it, either. He tried to stake a position of neutrality on the conflict. And, again, he said it in his characteristic way, he said at a public rally that, I’m not going to condemn Putin at other people’s requests — in referring to the United States and Europe — because we’re not your slaves, as he put it.
And, at the time, the stakes were being raised very, very highly. This position, understandably, irked people in the Pakistani military, and I’m sure in the U.S. government as well, too. At that time, the Army chief was a man named Qamar Bajwa, and he gave an address not long after Imran Khan’s speech where he made that statement, and he condemned the invasion very strongly. He condemned Putin, and the impact on Ukrainian civilians, and so forth. And, shortly thereafter, Khan was removed from power.
So, clearly there was a very short series of events where Khan is in Moscow, he has a public break in his position between himself and the powerful army chief, and then he’s removed from power. And that brings us to an issue which is at the center of what’s going on right now, which is this issue of a diplomatic cable, or intelligence cable from the Pakistani government and Pakistani military intelligence, which seems to outline a conversation between the Pakistani ambassador at the time to the United States and a State Department official named Donald Lu, where Mr. Lu states pretty clearly America’s opposition to Pakistan neutral stance, and attributes that stance to Imran Khan himself, and expresses what seems very strongly, if not encouragement, at least a green light for any opposition moves within Pakistan — whether by the military, civilian opposition parties, or some combination thereof — to remove him from power.
And that letter and that cable has been at the center of Pakistani politics and the controversy that’s engulfed it since Khan has been removed.
RG: And so, this is March 6th, that this lunch meeting occurs between the outgoing Pakistani ambassador and Donald Lu. Also, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Les Viguerie was also there, according to the notes that made it into this document, which we’ve obtained. So, we can read a few of these quotes, and then I’ll get your reaction to the diplomatic speak. Although, when it comes to diplomatic language, this doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for interpretation.
So, in one section of it here the ambassador says, “I asked Don Lu if the reason for a strong U.S. reaction was Pakistan’s abstention in the voting in the U.N. general assembly.” Pakistan had not voted to condemn. He categorically replied in the negative, and said that it was due to the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow.
He said that, quote, this is Don Lu, according to this document: “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. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.”
So, what is this no-confidence vote that he’s referring to there?
MH: So, at the time, there were rumblings within Pakistan that the opposition — civilian opposition, in tandem with the military — may organize a no-confidence vote against Khan, which would remove him from power. And Lu seemed to be aware of these discussions prior to this conversation, and his direct allusion to it, or reference to it, directly attributing this issue which he’s unhappy about, which is Pakistan’s neutrality of the war, to the Prime Minister, Khan himself, was pretty direct, in terms of If not ordering something to happen — I don’t think you can say it did that — but it certainly evinced a very clear U.S. position that they’d view this with approval, and they would view it as something which would be good for their bilateral relationship, which I mentioned earlier is extremely important to the Pakistani military.
And, if I may, I’d like to read another excerpt of this document as well. After this kind of back and forth, the Pakistani ambassador of the U.S. expresses, as per the document, his hope that this issue of the Ukraine war and Pakistani neutrality would not harm the two countries’ bilateral relationship. And Lu was quoted as replying to that: “I would argue that it has already created a dent in the relationship, from our perspective. 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.”
So, he’s pretty directly saying that if you don’t change the political situation — and he’d already referred to the no-confidence vote on the Prime Minister — it’s going to harm the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship. And if something happens where things do change, that problem, that harm, could go away, and even the damage already done could go away.
It goes as pretty close as you can get to encouragement and, certainly, permission, and a green light, you could say, to removing Imran Khan. Because, as you remember, he’s a democratically elected Prime Minister and, whether you like him or not, he was elected by people, and he maintains a very strong popular base in Pakistan society.
So, the expression of an opinion, a very strident opinion, on the proper configuration of Pakistan’s domestic politics by a U.S. diplomat is quite antagonizing, potentially, to Pakistani politicians; to Khan himself, certainly, and to many of his supporters. So, to see that in the cable was quite jarring.
