Inside Biden’s Secret Arms Deal

Leaked documents show how the U.S. helped Pakistan get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund through a secret arms deal to Ukraine.

A Ukrainian servicemember points towards 30mm incendiary ammunition inside a storage warehouse, in the Donetsk Region of Ukraine on May 22, 2023. Ukrainian military mechanics and armored vehicle crew members of the 214th Separate Special Battalion conduct field tests and repair operations on damaged and captured vehicles following the battalion's combat missions in city of Bakhmut. (Photo by Justin Yau/ Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
A Ukrainian service member points toward ammunition inside a storage warehouse in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on May 22, 2023. Photo: Justin Yau/ Sipa via AP

The U.S. orchestrated a secret arms deal to send weapons to Ukraine, helping Pakistan reach the threshold needed for an International Monetary Fund loan to save the country’s economy, according to two sources with knowledge of the arrangement and documents leaked to The Intercept. This week on a special Deconstructed and Intercepted crossover episode, Ryan Grim and Murtaza Hussain discuss their reporting on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Pakistani arms sales to the U.S. for the purpose of supplying the Ukrainian military. Grim and Hussain are joined by Arif Rafiq, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and political risk analyst who focuses on Pakistan and the region. They break down the U.S.’s pressure to oust former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the IMF’s role in the country, and Pakistan’s political economy.

[Deconstructed intro theme music.]

Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim, and welcome back to an encore edition of the crossover that so many of you have been demanding. Intercepted and Deconstructed are both in the house. I’m here with my colleague Murtaza Hussain.

Murtaza, welcome to Deconstructed. Thank you for having me on Intercepted.

Murtaza Hussain: Great to be back. Always love another crossover.

RG: There you go. So, let’s get people up to speed who might have missed the first one, which was about what is known in Pakistan as “the cypher story.” So, as quickly as we can, what’s the cypher story?

MH: Sure. For the past year and a half, Pakistan has been talking about this secret document that no one had seen until recently, but which showed — allegedly, according to former Prime Minister Imran Khan — that the U.S. had privately pushed for his removal from power. Since Khan’s removal last year, Pakistan has been embroiled in a huge political, economic, and security crisis, effectively, but no one had seen this document until we published it last month, and it did show that the substance of Khan’s claims, that U.S. diplomats from the State Department had encouraged his removal and, even, you could say, threatened or incentivized the Pakistani military to make his removal happen, was true.

And it did, actually shed some light on this issue, which in Pakistan is still ongoing, and which, still, is really at the core of the crisis in that country of 200-million-plus people, which is: who controls the country, who should control it, and who gets to make the calls behind the scenes? And, really, Khan’s claims of how his own dismissal took place had a lot more substance than his critics had said for a long time beforehand.

RG: Yeah. And the crux of the dispute — if you want to call it that — between the United States and Khan was Ukraine, and was what they called Khan’s, quote-unquote, “aggressively neutral position,” vis-à-vis the war between Ukraine and Russia. And, you know, we’ve kind of made fun of that phrasing, “aggressively neutral,” because it is kind of absurd.

On the other hand, he was, actually, kind of aggressive about it the day before meeting with Don Lu in this critical moment, where Lu tells the ambassador that they basically want Khan gone. He was responding to EU complaints about his neutrality by saying, “we are not your slaves.”

So, yeah, I understand. As absurd as the claim is, I understand what he means by aggressive neutrality.

MH: Yeah. Khan is a very famously bombastic, you can say, populist figure, in politics, and he does not dress up his statements in the diplomatic niceties that someone may expect. He’s quite blunt about it and, certainly, this seemed to provoke the United States or antagonize them. And the degree to which they were upset about it maybe wasn’t clear in public statements but, behind the scenes, what the State Department was saying, clearly they were quite, quite angry about Khan’s position.

And that’s another thing that no one knew about the cipher, is what exactly was the core and substance of the dispute? It turns out that it really was about Ukraine and Pakistan’s stance on it which, while neutral was not that different from, say, India’s stance or Bangladesh’s stance on the conflict, they’re trying to take a nonaligned position in a conflict which really wasn’t in their region, and that seemed to step on the prerogatives of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, particularly as it relates to the Pakistani military.

