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A Plot Worthy of Machiavelli: Diplomatic Cable 'Leak' Demanding Imran's Removal

A cipher seems to indicate in sum that a US official demanded last year that Pakistan remove Imran as PM.

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The truth will come out. Or as is often the case with Pakistan, at least one version of it.

The leaking of the contentious ‘cipher’ or diplomatic cable by 'The Intercept', a US-based news source, seems to indicate in sum, that a US official demanded that Pakistan remove Imran Khan as prime minister.

That the diplomatic cable was leaked by a military source makes it even more interesting for Pakistan watchers, leading to speculation as to whether there is a divide within the military after all.

All in all, it's much like a Bollywood thriller, especially since the main protagonist Imran Khan, is languishing in an allegedly filthy prison, in a country where there are no qualms about hanging politicians.
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Recap: Imran's Moves

It would be remembered that Khan began to allege foreign interference at the end of March, as it began to appear that his government was finally under threat from a surprisingly united opposition, which had been threatening a ‘No Confidence Motion’ for months, without success.

At a political rally in Islamabad on 27 March, he waved a paper that he said ‘proved’ foreign interference, and later on in persistent media questioning, indicated that a ‘foreign power’ had told a Pakistani Ambassador to get rid of the Prime Minister for his persistent support to Russia.

That purported cable was sent on 7 March, a day before the Opposition requisitioned a National Assembly session to vote on the ‘No confidence motion’. That was explosive news to a country-bred on conspiracy theories, and consistently anti-US sentiments.

Khan then used the conspiracy theory to attempt to dissolve Parliament, under Article 5(1) to say that its clauses that call for loyalty to the state as the basic duty of every citizen were violated, thus preventing the tabling of the Resolution at all. That stunned everyone from the media to the opposition.

But in the end, Khan had to leave, after the Supreme Court ruled against his wild move, and threatened that he was more dangerous out of power than in. He then went on to use the charge of an ‘imported government’ as his main protest platform.

And it worked.

Thousands of his supporters, from the middle and upper class, as well, thronged to his call.

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The Authenticity of the Cable

The scoop from The Intercept is a leak of the whole cable. Or apparently so. True, its contents tally largely what was reported in Dawn at the time. Consider the contents, however.

A responsible State Department official would hardly have the temerity and let it be said, foolishness to say “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.”

It would have been entirely likely that Lu might use even stronger language in a private call with the US Ambassador – remember the conversation of another Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, certainly showed strong interference in Ukraine – but that’s how it works.

The overall dismay in Washington at Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow on the very day the invasion took place and his comments on how ‘excited’ he was would hardly have done down well. Prior to that, comments on the Taliban having broken the shackles, and other intemperate remarks would not have endeared him to the desk at least.

But in government, a single diplomatic cable is never taken as an authentic intelligence input, since its contents depend heavily on the viewpoint of only one individual ( the Ambassador). If considered serious enough, a demarche would be issued, and there the matter would have ended. The point is that this was done. But weeks later, Khan went ‘public’ on the whole affair, following the No confidence motion.

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Who Leaked It?

The Intercept says that this was from a military source, or a group that was ‘disillusioned’ by the huge and brazen use of force against civilians, its impact on military morale, and feared another ‘Bangladesh’ situation. This seems rather overdone to say the least.

There’s another aspect.

Those who get a sensitive scoop will hardly ever confide the source publicly for fear of losing him or her. This upfront admission smells. Meanwhile, analysts opine this is the work of a PTI media team in the US. That assumes that the ‘leak’ benefits Imran, now incarcerated in prison.

But though the cable has probably been shared across media months ago, its public leak, that too in a US paper would add another case against Khan.

Indeed, on 20 July, Khan’s principal secretary Azam Khan, who was missing since May, suddenly re-appeared and recorded a statement before the magistrate stating that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief had told him to use the secret communication for political purposes.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah – who had earlier declared that ‘only one of us can exist... When we feel our existence is being threatened, we will go to a point where we will not bother whether a move is democratic or not,” - then said that holding on to a secret document was punishable under the Official Secrets Act.

Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif called it a 'massive crime'. Khan is done for. Unless someone moves court to say that the ‘foreign conspiracy’ was a reality, and that justifies the actions of the jailed leader. A long shot, but it's possible.

But now Sharif seems to have shot down even that.

On 10 August, he said, “Former ambassador and [now] Foreign Secretary Asad Majeed clearly stated that there was no discussion of a conspiracy in his meeting with (US Assistant Secretary of State) Donald Lu.” And more notably, former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and other high-ranking officials had also confirmed that there was no foreign conspiracy against Pakistan.

That’s strange, given thaty the NSC did meet (March 22) with a statement even on Twitter alleging ‘blatant interference’ in the affairs of the country. The demarche was issued thereafter. Shortly after the meeting, Army Chief Bajwa went completely against his PM by strongly criticising the Russian invasion ( though he admitted ‘legitimate security concerns’, which is a Chinese position).

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A Plot Worthy of Machiavelli

Other walk backs were evident as Bajwa also stated that the best equipment the country had were US weapons. Clearly, the army was well aware of US anger, with Bajwa’s own visit to the US postponed thrice after Khan’s visit to Moscow.

But here’s the thing.

On 14 April, the then Director General (Inter-services Public Relations) Major General Iftikhar, the army was on board on the visit to Moscow. He also confirmed the NSC meeting and the demarche.

But no use at all of the word ‘foreign conspiracy’. Khan added that himself.

Was the army involved in getting him out? Unlikely. Since Khan himself admitted that the Army Chief had tried to play mediator, with even President Alvi confirming that Khan sought out the army to bring down tensions.

The final upshot is this. Khan used a cipher cable, whose contents are not entirely authentic yet, to boost his popularity, knowing full well that any hint of a foreign hand in his ouster would completely erode the successor government and the reputation of the army chief whom he accused of being at the bottom of the whole thing.

Did the US threaten a Prime Minister? Probably, but not in such a ham-handed fashion. More likely it would call up the Army.

The Army’s role in hiring and firing Pakistani Prime Ministers is now too well known to discuss, and there is no doubt at all that Bajwa slung his PM overboard to repair relations with the US. His final visit to Washington in October 2022 was aimed at cementing these efforts. The present government and the army have used every tactic – just as the Interior minister promised – to decapitate the PTI and possibly, and quite literally, its party chief as well, with this present ‘leak’.

It’s a plot worthy of Machiavelli. True, Khan could ask for a pardon, and then be exiled. Or a (very) courageous party member could ask for de-classification of the NSC meeting of the time. But the crux is this. A top-secret document has been leaked. It's punishable. Ask Trump.

And the final test. Has the US delivered on ‘all will be forgiven’? Apparently yes. A new Security Pact has just been signed between the two. Its details are unknown.

So Khan’s assessment was right.

Its just that there was no ‘conspiracy’. Its all been out in the open for years, and that is, that you don’t get the rile the army, and then the United States. Anyone doing that is done for.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Pakistan   Imran Khan 

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