And in their own assessment of the cable, which is also included in the cable document itself, the Pakistani side is clearly alarmed by what’s been said, and they take umbrage to what seems to be intervention/interference in their own domestic political affairs.
RG: And Lu also seems to be intervening on behalf of the Europeans as well.
I’ll just read from one part here, [where] the ambassador writes: “He paused, and then said, quote, ‘I cannot tell how this will be seen by Europe, but I suspect their reaction will be similar,’ unquote. He then said that, quote, ‘Honestly, I think isolation of the Prime Minister will become very strong from Europe and the United States.’”
So, not only is Pakistan being threatened to have its bilateral relations with the United States cut off if Imran Khan remains in power, but the E.U. — which is now in this climactic confrontation with Russia, they were just two weeks into this fight — they’re being told that Europe, also, is going to isolate Pakistan.
MH: That would be very dire for Pakistan if that threat were carried out, because Pakistan has pretty bad relations with all of its immediate neighbors. It has bad relations with Afghanistan — pre- and post-Taliban, to be honest — India, obviously, and Iran, also, its relationships are not very fruitful, and often tense.
Its relationships with the West, with the U.S. and the European Union are very, very important, and the United Kingdom. And the Pakistani military, despite its difficulties and its conflicts with the U.S. over the past 20 years, related to the War on the Terror and the war in Afghanistan, is still a very pro-American institution, and a pro-Western institution. It’s very anxious that its ties with Western countries should be good.
So, this statement by Lu is almost threatening its worst nightmares, that if you don’t solve this problem, which is being specifically said as the Prime Minister himself, you’re not going to have these relationships which you depend on, or you’ll be isolated, you’ll be in a very difficult situation. And because of the manner in which Pakistan’s political economy has developed over many, many years, where the military has such an outsized role, it’s really warped the way the economy is structured. The military obviously runs a lot of businesses, they’re the biggest real estate holder in Pakistan, and they’ve set up the system such that they require external patrons. They require a cash cow to continue feeding money into the system which, at this setup, in a very warped way, for their own benefit, will not function well on its own. They’d lose their privileges, they’d have to completely reform the economy, there’d be a lot of jarring changes. But if they can keep that money flowing, they can continue the system. They can continue being the biggest business conglomerate in the country as well, too, without a need for economic reform.
So, it’s very, very important to them — not just strategically, but economically, in a very, very basic level — to keep this, not to be isolated. That they keep good ties, and find a way to remain useful to the United States, and to Europe as well. So, this threat seemed to be quite, quite extreme, or the suggestion of isolation is quite extreme, from their perspective, and you can see, after Khan was removed, the changes that did take place.
It’s pretty well-known now that Pakistan is a significant supplier of military hardware and ammunition to Ukraine. Pakistani military is a major supplier of these components, like artillery shells and hardware, and they’ve started turning up in Ukrainian battlefields, or Russian and Ukrainian battlefields, and the Ukrainian foreign minister was in Pakistan recently. It’s very clear that Pakistan has taken a position which is no longer neutral in this conflict. They’re leaning towards the West in this conflict as much as they can without alienating Russia, and that’s a concrete change which is observable from before and after Khan’s tenure, and was at the core of Lu’s grievances when they had that meeting.
RG: And you can see how powerfully this threat landed, in the way that the ambassador responds. You can also see the shape of the power dynamic come into really sharp relief in the way that he starts pleading his case in such a poignant way.
He writes in the memo: “I stress that when the Prime Minister was flying to Moscow Russian invasion of Ukraine had not started, and there was still hope for a peaceful resolution. I also pointed out that leaders of European countries were also traveling to Moscow around the same time. Don interjected that, quote, ‘Those visits were specifically for seeking resolution of the Ukraine standoff, while the Prime Minister’s visit was for bilateral economic reasons.’ I drew his attention to the fact that the Prime Minister clearly regretted the situation while being in Moscow and had hoped for diplomacy to work. The Prime Minister’s visit, I stressed, was purely in the bilateral context, and should not be seen either as a condemnation or endorsement of Russia’s actions against Ukraine. I said that our position is dictated by our desire to keep the channels of communication with all sides open. Our subsequent statements at the U.N. and by our spokesperson, spelled that out clearly.”
