In the early hours of 10 April, the Pakistan National Assembly ousted Imran Khan from the office of Prime Minister; 174 members voted for a no-confidence motion against his government in a House of 342. For almost two weeks prior to the denouement, Khan based his defence against the move on sheer anti-Americanism. At the same time, he and his ministers attempted to cushion their rabble-rousing by claims that they wanted good relations with the United States, but that got drowned in their anti-American rhetoric.
Through this period of intense political drama in Islamabad, the country’s powerful establishment also sought to underline the importance of the US relationship. Speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa said recently, “We share a long history of excellent and strategic relationship which remains our largest export market.” Further, to substantiate this point, Pakistan took a neutral position during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) vote on the US-inspired move to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to suspend it from the UN Human Rights Council.
In abstaining during the vote, Pakistan broke ranks with its ‘all-weather friend’ and patron China, which supported Russia.
Imran Khan’s accusations against the US for interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs were accompanied by enormous drama. The sequence of events leading to the charge and of what transpired later is worthy of a brief recall.
In the wake of the no-confidence move, Imran Khan called a public rally of his party faithful in Islamabad on 27 March. By this time, some of the parties in his coalition government had deserted him. More than twenty members of the National Assembly from his own party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), had also defected. It was becoming increasingly clear that his government had been reduced to a minority.
As his over-an-hour-long meandering speech reached its climax, the flamboyant former cricketer pulled out a paper from his waistcoat pocket. Waving it to the large crowd, Khan said that it was a letter that was proof that the move to oust him was a conspiracy led by a foreign country, which had roped in the opposition leaders – the ‘rats’ as he called them – as collaborators.
Khan emphatically asserted that the foreign country had officially conveyed to Pakistan’s ambassador that if Imran Khan survived the motion of no-confidence, the country would be punished. However, if Khan lost, Pakistan would be forgiven. As proof that the collaborators were acting on behalf of the foreign country, Khan said that the threat was held out on 7 March and the no-confidence move was formally made a day later on 8 March.
The Threat of Being 'Punished'
It soon became obvious that the United States was the ‘un-named’ country. Within a few days, Khan also removed that fig leaf and mentioned it. Some confusion was deliberately created about how the US conveyed the threat. That, too, was revealed: Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary in the State Department, is said to have made the threat to the outgoing Pakistan Ambassador, Asad Majeed Khan, at an official meeting where note-takers were present. By now, it is clear that Asad Khan informed Islamabad about his meeting through a coded diplomatic cable.
From 27 March onwards, Khan and many of his cabinet colleagues kept up the drumbeat of US interference in Pakistan’s foreign policy, and worse, of the foreign threat of the country being ‘punished’ if Khan remained the Prime Minister. To illustrate the point, former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in an impassioned speech in the National Assembly on 9 April that the US National Security Adviser had telephoned his Pakistani counterpart on the eve of Khan’s bilateral visit to Moscow and pressed for its cancellation.
Khan's Ill-Timed Moscow Visit
The fact is that Khan’s visit could not be timed worse – he was in Russia on 24 February, the day Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine. Pakistan did make feeble noises about the need to settle international disputes without recourse to force, but the images of Khan’s meetings with Putin conveyed a different perception. It is unlikely that the Army leadership would not have been consulted before Khan undertook the visit. It appears that it did not strongly oppose the visit. However, what the Army did not appreciate was Khan’s attack on the ambassadors of European Union countries who collectively pressed Pakistan to condemn the Russian move.
Khan asked these ambassadors if Pakistan was their “slave”. That is the refrain that formed the entire foundation of his attack on the US. He wanted to rouse Pakistan’s sense of honour to attack his domestic political rivals, whom he termed ‘US collaborators’. That will form the bedrock of his campaign for the elections that will have to take place in the foreseeable future.
It is unlikely that the coalition led by Shehbaz Sharif, which will now succeed Khan, will be able to continue beyond autumn or early winter this year. Certainly, the Army will do all it can to ensure that Khan does not do well in the polls.
On its part, the US has patiently responded to Khan’s charges. It has refuted them but has indicated that they will not impact bilateral ties. Now that he has gone, both Shehbaz Sharif and other leaders who have opposed Khan will try to repair the damage done by him. The Army will continue to do so, too. Pakistan is in deep economic trouble and needs US help and that of international financial institutions.
While attacking the US, Khan praised India for being a self-respecting nation that took independent foreign policy decisions. He emphasised that no power could dictate to India. This naturally provoked his Pakistani rivals. That is truly what Khan wanted to do, for his reasoning went like this: “I am khuddar (self-respecting), so are these Indians, but you guys, who are Muslims, choose to be slaves; shame on you!”
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)