Leaked Cable Reveals U.S. Pressure on Pakistan to Oust Imran Khan

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“All will be forgiven,” said a U.S. diplomat, if the no-confidence vote against Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan succeeds.

Khan’s Fall: A Tale of Power, Corruption, and Imperialism

US Diplomacy or Regime Change?

A reportedly leaked classified Pakistani government cable is raising new questions about alleged US involvement in the political turmoil that led to Imran Khan’s removal as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan from power in 2022.

The cable details a March 2022 meeting between Pakistani officials and US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, in which Lu reportedly said it would be easier for the US to forgive Pakistan if Khan was ousted in an impending no-confidence vote. Lu also suggested Khan’s neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unacceptable to the US.

Lu also warned that if Khan remained in power, Pakistan would face “isolation” from the U.S. and Europe. The cable notes the Pakistani ambassador saw this as a “strong demarche” that likely had White House approval.

“All will be forgiven,” said a U.S. diplomat, if the no-confidence vote against Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan succeeds.

Shortly after the meeting, Khan was removed from power when he lost a no-confidence vote in Pakistan’s parliament. Khan has claimed his ouster was the result of a US-backed conspiracy orchestrated by Pakistan’s military and civilian opponents. The US has repeatedly denied intervening in Pakistan’s internal affairs or seeking regime change.

The US’s Shadowy Role in Pakistan’s Politics

This is the murky world of international power politics, where allegiances are forged and severed with the subtlety of a dagger’s edge. The case of Imran Khan’s ousting from the helm of Pakistan’s leadership is no exception. The classified Pakistani government document, that was painstakingly obtained by The Intercept was as sharp as any dagger in the back of any leader. It unravels a tale of calculated manoeuvres, clandestine conversations, and diplomatic brinkmanship that led to Khan’s eventual downfall.

Picture this: A clandestine meeting on March 7, 2022, where the U.S. State Department delicately prodded the Pakistani government to remove Imran Khan from office. Why, you ask? His perceived neutrality in the face of Russia’s audacious invasion of Ukraine had rattled the corridors of Washington. A singular act of defiance against the Western powers’ clamour for condemnation.

Whispers in the shadows, rumours swirling in the streets – this meeting between the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and two enigmatic State Department officials ignited a storm of controversy that has raged on for a year and a half. As Khan’s supporters and adversaries locked horns, vying for control over Pakistan’s destiny, the power struggle crescendoed to a cacophonous climax when Khan found himself sentenced to three years behind bars on corruption charges. An ignoble end for a leader who stood defiant against Western pressures.

The charge against Khan, deemed baseless by his loyalists, effectively served as a checkmate manoeuvre against Pakistan’s most charismatic politician, barring him from contesting the upcoming elections. The stage was set, the players poised, and one month after that fateful diplomatic rendezvous, the curtain fell on Khan’s tenure through a no-confidence vote – a political drama choreographed, many believe, with the shadowy backing of Pakistan’s formidable military apparatus.

Yet, beyond the smoke and mirrors of Pakistani politics lies a tale of foreign intervention that rivals the greatest espionage novels. The classified Pakistani cable, an artefact of intrigue, emerges from the shadows, bearing witness to the diplomatic ballet orchestrated by the State Department. A dance that waltzed between enticements and threats, promising a warmer embrace if Khan were ousted and the bitter chill of isolation if he clung to power.

A glimpse into this encrypted chronicle reveals the ironies of power and the tactical artistry of the diplomatic gambit. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, a maestro of persuasion, played his notes with a masterful touch. “People here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine),” he intoned, his words echoing through the corridors of power. “It does not seem such a neutral stand to us,” he added, his tone an exquisite blend of scepticism and veiled criticism.

Then, the pièce de résistance – a brazen proposition draped in the cloak of subtlety. “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington,” Lu declared, his words echoing like a thunderclap. The ultimate leverage, skillfully deployed, to bend the will of a sovereign nation.

Amidst this cloak-and-dagger exchange, Khan’s impassioned rhetoric echoed on the world stage. “Are we your slaves?” he thundered, his voice reverberating with defiance. “We are friends of Russia, and we are also friends of the United States. We are friends of China and Europe. We are not part of any alliance.” An audacious stance that resonated with his supporters, yet ruffled the feathers of those in distant capitals.