And he goes on and on, really trying to just get across to Lu, and then to the United States, that, please do not make good on these threats that you’re making. But, as you said, toward the end of it, he does not feel like he accomplished that at all.
This is the ambassador’s very short analysis of this long meeting: he said, “Don could not have conveyed such a strong demarche without the express approval of the White House, to which he referred repeatedly. Clearly, Don spoke out of turn on Pakistan’s internal political process. We need to seriously reflect on this and consider making an appropriate demarche to the U.S. in Islamabad.”
So, the Pakistani ambassador took it as out of turn as, as something that is just beyond the normal kind of push and pull of diplomacy. But the fact that this document was created, and then gets sent back to Pakistan, sends the U.S. wishes, and sends the U.S. message — not just to Imran Khan, and there’s some question about when he was able to see this document — but, also, and you can talk about this a little bit: who else would have seen this dispatch once the ambassador wrote it up and sent it back to Pakistan?
MH: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s so curious, in some ways, because the person who he’s delivering this message to technically is serving in Imran Khan’s government, but the government in Pakistan is so… The way power is organized is so opaque, and so penetrated by the military intelligence services — who take a very active role in domestic policy, and control several aspects of policymaking — that this message cannot but inevitably go back to them as well, too, or perhaps even to them primarily.
And while it doesn’t, I don’t think, gives a direct order, as I said, to remove Khan to any particular party, it certainly would cause divisions, or give a green light to people within the government who already wanted to remove him — or people within the ruling compact, which includes the military and intelligence services, who wanted to move against him — and want to know that they have America’s approval to do that. I would say this does not even give just approval; it would probably give a positive encouragement, if anything, that it would lose statements as conveyed back through this channel to various factions within Pakistan, would make clear that Imran Khan can go. And, if he goes, the U.S. will not object, and will probably give us some award for doing that, too, as well, or reward us with a renewed relationship, or a reinvigorated relationship.
So, it’s a very unambiguous message. And Khan, obviously, himself caught the message as well, too. And he was very public talking about this this note, there’s reports that he discussed it at a National Security Council meeting in Pakistan where various factions of the government condemned it. But yet, they did move forward. It seems like they moved forward, specifically, with what Lu said, which is a vote of no confidence, which removed him from power.
And, thereafter, we do see a renewal of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, particularly on military terms, which we’re seeing in recent days, including when Michael Eric Corella, the U.S. head of CENTCOM, was in Pakistan discussing U.S.-Pakistan collaboration with the head of the Pakistani military. And, in their statement about this meeting, mentioned nothing to do with democracy, or the current political crisis in Pakistan related to Khan. It was pretty much focused on a bilateral military to military relationship between the U.S. and Pakistani military, which seems to be what the military itself and Pakistan wants.
RG: And let’s talk about the journey of this document — this “cipher,” as it’s called in Pakistan — which really took on a legend of its own. And, up until we published it, has been the subject of extraordinary controversy and speculation. For a long time [there were] people saying that it didn’t exist, that Khan was making it up.
So, Imran Khan, in late March of 2022, kind of took a piece of paper and waved it around at a rally — this is before he’d been officially ousted — saying that the U.S. was trying to push him out of power. Later, he named Don Lu as the specific — he called him an undersecretary, [but] he’s assistant secretary — as the specific State Department official who gave the instructions, or the guidance, or whatever you’d want to call it. From there, he was pushed out, and the State Department has strenuously, repeatedly, vehemently and, recently, with mockery, dismissed any of the allegations that Khan has made.
Reporter: Are you going to disclose those documents?
Matthew Miller: We are really going down a rabbit hole here, I think. We’ve spoken to this before.