RG: And you also have to have a little bit more power than Pakistan had in order to hold that neutral position, it seems. India and even some of the Gulf countries who are somewhat aligned with the United States have taken somewhat of a nonaligned position, but they can stand on their own two feet. And it seems like what the United States said here is that you can’t. Like, we can push you over, and we now have more context for what happened since then.

So, Khan is removed from power in April of 2022. At this point, the war is two months old. You’re already starting to see the Ukrainians running low on munitions, because they were not expecting a long drawn-out war. The U.S. industrial base is also not in a place where it can produce these low grade weapons at scale. We can produce a hundred-million-dollar F-35 that falls out of the sky and gets lost and builds around it an entire orbit of executives and lobbyists, but we don’t make a lot of bullets and artillery shells. And so, for that we needed Pakistan.

Talk a little bit about the new reporting, and what we’ve uncovered about what Pakistan’s role was, vis-à-vis this war, after Khan was ousted.

MH: Well, a very good point you made was that Pakistan was kind of vulnerable to this kind of external pressure from the United States, because its economic situation is so dysfunctional. And one thing we’ve learned now is that the IMF bailout that Pakistan received earlier this year, and which it’s really banking on to extricate itself from this significant economic crisis which it’s experiencing, was encouraged or came to fruition with the great help of the United States, for Pakistani cooperation and support in the war in Ukraine, provision of these weapons, sales of which, the capital generated thereof, was used to facilitate the financing of this loan. And, certainly, also to curry the political favor necessary to make the loan happen.

So you have a situation where the U.S. has very great disproportionate influence in the IMF. Pakistan’s dependent on the IMF for financial support, financing loans and so forth. And the U.S. can say, well, implicitly or explicitly, we won’t open the taps for your economic well being if you don’t give us what we want politically in this sense. 

So we kind of see very, very great detail in the story how things really work behind the scenes, the dealmaking that takes place at elite levels beyond what is said publicly, which is much more anodyne and sterile, you could say, or more diplomatic, you could say, in the public positioning. It was a lot of horse-trading taking place behind the scenes.

And, unfortunately, I think that the ugly part of this deal is that there’s a crackdown taking place in Pakistan right now — it’s being led by the Pakistani military — to dismantle Khan’s party and suppress pretty much all dissent. And this loan has effectively helped finance that crackdown. It’s allowed them to postpone elections, it’s allowed them to solidify their own hold on power, which should be temporary in anticipation of elections, but seems like it’s much more long-lasting than that.

And it’s all going back to an arms deal. It’s an arms deal for … Bombs for billions, you could say, that’s what’s holding the current Pakistani regime in place.

RG: And so, to help us walk through and unpack this, we’re also joined by Arif Rafiq, who is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. A lot of his focus area is on Pakistan and South Asia. He’s also a political risk analyst that focuses on that region.

Arif, thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Arif Rafiq: Great to be on with you guys.

RG: First of all, can you tell the listeners a little bit, what kind of consulting work is political risk analysis?

AR: Ah, OK. So, political risk analysis, I basically provide guidance to entities that have investments and other equities in Pakistan and neighboring states. And I help identify both risks and opportunities that impact their actual investments but relate to the political order in the country, stability… In the case of Pakistan, civil-military relations.

So, how does politics affect their bottom line and their involvement in that country? I basically alert them to risks and opportunities in the political domain that impact their economic investments.

RG: And so, they’re watching this extremely closely, and I would assume they have to be very cleareyed about it, because they have dollars, or rupees … They have money on the line.

AR: Absolutely. Yeah.

RG: And so, can you talk a little bit about the role of the IMF here? As somebody who was observing this unfold beginning in early 2022, what was the role of the IMF here, and what are the implications of what we’ve uncovered here?

AR: The IMF effectively serves as life support for the Pakistan economy. Pakistan is a habitual patient of the IMF. So, this is currently the 22nd or 23rd IMF program for Pakistan in its history. And so, every, I would say, three to five years, the country enters some kind of new IMF program, and that’s because the country goes through what are called boom-bust cycles. It grows at above average rates for a couple of years and its economy heats up, and it begins to run out of money to finance its own budget as well as its external liabilities.