As the dust settled, Khan’s fate sealed, a chilling realisation dawned – a masterstroke of diplomacy had set the stage, culminating in Khan’s removal, just as the prophetic words of Lu had foretold. The U.S. objectives had been met, the geopolitical pieces realigned. The swift warming between the United States and Pakistan after Khan’s exit testified to the strategic finesse that had been at play.

In this grand geopolitical theatre, Khan was a pawn, manoeuvred across the board by powerful hands. A confluence of events, an alliance of interests, and a diplomatic dance that reshaped the contours of South Asian politics. The curtains have fallen, the final act concluded, but the echoes of this clandestine symphony continue to reverberate, a testament to the shadows that shape the destinies of nations.

Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: A Pawn in the Great Game

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Pakistan’s foreign policy compass has swung decisively in the direction of the United States, marked by an embrace of American stances while distancing itself from Russia.

In the wake of Khan’s ousting, Pakistan’s initial neutral stance on Ukraine has given way to a pronounced alignment with the United States. This shift, however, has uncorked a Pandora’s box of political turbulence, economic upheaval, and a wave of repression under a military-backed administration. Khan, ensnared in a legal quagmire stemming from charges of inciting protests, casts a long shadow over Pakistan’s stability.

The leaked cable not only bolsters Imran Khan’s longstanding assertion of being toppled through American intervention but also raises pointed questions about Washington’s role. Despite persistent denials, the document casts a telling light on the mechanics of how the U.S. deftly steered the ship of Pakistan’s leadership, brandishing both carrots and cudgels.

What emerges from this document is a stark realization of the cold pragmatism that often eclipses democratic ideals in the theater of global affairs. With Khan now behind bars, facing charges that carry a whiff of dubiety, and the echoes of dissent muffled, this saga unfurls a tapestry that goes beyond mere external intrusion into a nation’s political sphere – it highlights the growing imperialistic sway of the United States.

The leaked cable paints an intricate portrait of the intricate tapestry that threads through the fabric of US-Pakistan relations. The exertion of external pressures, whether overt or concealed, to sculpt the destiny of other nations invariably drags the discourse into ethically murky waters. This new world order, as it unfurls, bears the uncanny semblance of the old, a dominion where power holds hands with corruption, and the hallmarks of imperialism persist in a changing landscape.

For years, the U.S. government’s patronage relationship with the Pakistani military, which has long acted as the real powerbroker in the country’s politics, has been seen by many Pakistanis as an impenetrable obstacle to the country’s ability to grow its economy, combat endemic corruption, and pursue a constructive foreign policy. The sense that Pakistan has lacked meaningful independence because of this relationship — which, despite trappings of democracy, has made the military an untouchable force in domestic politics — makes the charge of U.S. involvement in the removal of a popular prime minister even more incendiary.

The Shadowy World of International Power Politics

The text of the Pakistani cable, produced from the meeting by the ambassador and transmitted to Pakistan, has not previously been published. The cable, known internally as a “cypher,” reveals both the carrots and the sticks that the State Department deployed in its push against Khan, promising warmer relations if Khan was removed, and isolation if he was not.

The document, labeled “Secret,” includes an account of the meeting between State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Asad Majeed Khan, who at the time was Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S.

The document was provided to The Intercept by an anonymous source in the Pakistani military who said that they had no ties to Imran Khan or Khan’s party. The Intercept is publishing the body of the cable below, correcting minor typos in the text because such details can be used to watermark documents and track their dissemination.

The Full Cable…

March 7, 2022, Pakistani Diplomatic Cypher (Transcription)

The Intercept published the body of the cable below, correcting minor typos in the text because such details can be used to watermark documents and track their dissemination. The Intercept has removed classification markings and numerical elements that could be used for tracking purposes. Labeled “Secret,” the cable includes an account of the meeting between State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Asad Majeed Khan, who at the time was Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S.

I had a luncheon meeting today with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu. He was accompanied by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Les Viguerie. DCM, DA and Counsellor Qasim joined me.

At the outset, Don referred to Pakistan’s position on the Ukraine crisis and said that “people here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.” He shared that in his discussions with the NSC, “it seems quite clear that this is the Prime Minister’s policy.” He continued that he was of the view that this was “tied to the current political dramas in Islamabad that he (Prime Minister) needs and is trying to show a public face.” I replied that this was not a correct reading of the situation as Pakistan’s position on Ukraine was a result of intense interagency consultations. Pakistan had never resorted to conducting diplomacy in public sphere. The Prime Minister’s remarks during a political rally were in reaction to the public letter by European Ambassadors in Islamabad which was against diplomatic etiquette and protocol. Any political leader, whether in Pakistan or the U.S., would be constrained to give a public reply in such a situation.