Reporter: I know. Now, this changes the scenario, by the way.
Matthew Miller: I don’t believe it does. I will just continue to reiterate that those claims are not accurate.
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Reporter: So, the cipher was fake, basically?
Matthew Miller: I don’t know how many times I can respond to this question from the podium and give the same answer, which is that these allegations, such as they are, are completely unfounded.
Reporter: Then, do you know that, for the sedition charges that the interior minister is levying on the former Prime Minister, the minimum death sentence is death sentence. The minimum punishment is death sentence.
Matthew Miller: I’ll take your word for it.
Reporter: So, a former Prime Minister who is a national hero, and who has huge following in the U.S., who earns millions of dollars for his cancer hospital, the U.S. is going to let him be charged on sedition, which is something related to the U.S.? Why doesn’t the U.S. help out to resolving this whole issue?
Matthew Miller: I will say, as I have said before, that the U.S. does not involve itself with domestic political questions, and we do not take sides on political parties in Pakistan, or any other country.
[Deconstructed sound cue.]
Reporter: So, today, the former Minister of Pakistan, while speaking to media after a month of detention and back and forth, he also came out and he said the cipher was reality. The U.S. officials was giving a demarche. So, now you have a former Prime Minister, a former Prime Minister, the military chiefs was sitting … So, is the responsibility going on President Biden wanting to change the regime in Pakistan? Or the secretary? I mean, one, somebody has to take, at least …
Matthew Miller: I feel like I need to bring a sign that I can hold up in response to this question, to say that that allegation is not true. I don’t know how many times I can say it. I will say, as I’ve said before, that the United States does not have a position on one political candidate or party versus another in Pakistan or in any other country.
RG: But the Prime Minister, the new Prime Minister, eventually did acknowledge that this document existed, and that it did represent behavior by Don Lu that Pakistan found to be troubling, but was nowhere near what Khan was alleging.
So, where is this cipher now in the annals of Pakistani politics?
MH: Well, the thing with the cipher is that, what Khan was describing for many, many months, as the contents of the cipher seemed to tie very closely into his own depiction of American overinvolvement in Pakistani domestic politics. And, as I said earlier, much of his own campaign originally, and its popularity, was based on asserting greater Pakistani independence from what is perceived as American meddling in their own internal affairs, and subversion of Pakistan democracy. So, having a cable which actually shows a U.S. government official seemingly ordering his dismissal would put an exclamation mark on his entire political career, I would say.
Now, the cable itself has become the subject of [a lot] of conspiracy, speculation, a lot of dismissal, but a lot of this isn’t based on the fact that no one’s really sure how to characterize what’s in there. As you mentioned, even the current government acknowledges the cable exists, acknowledges there are things in there which are troubling but, because no one’s ever seen it in context, we have to rely on various different very interested parties’ depiction of what’s in there. And Khan is certainly an interested party, his supporters are interested parties in this. The opposition has, likewise, an equal interest in what’s framing this document. But having the actual document itself has not been a luxury anyone’s had to this point so they can decide for themselves.
I think that when you look at the document in context, it kind of falls somewhere in between. And I would say that it doesn’t show the U.S. government ordering Khan’s removal, as he suggested at times, but it certainly gives indication that the U.S. would not look poorly upon his removal, and would even give it a green light and an endorsement, in the sense that if the Pakistani military and the opposition moved ahead with taking care of him, the U.S. would smile upon that. And, certainly, because of this dependent relationship that many of these parties have developed with the U.S., pleasing the U.S. and being in their good books is very, very important to them.
So, I would say it stops short of the most extreme characterization, but certainly shows a heavy degree of interference in Pakistani politics. And, if I were to do a counterfactual, where such a document or meeting took place where the U.S. State Department official has said that, if you remove the sitting Prime Minister before elections, that’s going to harm our relationship, and we don’t take a particular view of your own domestic politics, which is something that the U.S. officials are now claiming in public is their official position on Pakistan; they said that in private. It’s hard to imagine the military and the opposition would’ve moved ahead with removing Khan from power. Because they didn’t want to do anything, to this day, which may antagonize their relationship with the U.S. government and the U.S. military.