So, Pakistan is a net importer. It imports energy — as well as some food items and other things — to fuel its economy as well as feed its people. And its export base is quite weak. And so, it constantly needs the influx of funds from the IMF, as well as IMF partners, to help enable it to finance its imports, and then also address its budgetary needs.

And so, the IMF routinely comes in, and Pakistan is a sort of a longtime patient of the IMF. And, basically, the IMF plays the role of preventing Pakistan’s economic collapse. It doesn’t help the country in terms of its broader economic transformation and developing economy, an economy that meets the needs of its people, but it is there to prevent an all-out collapse.

MH: You described the situation of the boom-bust cycle in Pakistani politics. I believe there’s something with Pakistan’s political economy which contributes to that. And you mentioned civil-military relations earlier. The Pakistani military obviously has a very disproportionate share in Pakistan’s economy itself. It’s a big real estate holder, it controls other industries.

How does this military control of the economy lead to this chronically dysfunctional economic situation?

AR: Yeah. There is an imbalance in Pakistan’s economy, and its economic policies are largely aimed at or disproportionately aimed at privileging the few in the country, and that includes its political and economic elites, as well as the military. The military is a major economic player in the country. It owns a significant amount of land as commercial property. It also manufactures corn flakes, meat, and other goods. And so, it’s very analogous to what we have in Egypt and other countries, where the military is just a big player in the economy.

So it receives these undue benefits, in terms of privileges, in terms of market access and things like that. And, ultimately, what that does is it creates a kind of a domestic economy where the rules of the game are served to privilege the few. And then, Pakistan’s elite doesn’t invest in competing in the broader global market, and that’s why the military and other major economic actors can benefit from the sheer demand in a country with a population of 240 million. But that is not a pathway toward creating a sustained economic growth that can last over a decade or two, as we’ve seen in countries like Bangladesh — which was formerly part of Pakistan — India, Vietnam, and many of the Southeast Asian countries that have seen some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

So, the rules of the game are aimed at privileging the few, and that produces this imbalanced economy. And then the IMF comes in, and this is a very tortuous exercise that repeats itself every few years.

RG: And so, what we reported in this most recent article is that the weapons production began roughly in August by Pakistan for the United States, for the benefit of the Ukrainian military. And then, by the spring of 2023 — so, that’s this year — the IMF publicly tells Reuters and Bloomberg and other news outlets that claims made by Pakistan about its progress toward the next round of IMF financing are not quite accurate. You know, that Pakistan was saying “We’re good, everything’s on cruise control. It expires the end of June 30th, but we should be good. The next round is coming in.”

IMF says, not so much. You need — I think, correct me if I’m wrong — roughly $6 billion, you need to come up with collateral from these other countries in order for us to put forward our financing. And, all of a sudden, at the end of June, the money uncorks.

So, we can add to this now through our reporting, that Pakistan went to the United States and said, we want this weapons program and the financing that’s coming through it to count toward filling this gap.

But, before you knew that, what was it like as an analyst watching this situation unfold? And what did people think about how this situation was going to resolve itself?

AR: Yeah. I would say the analytical community was pretty much unanimous in their pessimistic view of whether Pakistan would pass this review from the IMF. This was the seventh review of an IMF program that began in 2018. In order to receive some of the outstanding money, the tranche that was to come from the IMF — about $1.1 billion —Pakistan needed to pass that review.

So, in the analytical community, and based on statements made by people who are directly involved in these talks, or highly placed individuals, the outlook was very grim. It looked like Pakistan was not going to pass that seventh review; it went sort of down to the wire. And then, all of a sudden, it was announced that this program was going to be expiring, and Pakistan would actually get an entirely different program. What’s called a “standby arrangement,” which is a bit of a looser, more short-term program, but it would get, actually, a somewhat larger amount of funds, and this would extend over the expected election period into the transition of power to a new government, and into April. So it was not only larger in number, but also longer in terms of the duration that it spanned.

And so, it came out of nowhere, so I was surprised and many others were surprised, but I think I didn’t really look too much into how and why it happened because the specter of default had suddenly just vanished in Pakistan, it dissipated. And I think the shock of that kind of just superseded the investigation of how and why that happened.

