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Was There A US-Backed Regime Change In Pakistan? – OpEd

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A US-sponsored regime change is hardly new, and it does not take a student of history to cite examples of such transgressions. Guatemala, Congo, China, Libya, Palestinian Territories, Dominican Republic, Afghanistan, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Panama, Bolivia, and Poland are just a few countries where the US has interfered in the past. The Washington Post asserts that the “US tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War”.

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Purportedly, the most recent example of a US machination was in the ouster of Pakistan’s Imran Khan from premiership. And while the US State Department has denied any involvement – naturally – let us examine exactly what transpired in Pakistan, that has led to such strong suspicions of connivance or interference, US-backed or not.

The US and the Letter-gate Scandal

Imran Khan’s government was toppled via a vote of no confidence on 9 April 2022. This could have been a huge victory for democracy in Pakistan, as Imran Khan became the first PM to be ousted via a vote of no confidence. However, since the whole process was tainted by the letter-gate scandal, democracy is under fire again. The letter-gate scandal involves a threatening letter that Khan waved to his hundreds of thousands of supporters in Islamabad several weeks ago. He stated that the vote of no confidence, that had been brought in motion by the old guard of Pakistani politics [i.e. the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) etcetera – collectively known as the Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDM)] was in fact backed by a foreign power. Before even tabling the motion, the PDM had allegedly already begun buying PTI-dissident MNAs to ensure the success of the vote (details ahead). 

As time passed, more light was shed on the obfuscated letter. The foreign power was revealed to be the US, and the threat was allegedly made by Donald Lu, a US diplomat focusing on South and Central Asia, to Pakistan’s then-ambassador to the US. The threat delineated that if the vote of no-confidence against Imran Khan fails, serious repercussions for Pakistan will follow. Oddly, though, this conversation between the two diplomats took place on March 7th, while the opposition tabled the vote of no-confidence on the 8th of March – the suspicious timing raising the eyebrows of the PTI government, and the informed masses. Imran Khan later brought the letter to the National Security Committee (NSC) – which includes the PM, 4 service chiefs, DG ISI, as well cabinet members. The committee endorsed the letter by stating that there was “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan by the country in question”. Donald Lu did not reject the conversation when he was asked by a journalist in India, but the State Department has rejected the allegations.

It was also alleged by the then-government that America was irked with Imran Khan’s tour of Russia despite Khan’s repeated claims that he wanted to avoid bloc politics and keep good relations with all countries. Moreover, it is assumed Imran Khan’s Pakistan-first propensities and his resolve to have an independent foreign policy were to the chagrin of the US.

As days went by, it was a common perception that besides the PDM, the media, and judiciary wanted Khan’s ouster as well. However, Imran Khan’s narrative of a foreign plot being implemented by internal actors to oust him gained massive traction, and renewed his waning popularity. In other words, it was Imran Khan (and the public) vs the PDM/West (a rigged and corrupt system) in the eyes of the nation. This kind of narrative is still popular, and on social media, Pakistanis are berating individuals and institutions that they think had a hand in removing Imran Khan. 

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The PDM

The PDM’s actions perhaps elevated suspicions the most. As already, mentioned, the threatening letter was received on March 7th, 2022 according to the PTI government, and the PDM tabled the no-confidence vote on the 8th. Imran Khan subsequently brought the letter to the public’s awareness weeks later, on the 27th of March, during his rally in Islamabad. Let us examine what was materializing in Islamabad when Imran Khan had not yet revealed the letter. 

During this time, the PDM had allegedly begun bribing sitting PTI-MNAs with money and seats for the next election. 12 PTI-MNAs had gone missing and later were found at Sindh House in the hands of the opposition. One of the dissidents, Raja Riaz, gave an interview where he said he would contest the next election using a PML-N platform. The interviewer grilled him on not resigning first, since his statement made it appear as if he is dissenting due to a promised potential seat in the next election. Later these MNAs were allegedly hidden in a hotel in Islamabad by PDM officials. Supposedly, there is CCTV footage showcasing the same, which the premier was aware of and he alluded to the same during his rallies.