So, I think that, given Pakistani history, and given the very well documented history of interference by the Pakistani military and the U.S. government in electoral and political affairs in Pakistan, you can see this document as providing pretty solid evidence that the U.S. was involved in what happened here to some degree, and to a degree which I’m sure warped the course of Pakistani politics, and towards the current chaos we’re seeing today.
RG: Yeah. And what I would add to that is there’s not just, hey, if you resolve the political situation, that would be … You know, then things will go back to normal, and that would be good. There’s not only that kind of “gentle” encouragement — and I put “gentle” in quotes, given the power imbalance — but there’s also the reverse, where he does say, if you do not do this, then we need to come back, and we’re going to have to, quote, “take this head-on.” Like, we don’t know what he means by “take this head-on,” but it doesn’t sound pleasant.
And he’s also saying, if you don’t do this, and if Europe and the United States decide that this policy is not just Imran Khan’s, but is the entire policy of the Pakistani government, then you’re going to be isolated.
And so, the fact that he hits both chords — like, if you do this, we’re happy, if you do not do it, we are unhappy — it doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. So, I have a hard time blaming Khan for spinning it up into a slightly higher rhetoric than it actually was. Certainly, if you’re the person that they’re referring to, I could imagine how that cipher is understood.
MH: Yeah. I think his characterization is not unfair. It’s clearly, as you said, Lu had used not just carrots, but sticks as well. He used both of them to say what would happen if you do what we say and what would happen if you don’t do what we say. He used diplomatic language to some degree, but it’s not really even that diplomatic.
An important thing to note here as well is that what’s really important from the determinative stance in Pakistani politics is how they interpreted his statements, and they quote him directly in this cable, which is for their own top secret internal distribution. But their own interpretation was also unambiguous of what he was saying. They said that they interpreted him as making a very clear position on behalf of the U.S. government about the correct configuration of Pakistani politics, and how that should exclude Imran Khan.
So, they acted upon that. And there have been historic parallels to this. If you can think of the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S. diplomat talking to Sadam Hussein gave him some conversation, some instructions, or some direction that he interpreted as a green light to take a foreign policy step, which was invading Kuwait, ultimately. It really matters how the message is received and, certainly, nothing in the cable suggests that Don Lu was trying to nuance a statement, or to leave even that much ambiguity. And, ultimately he didn’t, and his words very, very plausibly resulted in this chain of events taking place … Or at least a chain being completed, in which Khan is removed from power.
And I’d also like to say that this removal of Khan from power has triggered a very, very serious political crisis in Pakistan. It’s created an economic crisis. You know, Pakistan’s already doing very poorly with the war in Ukraine, and growth in energy prices, like a lot of developing countries. But the combination of those two things — political paralysis with economic chaos — has really created a very, very difficult situation for tens of millions of people in that country who are devoid of effective governance at a time when the economy is worse than it’s been in years.
RG: Yeah, and let’s talk about that briefly. The fallout from this has included an assassination attempt on Khan, in which he was shot but survived. An arrest of Khan; he was detained for, I think, four days, during which the country exploded in protests, which the military then responded to by arresting thousands of people, which the courts then responded to by releasing those people, which the military responded to by going out and rearresting them on different charges.
Khan’s political party PTI is being dismantled through pressure, senior official after senior official resigning after getting arrested or charged with something. And you and I reported on a truly dystopian, draconian kind of regime of censorship in which Imran Khan’s name is not to be mentioned by the news media for the most part.
And so, you have a situation where there’s supposed to be elections coming up, and polls show the most popular politician in Pakistan remains Imran Khan. And he may not have a political party, he may not be free, and he may not be on the ballot, and there may not even be elections. And, as you just said, the U.S. military was just there and said, not a word about this.