MH: I think we know now that this sale of arms through the U.S. to Ukraine was how Pakistan closed the gap. Can you talk about how that is common in Pakistani history or Pakistan’s political output? Because I know the Pakistani military basically runs foreign policy of Pakistan, more or less. Sometimes more explicitly, sometimes more implicitly, but you see military cooperation with other countries, too, on the part of Pakistan.

Is this a function of Pakistan’s economy that has developed? That it’s basically a contractor or outsourcer for military needs of other countries who solicited services?

AR: Yeah. I would say the military, the Pakistani military’s role as a contractor for more powerful, wealthy countries, including the West, the United States and Gulf Arab states, both directly and indirectly helps prop up its political economy. And so, we have the direct infusion of funds to the Pakistani military, and then there’s also the kind of favors that are done for military-backed governments in Pakistan as it pertains to multilateral institutions, in which these countries — like the U.S., and the U.K., and the Gulf Arab states — have significant sway.

So there are direct ways and indirect ways in which Pakistan’s military, when it serves the utility of these countries, can extract benefits that serve to maintain the status quo, meaning their hold over power. And so, for example, during the War on Terror, there was something called the Coalition Support Funds. These were, ostensibly, reimbursements for the Pakistani military, which provided supply routes for U.S. forces into Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is landlocked. And so, in order to send supplies there, most of them had to go through ground, and they used the Pakistani port of Karachi to send those and, I think, maybe port Qasim. So, these two ports to send non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan. And Pakistan received, at times, over a billion dollars a year to reimburse it for the provision of these services of the supply route; I think in total it was around $15 billion.

So, those monetary transfers are important for the sheer value, but also because they helped plug the financing gap, both in terms of the domestic budget, as well as Pakistan’s need for foreign exchange. It needs dollars to import goods; most of global trade is conducted through dollars. So, when a country like Pakistan buys oil from Saudi Arabia or imports palm oil, cooking oil from Malaysia, they have to pay in dollars, so they need that, but they don’t generate it through their own exports. What they more often do is export their own services as a military contractor. That plays a substantial role in terms of plugging those gaps.

So, you know, when we look at the figures that are referenced in your report, the $900 million that are said to represent the payments that the United States was going to make in regards to the weapons that were provided to it by the Pakistanis, I think this Ukraine war — which could go on indefinitely — Pakistan’s provision of weapons to the U.S. for Ukraine, and the provision of weapons to other Western partners, in many ways, is a continuation or a resumption of those coalition support funds. That program was ended in 2018 when the Trump administration wanted to take a very tough approach towards Pakistan because of its support for the Afghan Taliban.

And so, the relations between the two countries have been very fraught, especially at a military-to-military and -intelligence level. Now the Ukraine war has provided an opportunity for that relationship to be rekindled, and so, we’re seeing a replay of previous wars in which Pakistan and the Pakistani military has benefited the West in serving as some kind of vehicle for achieving its security objectives, and they’re being compensated for the services that they’re provided.

So the past, in a large sense, is repeating itself.

[Deconstructed mid-show theme music.]

RG: And can you talk a little bit about the timeline of events here as it relates to this weapons production, and then the IMF loan? Because in our article, we quote you as saying, “The Pakistani democracy may end up becoming a casualty of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.” And I want you to unpack the relationship between the IMF loan and Pakistani democracy, and these weapons sales.

AR: Yeah. I think there’s more of a direct tie between what we may be seeing as the death of Pakistani democracy and the Pakistani military siding with the West in this Ukraine war.

And so, this saga begins, in early 2022, when Khan finds himself in Moscow with the announcement on the day that Putin announces his invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. is incensed, the E.U. is incensed, and they want Pakistan to publicly condemn the war. And then Khan takes a tough posture, and he says, “We’re not your slaves.”

And then, at the same time, as Khan sort of clings to this supposedly aggressively non-aligned posture, the military is signaling directly in private as well as in public that it’s going to take a different approach. For example, there was a public security forum in Islamabad held in April, and this is as Khan’s tenure is becoming increasingly tenuous. And the military is supporting a vote of no-confidence against him … Or some elements in the military; they’re still quite on the fence.