I asked Don if the reason for a strong U.S. reaction was Pakistan’s abstention in the voting in the UNGA. He categorically replied in the negative and said that it was due to the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow. He said that “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.” He paused and then said “I cannot tell how this will be seen by Europe but I suspect their reaction will be similar.” He then said that “honestly I think isolation of the Prime Minister will become very strong from Europe and the United States.” Don further commented that it seemed that the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow was planned during the Beijing Olympics and there was an attempt by the Prime Minister to meet Putin which was not successful and then this idea was hatched that he would go to Moscow.

I told Don that this was a completely misinformed and wrong perception. The visit to Moscow had been in the works for at least few years and was the result of a deliberative institutional process. I stressed 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 “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 condonation or endorsement of Russia’s action 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 UN and by our Spokesperson spelled that out clearly, while reaffirming our commitment to the principle of UN Charter, non-use or threat of use of force, sovereignty and territorial integrity of States, and pacific settlement of disputes.

I also told Don that Pakistan was worried of how the Ukraine crisis would play out in the context of Afghanistan. We had paid a very high price due to the long-term impact of this conflict. Our priority was to have peace and stability in Afghanistan, for which it was imperative to have cooperation and coordination with all major powers, including Russia. From this perspective as well, keeping the channels of communication open was essential. This factor was also dictating our position on the Ukraine crisis. On my reference to the upcoming Extended Troika meeting in Beijing, Don replied that there were still ongoing discussions in Washington on whether the U.S. should attend the Extended Troika meeting or the upcoming Antalya meeting on Afghanistan with Russian representatives in attendance, as the U.S. focus right now was to discuss only Ukraine with Russia. I replied that this was exactly what we were afraid of. We did not want the Ukraine crisis to divert focus away from Afghanistan. Don did not comment.

I told Don that just like him, I would also convey our perspective in a forthright manner. I said that over the past one year, we had been consistently sensing reluctance on the part of the U.S. leadership to engage with our leadership. This reluctance had created a perception in Pakistan that we were being ignored and even taken for granted. There was also a feeling that while the U.S. expected Pakistan’s support on all issues that were important to the U.S., it did not reciprocate and we do not see much U.S. support on issues of concern for Pakistan, particularly on Kashmir. I said that it was extremely important to have functioning channels of communication at the highest level to remove such perception. I also said that we were surprised that if our position on the Ukraine crisis was so important for the U.S., why the U.S. had not engaged with us at the top leadership level prior to the Moscow visit and even when the UN was scheduled to vote. (The State Department had raised it at the DCM level.) Pakistan valued continued high-level engagement and for this reason the Foreign Minister sought to speak with Secretary Blinken to personally explain Pakistan’s position and perspective on the Ukraine crisis. The call has not materialized yet. Don replied that the thinking in Washington was that given the current political turmoil in Pakistan, this was not the right time for such engagement and it could wait till the political situation in Pakistan settled down.

I reiterated our position that countries should not be made to choose sides in a complex situation like the Ukraine crisis and stressed the need for having active bilateral communications at the political leadership level. Don replied that “you have conveyed your position clearly and I will take it back to my leadership.”

I also told Don that we had seen his defence of the Indian position on the Ukraine crisis during the recently held Senate Sub-Committee hearing on U.S.-India relations. It seemed that the U.S. was applying different criteria for India and Pakistan. Don responded that the U.S. lawmakers’ strong feelings about India’s abstentions in the UNSC and UNGA came out clearly during the hearing. I said that from the hearing, it appeared that the U.S. expected more from India than Pakistan, yet it appeared to be more concerned about Pakistan’s position. Don was evasive and responded that Washington looked at the U.S.-India relationship very much through the lens of what was happening in China. He added that while India had a close relationship with Moscow, “I think we will actually see a change in India’s policy once all Indian students are out of Ukraine.”

I expressed the hope that the issue of the Prime Minister’s visit to Russia will not impact our bilateral ties. Don replied 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.”

We also discussed Afghanistan and other issues pertaining to bilateral ties. A separate communication follows on that part of our conversation.


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. Cd’ A a.i in Islamabad.

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