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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Interpreting the US-backed regime change operation in Pakistan

On April 11th, the US-backed regime-change campaign in Pakistan came to a close. Imran Khan, Pakistan's elected prime minister, has been deposed. Shahbaz Sharif, the previous leader of the opposition, was later sworn in as the country's 23rd prime minister. Imran Khan claimed that his fall from power was part of a plot devised in Washington; everyone who loses power in Pakistan makes similar claims.

The US-backed regime-change operation in Pakistan reached its culmination on the 11th of April. The elected prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan was ousted from power. Later on, the former leader of the opposition, Shahbaz Sharif was sworn in as the 23rd prime minister. Imran Khan attributed his removal from power to part of a plan hatched in Washington; everyone removed from power in Pakistan comes up with similar allegations.

The general populous however seems to believe his narrative and unprecedented demonstrations erupted spontaneously in almost every single city of the country. Imran Khan’s party, which has the largest number of representatives in the parliament has resigned en masse and is demanding a fresh general election. This article would try to examine the truth of the foreign interference allegations in this matter.

Read more: All eyes of US media on “anti-American” Imran Khan

Background and major developments 

A no-confidence movement was registered in the Pakistani parliament on the 8th of March, in an effort to dislodge Imran Khan from the post of prime minister. Accordingly, the opposition had to prove, via a show-of-hands vote, that the prime minister has lost the confidence of the majority of the representatives and should be sacked. This is a legitimate move as its provision exists in the constitution. The opposition (allegedly) horse-traded and bought some representatives of Khan’s party and showed their interviews on various television channels.

After that, two small political parties, which were allied to Khan, changed allegiance and joined the opposition. Previously, under similar circumstances, the powerful Pakistan army would save Khan; but this time he fell out of favor. Khan decided to take the battle to his strong ground, the people of Pakistan, and started a series of public gatherings.

The no-confidence motion was filed by the coalition of major opposition parties. They had been taking turns at ruling Pakistan for decades. These include Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Shahbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz group (PMLN) and Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema e Islam (JUI). Previously, these political leaders had been the staunch enemies of each other, they all had corruption charges and various cases of money laundering and fraud were pending against them in courts.

In addition, JUI’s head also runs a number of madrassahs (religious schools) and is the head of the council of madrassahs. It is worth noting that the Taliban were actually the product of these madrassahs and Fazl has close links with them. When the Taliban came into power in Afghanistan, it was reported in the media that Fazl threatened Imran Khan to behave, as the government of Afghanistan was his close ally, he claimed. He was included in the opposition coalition to bring his madrassah students to provide street power as the other two parties are notorious for corruption and don’t have street power.

Read more: How America lost Pakistan?

Khan’s performance as prime minister had serious concerns and his government’s approval ratings plummeted. However, the opposition alliance of crook politicians helped galvanize public opinion in his favour. They started participating in Khan’s rallies in large numbers. This series of public gatherings culminated in the March 27 rally held in Islamabad. According to independent observers, it was the largest one in the history of Islamabad. In that rally, without naming the country, Khan mentioned that the no-confidence motion registered against him in the parliament was on the behest of a foreign power (later, it was confirmed by Khan that the foreign power was the US).

Khan read some excerpts from the (allegedly) official communication sent by the Pakistani ambassador

This, according to Khan, was the message conveyed to the Pakistani ambassador by a high-level official of that foreign government. The message was humiliating and demanded the ouster of Khan in a no-confidence motion. The no-confidence movement was filed after that meeting, Khan alleged. The crowd was roaring with fury; how a foreign country could meddle in our internal affairs and try to bring these corrupt to the core politicians into power.

When IK mentioned foreign involvement in the no-confidence motion, the opposition parties rejected the claim and asked to show the communique. IK could not show the letter publicly because of an official secrets act. He called the meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). This is the topmost security related institution of Pakistan. The NSC comprises of prime minister, many important ministers such as an interior minister, foreign minister, national security advisor among others; and armed forces chiefs (The army chief, air force chief and naval chief), chairman joint chiefs of staff and the ISI chief.

The joint statement of NSC declared that the communique was blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan. Furthermore, NSC decided that demarche would be issued in both Pakistan and Washington. The foreign office issued a demarche to the head of US mission in Pakistan and in Washington.

Still the opposition parties completely dismissed Khan’s claims referring to it as a conspiracy theory he had invented to stay in power. They denied the existence of the communique altogether. The speaker of the National Assembly called an in-camera session of the parliamentary committee on national security and offered to show the communique to the main opposition leaders, who refused to participate and boycotted the session. On the day of voting on no confidence motion; the acting speaker of the national assembly gave his ruling that he had seen enough evidence of foreign involvement in the vote of no confidence and dismissed the motion.

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With the no-confidence motion pending, prime minister could not dissolve the national assembly. As soon as the no-confidence motion was dismissed, prime minister Khan dissolved the national assembly and wrote to the president to proceed for fresh general elections. He was of the view, that under the circumstances, it was necessary to go to the public to get a fresh mandate.