And Khan articulates his government’s policy towards the Russia-Ukraine war and affirms Pakistan’s neutrality, like many other countries in the global south, including India. And then the army chief addresses the same gathering just hours later, and he condemns the Russian invasion.

Now, it’s perfectly fine to condemn the Russian invasion — it’s illegal, and they’re killing innocent civilians, they’ve invaded a sovereign country — but the army chief, who is an unelected official and has no constitutional capacity to articulate the government’s policy in a unilateral form on his own, is literally doing that before an audience where there’s a lot of westerners. And, in fact, it was a westerner, a British think-tanker who was based in the U.S. who asked the question, and the army chief had given his response, and condemned the Russian invasion there at a very public forum.

The army is signaling at this point, in this and other ways, that it’s going to take the U.S. side in the Russia-Ukraine war. Now, Pakistan has not changed its diplomatic posture on the Ukraine war. It’s still abstaining from votes at the U.N. that condemned Russia.

RG: And we should note, in response to our article, they actually have flatly denied that they’re even making munitions for Ukraine. Like, they’re still maintaining that denial.

MH: I was going to ask about that, too, Arif. It’s very strange, because we have this documentary evidence from our story, we have European officials who have actually praised Pakistan’s role and provide military support. You can go online and see videos of Pakistani-produced arms in Ukraine pretty readily at this point. But, as Ryan said, they’re openly just denying without any elaboration that any of this is happening.

Can you make sense of this? It seems almost like… You mentioned the death of Pakistani democracy. It seems like an evolution into a really totalitarian information environment.

AR: Well, we’ve seen Pakistani officials do this in the past. During the War on Terror, there were frequent U.S. drone attacks inside the country. The Pakistani military would condemn it in public, and then in private they would tell the Americans, do as you please. And so, some of this behavior was revealed in the WikiLeaks cables that were released.

And so, Pakistani elites — in particular, in the military, but also in the civilian elite — are very capable of playing this double game and, with a straight face, making these bogus denials when, in fact, there is both documented evidence as well as secondary sources that clearly identify that its actual policy is something entirely different.

So, this is how Pakistan’s elite behaves, and the West is very much comfortable with this, as long as it’s serving its own interests.

RG: The reason I wanted to ask you about the relationship between the IMF loan and Pakistani democracy is that it strikes me — and tell me if you think I’m wrong here — that in order for the military to launch its crackdown, and to deepen its crackdown, it needed to postpone elections, and it needed to certainly make sure that the PTI — Khan’s party —doesn’t come back into power. And so, it also needed to stave off a financial crisis. If they go into an economic catastrophe, that’s going to require elections, so that a new government can come in and, with a mandate, then strike a new deal with the IMF.

So, quickly striking this deal then kind of puts off all of the reckoning, as you said, well past April or May, which then gives them all of this time that they can use, then, to roll up all the opposition and crack down.

What’s your sense of that? Because you, obviously, this is your job to watch this. I’m just kind of a tourist here.

AR: Yeah. It could go both ways, in fact.

In terms of the duration of this new program, the way it’s structured, it, one, gives the Pakistani military space to kind of do as it pleases vis-à-vis Khan, because there are no real specific demands coming from the West vis-à-vis this opposition leader who’s in prison on bogus charges. So we have the U.S. making demands of other countries, including Russia, to release opposition leaders and outspoken individuals who are under arrest on bogus cases, but they’re not doing that with respect to Pakistan.

So, it gives them space to dismantle Khan’s party. But, at the same time, the way the deal is structured, it also overlaps with the time period in which Pakistan’s elections are supposed to be held, and then a new government ostensibly comes to power, and there’s a transition. So, it can be read both ways, that it gives the military space to kind of do what it wants, but also allows Pakistan to hold elections and stabilizes that time period.

What we’ve seen is that, from the State Department and from other elements of the administration, they’re really reluctant to really press Pakistan to hold elections according to the constitution. So, we already have elections in two provinces that should have been held by the end of April. They’ve not been held. So, the person who was then the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court said that, because these elections are not being held, Pakistan’s constitution, or at least parts of it, are effectively being held in abeyance, that they’re being suspended.