Other peculiarities involved the meeting of PDM leaders and dissenting PTI-MNAs with US diplomats. Imran Khan has been vocal about this fact in his rallies. This report of several meetings was not only given to the PM but later reported by ARY’s Arshad Sharif (the video has close to a million views). The report stated that on 16 February 2022, dissenting PTI-MNA Noor Alam met with American diplomat Peter Joseph in Islamabad. Furthermore, William K. Makaneole, American Consul General in Lahore met with many PML-N and PPP politicians, and also met dissenting PTI heavyweight Aleem Khan on 7th March 2022. American political officer, Andrea Hillyer, met with PDM officials as well as Raja Riaz, a dissenting PTI-MNA. Other meetings of note include Makaneole’s meeting with Hamza Shahbaz (son of current Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif) on 3rd March 2022, and the American Consul General in Karachi Mark Stroh’s meeting with PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto on 24th February. He also met with MQM officials, and MQM which was a PTI-ally at the time, later joined the PDM in support of the no-confidence vote.

Another point of peculiarity was during the time Imran Khan endeavored to reveal the letter to all members of the National Assembly, as well as the Chief Justice of Pakistan. The scandal’s magnitude was such that this exertion by Khan should have been met with open arms by the opposition – especially if their leaders had nothing to fear. Moreover, Khan proclaimed that the letter was proof of foreign interference and a threat to the sovereignty of the Nation – which should have brought all parties together. Unfortunately (and suspiciously) however, they avoided the government’s call for an in-house camera session on a few occasions. The new PM Shahbaz Sharif has stated however that he is willing to probe into the letter via an in-house camera session but whether this is mere rhetoric to placate public animosity, time will tell.

The Pakistani Media

The Pakistani media does not enjoy a good repute generally, with many media tycoons and journalists being lax when it comes to journalistic standards and bribes. Imran Khan, unlike his predecessors, however, did not believe in bribing or providing exorbitant government advertisements to media channels and anchors. This allowed his political opponents to use Pakistan’s sprawling media ecosystem against him. His personal life was repeatedly brought into the public discourse, and any missteps the government made would lead to his demonization constantly. Imran Khan’s wife, who has only done one interview in her life, and is an extremely private person, was frequently rebuked by the media and politicians using invalidated claims. While the entire blame cannot be pinned on the media (as Imran Khan’s government did make its fair share of economic and PR-related blunders) it was clear that most of the Pakistani media, that was once on the PTI bandwagon, had now abandoned him. Anchors like Saleem Safi, Hamid Mir, Najam Sethi spewed anti-Imran venom perennially, and barring a few media channels like ARY (considered pro-PTI), they were all after his blood.

Unsurprisingly then, during the letter-gate scandal, many anchors downplayed the threatening letter and implied that it was a futile attempt by the then-premier to hold on to power. There must have been some sort of humiliation felt by such media personnel when the NSC endorsed the veracity of the letter but such elements found other ways to undermine Khan. 

During the impending vote of no-confidence, things became chaotic. The few anchors who favored Imran Khan were met with media blackouts. Imran Riaz Khan, an ardent supporter of Imran Khan, who was an extremely popular anchor on Samaa TV, was removed from his post. Samaa TV was recently bought by Aleem Khan, a former close aide of Mr. Imran Khan, who joined the PTI dissidents and supported the no-confidence vote. Imran Riaz Khan alluded to his firing from Samaa News on his YouTube Channel but remained adamant that it was a small sacrifice since he was on the right side of history. He has also stated (after Khan was ousted) that there were murmurings that he and other perceived pro-PTI journalists might be arrested.

Another prominent journalist, Maleeha Hashmi was fired from her anchor position from Public News. She Tweeted “Public News has OFF AIRED me because I REFUSED to ATTACK #ImranKhan & Defend the Culprits of the Nation”. Furthermore, the house of Dr. Arsalan Khalid, the focal person for PTI’s digital media, was raided by unidentified persons and his family’s phones were confiscated. PTI strongly condemned this but the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), who were always very active in admonishing any media-related transgressions during PTI’s tenure, were oddly silent when all these offenses were happening. There are reports also that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has begun a crackdown on many social activists as well due to the overwhelming support for Imran Khan.

Pakistan’s Twitter has been full of pro-Imran Khan, anti-judiciary, and anti-institution sentiments. Although Imran Khan has refrained from attacking any institution and has pleaded to people to not undermine Pakistan’s institutions, the mass perception among the average Pakistani is that internal actors have helped throw Imran Khan’s government out via a foreign plot. Pakistan’s top Twitter trends include #Imported_Government_Unacceptable (in Urdu) with over 5 million tweets. The same Tweet was number 1 in other countries with a sizeable Pakistani diaspora such as the UAE, and also peaked at #2 worldwide on the 9th of April. Other Tweets that made it to the top with hundreds of thousands of tweets included pejorative hashtags against Pakistan’s judiciary, media, and PDM officials.

