On August 9, 2023, at 12:00 p.m., a classified Pakistani government document obtained by The Intercept reveals that during a meeting on March 7, 2022, between the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and two State Department officials, the U.S. State Department urged the Pakistani government to remove Imran Khan from his position as prime minister due to his neutral stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This meeting has been a source of intense scrutiny, controversy, and speculation in Pakistan for the past eighteen months. It has become a focal point of the power struggle between Imran Khan’s supporters and his military and civilian opponents. The situation escalated on August 5 when Imran Khan was sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges, marking his second time in custody since being ousted. Supporters of Khan reject these charges as unfounded. The verdict also prevents Khan, a popular political figure in Pakistan, from participating in the upcoming elections later this year.
A month after the meeting with U.S. officials, as detailed in the leaked Pakistani government document, a parliamentary no-confidence vote resulted in Khan’s removal from office. This move is widely believed to have been orchestrated with the support of Pakistan’s influential military. Since then, Khan and his allies have been engaged in a struggle against the military and its civilian supporters. Khan alleges that his removal was engineered at the behest of the U.S.
The leaked Pakistani cable, referred to as a “cypher,” outlines the discussions held during the meeting and sheds light on the incentives and pressures the U.S. State Department employed in its efforts against Khan. It promised improved relations if Khan were to be removed from power, and warned of isolation if he remained.
Referred to as “Secret,” the document contains an account of the meeting between State Department officials, including Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and Asad Majeed Khan, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time.
An anonymous source within the Pakistani military provided the document to The Intercept, asserting no affiliation with Imran Khan or his party. Below is the main content of the cable, with minor typographical corrections made to prevent potential document tracking and identification.
The contents of the document acquired by The Intercept align with information reported by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and other sources, corroborating the details of the meeting and the cable itself, including elements excluded from The Intercept’s presentation. Subsequent events validated the dynamics described in the cable, reflecting the evolving relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. As portrayed in the cable, the U.S. expressed reservations about Khan’s foreign policy stance regarding the Ukraine conflict. Notably, these positions swiftly reversed following Khan’s removal, leading to an improved rapport between the U.S. and Pakistan.
The diplomatic encounter occurred a fortnight after the commencement of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a development that coincided with Khan’s journey to Moscow. This visit, which took place amidst the conflict, elicited strong displeasure from Washington.
Around March 2, shortly before the meeting in question, Donald Lu faced inquiries during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing regarding the perceived neutrality of countries like India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan concerning the Ukraine crisis. In response to a query posed by Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland regarding Pakistan’s recent decision to abstain from a UN resolution denouncing Russia’s role in the conflict, Lu remarked, “Prime Minister Khan has recently visited Moscow, and so I think we are trying to figure out how to engage specifically with the Prime Minister following that decision.” Van Hollen’s line of questioning hinted at his frustration with the lack of communication between State Department officials and Khan concerning the matter.
On the day preceding the meeting, Khan addressed a gathering and directly responded to European appeals for Pakistan’s solidarity with Ukraine. He vehemently retorted, “Are we subservient to you?” Khan’s voice boomed across the crowd. “What is your perception of us? That we are beholden to your wishes and will comply with every demand?” he challenged. “We maintain amicable relations with Russia, as well as with the United States. We uphold friendships with China and Europe. We stand apart from any form of alliance.”
During the meeting, as outlined in the document, Lu articulated Washington’s dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s position in the conflict. The document cites Lu as stating, “People here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is adopting such an assertively neutral stance (on Ukraine), if such neutrality is even attainable. It doesn’t appear particularly neutral from our perspective.” Lu acknowledged internal deliberations with the U.S. National Security Council and emphasized that this stance appeared to be the Prime Minister’s established policy.
Directly addressing the prospect of a no-confidence vote, Lu candidly remarked, “I believe that if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being interpreted as a decision by the Prime Minister.” The document quotes Lu continuing, “Otherwise, I think the road ahead will be challenging.”
Lu cautioned that should the matter remain unresolved, Pakistan could face marginalization by its Western allies. “I cannot predict how Europe will perceive this, but I suspect their response may be similar,” Lu asserted. He added that Khan might encounter “isolation” by Europe and the U.S. should he retain his position.
When questioned about Lu’s statements in the Pakistani cable, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller stated, “These purported remarks do not indicate the United States taking a stance on Pakistan’s leadership.” Miller declined to comment on private diplomatic conversations.
In response, the Pakistani ambassador expressed frustration over the lack of engagement from U.S. leadership, noting, “This reluctance has created a perception in Pakistan that we were being disregarded, or perhaps even undervalued. It seemed that while the U.S. anticipated Pakistan’s support on issues of importance, it did not reciprocate.”
The discussion, as documented, concluded with the Pakistani ambassador expressing hope that the Russia-Ukraine conflict wouldn’t “impact our bilateral relations.” Lu conveyed that while damage had occurred, it wasn’t irreparable, and in the absence of Khan, the relationship could revert to normal. Lu asserted, “I would argue that it has already caused a dent in our perspective of the relationship,” once again referencing the “political situation” in Pakistan. He proposed a wait-and-see approach, suggesting that if the political landscape changed in a few days, the disagreement would likely dissipate. Otherwise, a more direct approach would be necessary to address and manage the issue.
On the following day, March 8, Khan’s opponents in Parliament initiated a pivotal procedural step towards the no-confidence vote.
Arif Rafiq, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and a Pakistan specialist, commented, “Khan’s fate wasn’t sealed at the time of this meeting, but it was uncertain. This essentially signifies the Biden administration communicating with the individuals perceived as Pakistan’s true decision-makers, conveying that things would improve with Khan’s removal.”