So, we have a de facto military-ruled country at this point, and the U.S. is very reticent to exert pressure on the military. So this IMF deal can notionally give the government space to conduct elections, but we’re not really seeing the U.S. back that up with action that is forcing the military-backed caretaker government right now to hold elections within the constitutionally mandated time period.

They have to be held by sometime in November, and the U.S. is not really being specific in terms of holding the military-backed government to those constitutional requirements.

RG: One point and then I’ll pass it to you, Maz. We don’t want to also conflate elections and democracy, because if you can hold elections, you can have the kind of trappings of electoral democracy. But if, in the meantime, you have completely eliminated a major party, it’s not much of an election.

AR: Yeah. And I just want to say that the U.S.’ demands vis-à-vis elections are not really specific.

RG: Right.

AR: They’re not asking the Pakistanis to hold elections that conform to Western standards. They really just want a box to be checked off, so they could care less whether Khan participates or not, whether the largest party in the country is being dismantled as a result of the forcible disappearances, the kidnapping of people. Thousands of people are currently under military detention. People are having sexual videotapes of them released by the military, and they’re posted on the internet, so we have all sorts of types of extortion that’s going on. Journalists have been kidnapped in Pakistan, one has been killed abroad.

So there’s a lot going on, and the U.S. just wants, In the end, a box to be checked off that elections are held, and the quality of those elections are largely immaterial to what the current administration perceives as its interests.

MH: So, Pakistan has had periods in the past where it was directly ruled by the military — like, someone in a military uniform to be the leader of the country, and so forth — but the optics of that have become a bit negative. It has implications for receiving IMF loans and so forth, so it’s not really possible today in Pakistan, or not desirable for the military. And they have this caretaker setup which, as you mentioned, the purpose of which is to foster elections, or to create the circumstances for elections. And yet, it seems like none of that is taking place in any foreseeable timeframe.

So, given that the military, effectively, is in charge right now, one thing we know they want to do is use this time to crack down on their political enemies and dismantle Imran Khan’s party. But what else do they want to do at this time? Do we think they may want to do, or have a mandate to do [something], beyond the apparent [task] of having elections? Are there other policies they can push through at the moment that would not be possible if they had to deal with the messy implications of civilian politics?

AR: Yeah. I mean, the military wants to make some major economic decisions in terms of privatization. They want to privatize many state assets, including the national airline. They want to pull in investment from Gulf Arab states. Actually, the previous parliament had created a special investment coordination body that is essentially dominated by the military; its administrators are generals.

And so, they want to fast track investment from Gulf Arab states, and they want to use this transition period to do that, because it’s difficult for a democratically-elected government to do that, because those are always fraught political decisions that involve selling state-owned companies, where there’s a lot of public employees, including people from political parties. So they want to make these moves while they effectively have unquestioned power in the country, and they themselves would benefit.

So, the military is a major player in the extractives industry in Pakistan. It has stakes in the country’s state-owned oil and gas companies. And then it wants to get into the minerals extraction business, and that’s where the Saudis may play a major role. And so, it wants to ensure that it continues to get a big slice of the pie, of the economic pie in Pakistan.

And then there are also indications that the military doesn’t really want to hold elections. And so, that’s why they’re kind of hoping, perhaps, that maybe they can get some substantial amount of money from the Gulf Arab states, and then they can just kiss the IMF goodbye, and they would largely be immune from Western punitive action.

And so, there’s a lot going on but, in the end, I think their main goal is to ensure that they continue with their economic dominance in the country, and then also their political dominance.

RG: I wanted to pick up on something that you said earlier about the decision by the generals to side with the West in the Ukraine war may end up being the thing that collapses the democracy. Fundamental irony, there, that if your choice there is the Chinese and the Russians on one side, and the West and the liberal democracies on the other side, that by choosing the liberal democracies, you sacrificed your own democracy.

So, what will that do for their relationship with Russia and China? Like, how are they responding to this news that this shift that everybody suspected was happening has, in fact, happened?