The Judiciary

Amidst the horse-trading and letter-gate scandal, the judiciary dominated the airwaves. Pakistan’s then-President filed a reference to the Supreme Court to review Article 63(A), which they hoped would allow for a permanent disqualification of dissenting PTI-MNAs. It had been weeks, and even after the exodus of Imran Khan’s government, no decision has been made. Conversely, the Supreme Court took immediate suo moto action on a holiday, when PTI’s deputy speaker ruled out voting on the no-confidence motion due to the foreign letter, and the assemblies were dissolved. This ‘biased’ attitude of the SC angered the public. The lack of response to PTI’s reference of Article 63(A), vs the prompt suo moto of the speaker’s actions spoke volumes. Vis-à-vis the suo moto, the PTI government argued that the Constitution under Article 69 protects the NA and its members from judicial proceedings but the SC saw it contrarily.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s decision not only arrived expeditiously, but more shockingly, it completely ignored the letter, the very essence of the case. The SC found the deputy speaker’s ruling unconstitutional and reversed the dissolution. A dispirited Imran Khan accepted the decision of the SC, but expressed consternation over the letter being overlooked. The controversy did not end here. Although some commentators heralded the SC’s decision, others were shocked how the Supreme Court overstepped its authority by micromanaging the NA’s business. It ordered the NA to convene on the 9th of April and conduct the vote of no confidence – and even gave a schedule of proceedings. The SC’s micromanaging started a debate in the public discourse regarding the disregard for the sovereignty of the NA. Citizens stated that the SC could have placated the nation’s animosity if they had at least ordered a probe into the merits of the letter. 

On 9th April, when the NA was ordered to hold the vote of no-confidence, the speaker assured everyone that the vote will be carried out, but the government initiated delaying tactics by initiating a debate. The opposition stated that they would stay in the NA until the court orders were fulfilled. Close to midnight, when the ‘crime’ had not yet happened,the Supreme Court and Islamabad High Court’s doors miraculously opened – perhaps for the first time in the country’s history. The Chief Justice and other justices made their way to the court, and the implication was that if the government did not conduct the vote before midnight, it would be considered a contempt of court. This could mean substantial jail time and disbarment for PTI officials, and maybe even disqualification of Imran Khan in the next elections. All eyes were glued to TV and mobile screens as people had no idea what would happen.

As the dust settled, the anger over the Supreme Court’s culpability grew, as people perceived the opening of courts at odd hours and on declared holidays to make decisions detrimental to PTI as a conspiracy. The masses called foul and took to social media to berate the SC’s moves, saying that justice for rape, murder, and other heinous cases should also be given with the same urgency as was shown with regards to the ousting of Imran Khan.

Conclusion

Pakistanis have come out over the alleged foreign machination aided by internal actors en masse. Imran Khan has begun his string of rallies and is planning to capture more momentum as he demands early elections. The current hodgepodge government of the PDM has many economic and political hurdles to overcome but their biggest hurdle is a renewed Imran Khan, who ironically they helped reinvigorate. The ex-PTI government is still discussing the letter in their rallies, and is adamant that they have been ousted because of foreign interference.

Many Pakistanis are wholeheartedly accepting this narrative at home and abroad, and it does not take much to notice why. In the last few weeks of Imran Khan’s government, the average Pakistani perceives that the West, PDM, dissident PTI-MNAs, the media, and judiciary all colluded together to deseat the premier – and it is not surprising why they would think this. Currently, Imran Khan is seen as a lone wolf who stood against US hegemony. He is the one that said “absolutely not” if the US were to ask for military bases. He is the one the public saw as being able to stand his ground against US pressures. One cannot claim for sure that there was a foreign conspiracy at the back of all this – but given the US’ harrowing past of regime change – and Pakistan’s pre-Imran Khan yes-man inclinations, would it be that surprising?

*Sarmad Ishfaq works as a research fellow for the Lahore Centre for Peace Research. He has a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he graduated as the ‘Top Graduate’. He has several publications in peer-reviewed journals and international magazines in the areas of counter-terrorism/terrorism and the geopolitics of South Asia and the GCC.

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