The Intercept diligently attempted to verify the authenticity of the document. Given Pakistan’s security climate, independent validation from Pakistani government sources was unattainable. The Pakistan Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to inquiries.
Miller, the State Department spokesperson, affirmed, “We expressed concern about then-PM Khan’s visit to Moscow on the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, voicing opposition both publicly and privately.” He emphasized that allegations of U.S. interference in Pakistan’s leadership decisions were baseless and continued to be so.
The State Department has consistently and repeatedly refuted any suggestion that Lu advocated for the removal of the Pakistani prime minister. This denial has been reiterated on various occasions. On April 8, 2022, in response to Khan’s claim of a cable supporting his assertion of U.S. interference, State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter addressed its authenticity. She stated emphatically, “Let me be unequivocal in saying that these allegations are entirely untrue.”
In early June 2023, during an interview with The Intercept, Khan reiterated his accusation. At that juncture, the State Department, in response to an inquiry for comment, referred back to its previous repudiations of the claim.
Khan’s stance remains unwavering, and the State Department has persistently refuted the accusation throughout both June and July. Denials were issued on multiple occasions during press conferences, and a deputy assistant secretary of state for Pakistan dismissed the claims as “propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation” in a public address. During the most recent instance, Miller, the State Department spokesperson, responded to the question with a touch of humor, stating, “I feel like I should have a sign to hold up in response to this question, saying that the allegation is false.” His laughter elicited chuckles from the press. He emphasized, “I don’t know how many times I can reiterate it… The United States does not take sides on any political candidate or party in Pakistan or any other nation.”
As this drama surrounding the cable unfolds publicly and garners media attention, the Pakistani military has embarked on an unparalleled crackdown on civil society, aimed at stifling dissent and curtailing the previously existing freedoms of expression within the country.
In recent months, the military-led administration has not only targeted dissidents but also individuals suspected of leaking information within its own institutions. A new law was enacted recently that permits warrantless searches and imposes extended prison sentences on whistleblowers. Following the robust public support for Khan, manifested through widespread protests and riots in May, the military has solidified its authoritarian control. This includes granting itself sweeping powers that significantly erode civil liberties, criminalize criticism of the military, expand the military’s already substantial role in the nation’s economy, and establish an enduring veto over political and civil affairs for military leaders.
The substantial erosion of democratic values has largely gone unnoticed by U.S. officials. In late July, Gen. Michael Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, visited Pakistan and released a statement emphasizing his focus on “strengthening military-to-military relations,” while omitting any reference to the country’s political climate. During this summer, Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, made an effort to introduce a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that would prompt the State Department to assess the democratic regression in Pakistan. However, the proposal was not granted a vote on the House floor.
In a recent press briefing, when asked about the fairness of Khan’s trial, Miller, the State Department spokesperson, stated, “We believe this is an internal matter for Pakistan.”
Democracy’s Struggle with Military Influence:
The longstanding symbiotic relationship between the U.S. government and the Pakistani military, which has historically wielded substantial political influence, has been perceived by many Pakistanis as a significant impediment to the country’s economic growth, the battle against entrenched corruption, and the pursuit of a constructive foreign policy. The notion that Pakistan’s autonomy has been compromised due to this relationship, where the military’s dominance in domestic politics remains unchallenged despite democratic facades, intensifies the contentious accusation of U.S. involvement in the ousting of a popular prime minister.
The source who provided The Intercept with the leaked document, having access as a military member, spoke of their growing disillusionment with the military leadership, the adverse effects on military morale arising from its entanglement in the political conflict against Khan, the manipulation of deceased service members’ memory for political gains in recent military propaganda, and widespread public disenchantment with the armed forces amid the ongoing crackdown. They harbor concerns that the military’s actions are driving Pakistan towards a crisis akin to the 1971 events that led to the secession of Bangladesh. The source hopes that the leaked document will validate what ordinary citizens and even the rank-and-file of the military have long suspected about the Pakistani military, prompting introspection within the institution.
In June, during the military’s crackdown on Khan’s political party, Azam Khan, Khan’s former chief bureaucrat, was arrested and detained for a month. During his detention, Azam Khan reportedly issued a statement, witnessed by a member of the judiciary, affirming the document’s authenticity. However, he indicated that Khan had embellished its contents for political advantage.
Approximately a month after the meeting detailed in the cable and shortly before Khan’s removal from office, then-Pakistan army chief Qamar Bajwa publicly deviated from Khan’s neutrality stance and criticized the Russian invasion, labeling it a “huge tragedy” in a public address. This statement aligned with Lu’s confidential assessment, as recorded in the cable, that Pakistan’s neutrality on the matter was Khan’s policy, but not reflective of the military’s position.
Pakistan’s foreign policy has undergone a significant shift since Khan’s removal, with the country leaning more overtly towards the U.S. and Europe in the context of the Ukraine conflict. Abandoning its previous neutral stance, Pakistan has emerged as a supplier of arms to the Ukrainian military; evidence of Pakistani-manufactured shells and ammunition is frequently observed in battlefield footage. Earlier this year, a European Union official confirmed Pakistan’s military support to Ukraine. In a move presumed to revolve around military cooperation, Ukraine’s foreign minister visited Pakistan in July, although the visit was publicly characterized as focusing on trade, education, and environmental matters.
This realignment towards the U.S. seems to have yielded dividends for the Pakistani military. On August 3, a Pakistani newspaper reported that Parliament had ratified a defense pact with the U.S. encompassing “joint exercises, operations, training, basing, and equipment.” The agreement aimed to replace a previous 15-year accord between the two nations, which had expired in 2020.
Tell me more about Pakistani military’s role.
What impact did the leaked document have?
March 7, 2022 Pakistani Diplomatic Cypher (Transcription):
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.