AR: I mean, it’s really ironic that this Russia-Ukraine war is being framed as a battle between autocracies and democracies. And one of the U.S.’ partners in this is a de facto military dictatorship, and it is being given a free pass in terms of its own seizure of power because of its support for the West’s fight for Ukrainian democracy and freedom. And so, the freedoms of the Pakistanis are being sacrificed for the freedoms of Ukrainians. That’s one way of looking at it.

Now, in terms of Pakistan’s relationship with Russia and China, and its balancing act between the West and these competing powers… The Russians have now gone on the record about Pakistan’s arms sales to the West. So, Russia’s ambassador to India had said, we’re monitoring these reports, and if these reports are confirmed, they constitute anti-Russian actions, and we will respond.

And so, Russia has a considerable amount of… It’s a superpower, but it’s not an economic power, but it has the capacity to influence, and has a subversive capability to influence politics and even security in countries like Pakistan through supporting various political groups, agitational groups, and separatist and militant groups. And so, it has a lot it can use.

It’s also very close to India, it’s a longtime ally of India. And so, Russia can provide helpful intelligence to the Indians vis-à-vis the Pakistanis; India and Pakistan are arch rivals. And so, Russia has a lot it can do.

And then the Chinese are Pakistan’s longtime allies, but the Pakistanis have signaled — in quite an overt fashion, and I’ve written about this before, for The New York Times early last year — that the Pakistanis want to kind of move away from China and rebalance towards the U.S.

Now, Beijing doesn’t have, really, many close friends in the world, so it is constrained to some degree, but there are indications that it is uncomfortable if not angry with Pakistan’s attempts to rebalance towards the West. And the Pakistani military’s very obvious signaling of its desire to kind of move away from China may complicate its economic future, because Pakistan most likely needs another IMF program, and that program will very much likely require that Pakistan renegotiate its external debt. So, with countries like China, which is its largest bilateral creditor.

And this issue of debt owed to China by developing countries is very much an issue that the U.S. has latched onto, and so, it’ll become caught in this great power rivalry between the U.S. and China once again, and I think it points towards the unfortunate consequences of a military-led foreign policy in Pakistan. Because the military is always adept at playing these games but, in the end, they don’t produce a country that is normal and stable, and is able to have good relations with the world and balance outside powers so that its own people can prosper. It’s always getting involved in these great geopolitical conflicts, and what it needs at this moment is to escape them and not become enveloped in them.

MH: As remote as it may be, if you could see a way out of this current quagmire, or a more optimistic path of Pakistan in the near to medium term, what could that be, realistically? And what role, if any, could the U.S. play constructively to extricate Pakistan from this mess, to which it contributed to in some small parts?

AR: You know, unfortunately, it looks like Pakistan is trapped in this zero-sum game between those who dominate the army today and Imran Khan, who’s the country’s most popular politician, and remains behind bars. So, I see the pathway toward a more sensible political settlement in the country as unlikely.

But, ultimately, stability in the country, real stability in the country would require free and fair elections, in which its largest party, most popular party — Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf — is allowed to participate in free and fair and full fashion. And that it elects a government with the people’s mandate, and that government makes decisions that it perceives are in the interests of its own people, and coincide with the will of the masses. And that can serve as the basis for a healthy foreign policy and, to some degree, sound domestic economic policymaking.

You know, a lot of these tough decisions that have to be made in terms of political reform and economic reform in Pakistan require a government that has the trust of the people, and that is done through elections. That’s how it happens in most healthy societies. And elections, free and fair elections, are ultimately part of the pathway toward Pakistan finding some sort of stability in the future.

MH: Arif, thanks so much for joining us today.

AR: Great to be on. Thank you.

MH: That was Arif Rafiq, a political risk analyst in Pakistan and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

[Deconstructed end-show theme music.]

And that’s it for Deconstructed today. Ryan, it was great. Another crossover.

RG: Yeah, we should do this more often.

MH: Again, sometime soon, perhaps.

RG: Thanks, Maz.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Leonardo Faierman transcribed this episode. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief. Murtaza Hussain is the co-host of Intercepted. And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

If you’d like to support our work, go to If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or review, it helps people find the show.

If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at or And put “Deconstructed” in the subject line; otherwise, we might miss your message, and we wouldn’t want to do that.

Thanks so much. I’ll see you soon.

Join The Conversation