The opposition however objected  

Meanwhile, the supreme court, the apex court of Pakistan, took suo-moto action and started hearing of the case on the same day, which was Sunday, a holiday. According to the Pakistani constitution (article 79), there is a separation of powers between parliament and judiciary. The proceedings of the national assembly had impunity and could not be challenged in any court of law. This separation of powers principle was generally followed by the supreme court. In fact, a little more than a week ago, in the hearing of the case filed by the government against the horse-trading of the national assembly members by the opposition, the supreme court cited the separation of powers principle and dismissed that case. However, the supreme court in this second case set aside the separation of powers principle. It carried out day-to-day hearing of the case.

During the proceedings, when the government lawyers offered to submit proofs of foreign involvement, the court refused to accept and instead focused only on the speaker’s ruling and not on the reasons for that ruling. On the fourth day, the supreme court gave verdict to annul the national assembly speaker’s ruling, stopped new general elections, restored the national assembly, re-instated the cabinet and prime minister Khan, and directed to carry on with voting on the no confidence motion.

Prime minister Khan called a meeting of his restored cabinet members, which approved declassification of the secret communique. Sealed copies were sent to the speaker of national assembly and the chief justice of the supreme court. In the national assembly on the day of the no confidence vote, the speaker of national assembly said that he had received the copy of the communique and offered the opposition to have an in-camera session to discuss the contents of the communique; the opposition declined. Finally, the speaker resigned saying that after reading the communique, he thinks it would be against the interests of the country to continue with the no confidence vote. The speaker of the previous national assembly, who belonged to the opposition, conducted the voting and prime minister Khan was ousted by a total of 174 votes.

Established facts 

  1. A meeting was held between the Assistant secretary of state Donald Lu and the ambassador of Pakistan on 7th of March. Donald Lu when asked a question, in an interview with Hindustan Times reporter in India about the said meeting, deflected the question and did not deny the meeting.
  2. NSC, the top-level security related body of Pakistan issued a joint statement that blatant interference was done in the internal affairs of Pakistan and gave approval to issue demarche in Pakistan and Washington as well. Demarche was issued, as claimed by prime minister Imran Khan. Journalists questioned the relevant official in the US state department about the demarche. The response was,” It is our policy not to reveal such information” instead of a categorical denial. It indicates that the Pakistani opposition’s claim that no such communique exists or that it is a manufactured or tempered document does not seem credible. A country like Pakistan cannot issue a demarche to a superpower on a manufactured or tampered document.

Read more: Pakistani-American named senior advisor to Mayor of New York City

Analyses and dot-connecting 

The way the whole no confidence motion progressed raises serious questions if it was a democratic, organic move. Donald Lu’s insistence that if Imran Khan was ousted then Pakistan could be forgiven. How did he know that whoever comes after Khan would follow policies that would suit the US? Photographs of US diplomats with the members of the national assembly who left Khan’s party and joined the opposition were circulating on media and social media. When those parliamentarians appeared on media channels and said they were voting against him, which was against (article 63 of) the constitution, Khan’s lawyers took the case to the supreme court.

The Court’s refusal to take up those cases of horse-trading citing article 79 (separation of powers of judiciary and parliament) raises questions. Finally, the midnight of the voting on no confidence motion, supreme court and Islamabad high court gates were opened. Those familiar with Pakistan would know that it was not possible without the involvement of all-powerful military establishment which has decades-old ties with US.

The above mentioned facts have led ordinary Pakistanis to believe that the ouster of Khan’s government was not a democratic exercise. It was the result of US interference and manipulation in the Pakistani politics. Thus, US has ousted a popularly elected government and replaced it with someone they are comfortable with. This has galvanized popular support in favor of Imran Khan. The level of support could be seen from the spontaneous protests that broke out in the length and breadth of Pakistan just on a single call from Imran Khan. The level of involvement of the local players, i.e., politicians, establishment and others is yet to be seen.

Some suggestions for US foreign policy regarding Pakistan  

US has decades-old ties with Pakistan. Pakistan has fought for the US during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and provided every possible support during the US campaign against Taliban. Imran Khan mentioned multiple times that he was not anti-America, rather he simply wanted a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. There however must be a realization on the part of US that Pakistan also has strong ties with China. Various infrastructure and other projects worth more than 50 billion dollars have already been completed or in the process of completion.

This forms the basis for future economic growth and stability of the country, and it won’t be possible for any Pakistani regime to reverse these projects. Secondly, Pakistan is an energy deficient country and must import oil and gas worth about 20 billion dollars. This is the highest contributor to the import bill resulting in a serious current account deficit. Getting a preferential deal from Russia is what Pakistan is looking for and is of utmost importance for the economic stability of the country. Using its influence in the international financial architecture, US can help Pakistan’s economy improve resulting in strong ties between the two.

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Therefore, instead of following a path of “Regime Change” US should have considered “Regime Engagement”. That could be a win-win for both. However, at present, on one hand US wants support from Pakistan (in the form of bases or air/ground lines of communications) against the Afghan Taliban; and on the other hand, it conspires to bring here a new regime which comprises of Taliban sympathizers like Fazl-ur-Rehman. This dichotomy has compelled the author to give the title of this article.


The author is currently a professor at Ritsuemikan Asia Pacific University, Japan and has many research publications in leading international journals and has also presented at various international conferences. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.