So, what do you think the reaction to the revelation of this cipher will be? And do you see any light at the end of this tunnel, or is this just spiraling onward?
MH: Yeah. You know, an important thing to always remember, too, is that Pakistan is a country of 250 million people; it’s like the fifth- or sixth-largest country in the world by population. And its economic and political fate is actually quite important to the future of Asia, and even the world, especially given its location, strategically, its size, and its possession of pretty advanced weaponry, including nuclear weaponry. So, any event which triggers the chaos we’re seeing today should be of deep concern, not just to hundreds of millions of Pakistanis, but pretty much the whole world.
I think that, as you’ve seen over the past year, Pakistan had a very … And still, to some degree, has a vigorous press, a relatively free press, but that’s going away now. The Pakistani military is cracking down on reporters. People have been killed, people who have been, tens of thousands, put in jail, civil society members, supporters of Imran Khan, journalists. And you’re seeing a much more authoritarian country come into existence than existed even a few years ago.
And the military which, to some degree, was happy playing a behind-the-scenes role is coming more and more out into the open once again to say, to show that they really are the final word in Pakistani politics. And, of course, the military is not elected, they have no democratic oversight per se. And they have made an environment in Pakistan now where anyone fears to talk back to them. Anyone fears, certainly, to contradict them in what they’re saying the reality is of the political situation in the country.
And Khan himself, after coming to power with the military support some years ago, has now become their number one enemy. He faces a huge raft of political charges, legal charges against him related to his opposition to the military. And this cable seems to validate, for the most part, his own narrative of what happened during his own tenure, and it seems to completely contradict what the military has been saying and, also, the U.S. government has been saying about what happened between itself and the Pakistani government and military last year.
So, it’s very hard to say what will change going forward, but I think this would likely invigorate Imran Khan’s supporters, it would likely put the military in a very difficult situation. And they still have a monopoly on violence; it’s a very, very large and powerful military and intelligence services. So, would this result in their loosening of power or losing power? I think it’s hard to say.
Pretty much, the major narrative of Pakistani politics over the last year has now been turned on its head to some degree, because it seems that, judging — based on this cable — Imran Khan had very, very good reason to believe that he was targeted by an orchestrated removal of himself in power that was encouraged by foreign power in the United States, and had the consent or encouragement of the Pakistani military for the purposes of rebuilding its own relationship with the U.S. military and government, which is very lucrative financially and politically for various reasons.
MH: In response to our story, Pakistani Prime Minister Shabbat Sharif said that if the contents of the document that we released were genuine, its leak was, quote, “a massive crime.”
We also reached out to the State Department with a request for comment. The State Department told us, quote, “Nothing in these purported comments shows the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan should be.” The State Department said they would not comment on private diplomatic discussions.
Last week, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller was also asked about our reporting. Here’s a clip.
Reporter: The cipher cable, supposedly, that’s been reported… I know you’ve had some on-record comments on this, but I wanted to ask you about the veracity of the comments. It’s obviously a Pakistani document. Does the United States generally think that what was reported there… What was that?
Matthew Miller: So, a few things. One, 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, we 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 expressed concern privately to the government of Pakistan, as we expressed 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.
Reporter: Just to pursue that briefly, the… I guess, the money quote in that was saying that Pakistan would — or that Imran Khan personally — would have continued isolation because of his visit to Moscow. Can you explain that, in terms of, if we take that as given that that was an accurate comment, what that meant?
Matthew Miller: So, without stipulating whether it’s an accurate comment or not, if you take all of the comments in context that were reported in that purported cable, I think what they show is the United States government expressing concern about the policy choices that the Prime Minister was taking. It is not in any way the United States government expressing a preference on who the leadership of Pakistan out to be.
RG: Well, Maz, thanks for joining me over here on Deconstructed, and thanks for having me over there on your new show, Intercepted.
MH: My pleasure, my pleasure. You’re welcome anytime.
RG: That was my colleague Murtaza Hussain, and that’s our show.
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