Did the United States Really Try to Overthrow Pakistan’s Imran Khan?
America’s tensions with Khan had been simmering ever since the Biden administration took over.
Former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s allegations of a U.S. conspiracy to oust him cannot be verified on the basis of facts, as they are not fully known. As a result, we have to rely on circumstantial evidence, media leaks, and speculation. But that can only take us so far. Perhaps a historical look at U.S.-Pakistan relations—particularly, how Washington has been embedded, by imposition or by invitation, in Pakistan’s body politic—can inform our understanding of the issue.
The relationship between the United States and Pakistan has served some of both countries’ critical interests for the past six decades. Over this period, they have had three major engagements, all of which were prompted by the United States’ short-term need for Pakistan’s cooperation to advance its security and strategic interests and Pakistan’s long-term need for Washington’s economic and strategic patronage. To its credit, in the first engagement during the early years of Pakistan’s history, the United States strengthened Pakistan’s defense capabilities and economic development, stabilizing the newly-established nation. But that was the last time the United States truly helped Pakistan; in subsequent engagements, the regimes in Islamabad have benefited more than the country.
A Vital Relationship for the Regimes
While it was easy for the powerful United States to weave in and out of Pakistan, the latter became addicted to the relationship because it served more than just Pakistan’s national interests. Pakistan’s poor policy choices made it dependent on external assistance, and the United States and other benefactors took advantage of this dependency to advance their own security and strategic interests. Washington played a particularly important role in the power imbalances and structural weakness of Pakistan’s elite-based system, eventually becoming an external pillar to sustain the system. This created faulty policies on both sides.
Successive regimes in Pakistan courted America as they did their best to hold on to the relationship. Pakistani political parties are suspected to have often tried to get a sense, directly or indirectly, of Washington’s reaction to important appointments or policies in order to avoid alienating the United States. This reflects the dependency of these politicians and their eagerness not to lose Washington’s “affection” more than the United States’ stranglehold over Pakistan.
The United States did not get anything from Pakistan that its leadership did not give of its own accord, often to advance personal and class interests, but sometimes in the larger national interest. And to their credit, Pakistani leaders, civilian and military alike, also stood up to pressure from the United States when critical national interests were involved, such as in the case of Pakistan’s nuclear program or relations with China. Beyond Pakistan, the United States remains a force in the internal political dynamics of many countries. Washington tries to influence, and sometimes manipulate or coerce, leaders throughout the world. But the fact is in most countries, including Pakistan, where the United States has no sustained vital interests, it does so through its relationships with the governments in power.
The System Works
In any case, the United States’ current need for Pakistan was not so dire that it called for the drastic action of pursuing regime change. Washington simply did not need to take that step. And even if it did, Washington could not succeed because Pakistan has its own political dynamics and can withstand external pressure if it wants to. Pakistan succumbs to pressure only when the survival of the system is concerned or when the interest of the regime is at stake. For all its faults, Pakistan’s constitutional process and democratic polity work. The strength of the Pakistani system was most recently seen in the Supreme Court’s decision to restore the National Assembly and the subsequent developments that resulted in the peaceful change of government. Pakistan is not a banana republic, and the country has resilience.
But given Pakistani elites’ dependency, Washington has remained confident in the past that it could always catch up with the country when it needed to, no matter what regime was in power. So, whether Islamabad was engaged with or estranged from Washington, the United States has had an interest in Pakistan’s policies.
The Conspiracy That Was Not
Imran Khan and his outgoing government alleged that the United States conspired with the opposition to oust him through a no-confidence vote. As proof, Khan claimed that Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, threatened regime change in his meeting with Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States on March 7. But no evidence of such a threat was provided by Khan, nor could it be, as it was allegedly made during a secret diplomatic conversation. All he could say was that Lu used threatening language and knew about the upcoming no-confidence vote, which was moved to a day after the meeting. In actual fact, Lu may have candidly expressed the United States’ exasperation with the direction of Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially the former prime minister’s rhetoric. He probably said that while the United States was interested in having good relations with Pakistan, this was not likely to happen under Khan’s leadership. And in this context, perhaps the words “no-confidence motion” were mentioned explicitly or implicitly. As it was public knowledge that such a motion was in the offing, it was not a secret whose divulgence would have betrayed American complicity.
It is inconceivable that the American official held out the threat of removing Khan. Perhaps Lu used harsh, brusque, or unguarded language on a sensitive subject, making his comments sound more menacing than they were. Or possibly it was merely an instance of poor communication. However, the net result was a message that became easy prey to manipulation for political ends.
Khan’s supporters are magnifying this as an example of Khan being punished for his “independent” foreign policy. But it was not that. Does India not have an independent foreign policy and excellent relations with Washington? India, like Pakistan, received America’s displeasure over its support for Russia. If Pakistan came under greater pressure, it was because of the bad timing of Khan’s visit to Moscow and Pakistan’s dependent status. However, it was not the visit alone. America’s tensions with Khan had been simmering ever since the Biden administration took over. It was not so much because of Khan’s “independent” foreign policy, but because of a possible sense of disappointment that his country, whose elite had made it dependent on external assistance and whose business community and army were aware of the benefits of good relations with the United States, was defying reality at the expense of both countries’ interests. Furthermore, due to Khan’s sustained anti-American campaign, the United States came to believe that he was causing long-term damage to the United States’ public image in Pakistan.
It is possible that U.S. diplomats in Islamabad may have told the opposition about their unhappiness with Khan, hoping to weaken his political support. If true, this was the farthest Washington’s “interference” went. And this would be nothing new—Washington has been part of Pakistan’s body politic this way for decades. Diplomats across the world keep in touch with all manner of politicians, including the opposition, and hear their positions on relations between their countries. When advising their governments back home, diplomats give advice on which political parties would be good for their relationship. Did former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan not publically indicate a preference for the BJP in the Indian elections in 2014 and 2019?
In light of all this, it was a critical lapse for the prime minister of a country facing many challenges to use a piece of confidential information—one relating to a verbal diplomatic exchange with the possibility of miscommunication—in a major political move that required the legislative institutions and general public to see the evidence with reasonable, if not absolute, clarity. It plunged the country into constitutional jeopardy and economic uncertainty, with all the attendant political instability.
The bottom line is that if Khan had found a private diplomatic communication to contain an implied threat, it would have called for a strong démarche to Washington. But he was wrong to go public and claim it was proof of a conspiracy to remove him without showing the evidence, which of course could not be shown.
Toquir Hussain, a former Pakistan Ambassador and Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister, is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore