THE military has said unequivocally there was no conspiracy by the United States to bring about a regime change in Pakistan. The statement by the DG ISPR Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar has undercut the very foundation of the narrative that former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been peddling since the last few weeks to explain his ouster from power.
So what happens now?
The diplomatic cable issue has been officially demystified. It was a routine cable written by the then ambassador to the US Asad Majeed detailing a meeting with an American official. There was nothing extraordinary about it except perhaps for the tough language used by the official. The normal response for Pakistan was to issue a démarche, which it did. Yet someone convinced Imran Khan the cable could be used (and abused) to stitch together a Bhutto-esque nationalist narrative to explain the government’s imminent ouster. It was as bad an advice as Khan could get. What was worse was the fact that he accepted it.
Who gave Khan this advice? We do not know this for certain, yet. What we do know is: (a) The only person in the PTI cabinet who had access to the cable was the foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (b) Whoever among Khan’s closest advisers peddled this dangerous and false narrative had to have done this after reading the cable. He or she could not have read the cable — would not have had access to it — unless the foreign minister permitted this access (c) The FM, in turn, would have had to be convinced of the conspiracy aspect in order to agree for the cable to be used for a political narrative. But could he, really? Qureshi is far too experienced in these matters to not figure out there was nothing extraordinary about the cable (d) Yet, Qureshi not only went along with this cooked-up theory, he peddled it vociferously while all the time knowing (how could he not?) that not only was he fanning a concoction, but was doing so at the risk of great damage to Pakistan’s diplomacy and national interest (e) Why would he do such a thing? Why did he not counter this outrageous advice to Khan? Why did he not stop Khan from pursuing this untruth?
Imran Khan and his party are now stumped. The entire edifice of the conspiracy narrative — which led them to commit the grave sin of even violating the Constitution — has been demolished by the presentation of facts by the military spokesman. This has consequences: (a) The military was forced to come clean because of the dangerous level to which Khan and his party were inflaming the political environment through this concoction, and encouraging (if not actively promoting) a campaign on social media against the military leadership (b) Khan may now have to-rethink the conspiracy concoction and go back to the drawing board to conjure up something afresh that does not force to him to go head-on with the military. This would mean swallowing his pride (c) Or he could just double down on the conspiracy concoction regardless of the consequences (d) This would mean he will have to now basically say that the military is wrong, and he is right. He has no middle options. This would amount to taking a huge gamble because the government can very easily now prove — through a judicial commission or otherwise — the cable contains no conspiracy (e) Khan’s gamble would also entail choosing a collision course with the military because he will now have to proclaim that the military is not telling the truth.
Has Khan painted himself into a corner? He may not have any other option but to keep barrelling ahead with this dangerous and faulty narrative regardless of the facts. He has made his entire politics hostage to this one concoction and left himself very little space to pivot onto some other strategy. (a) This would bring into question something very crucial: what do you do with a populist leader who refuses to accept facts as presented by the state itself, and who prefers to build his politics on an illusion that is deeply damaging to the country and its vital interests? (b) In response, the state will then be forced to counter the PTI conspiracy concoction narrative with all the resources at its disposal in order to bury the falsehood under the weight of overwhelming facts (c) This would be disadvantageous to PTI’s politics as it would mean the party — in order to defend itself — will be forced to push the falsehood even more aggressively, thereby digging itself further into a hole. At some point, the diminishing returns from such a strategy will start to extract a cost. If you have the entire weight of the government, and state, and facts, arrayed against you and the only weapon you have is a false, concocted and discredited theory, you better be ready for the cost.
The new government could not have asked for a better gift from the PTI. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has many options: (a) Order an inquiry or constitute a commission and take all steps necessary to unveil the truth about the cable and further discredit the conspiracy concoction (b) Order various irregularities done in the PTI government to be brought into the public domain (the Toshakhana scandal is already out) and bring charges wherever needed. This would severely damage the PTI’s ‘honesty and anti-corruption’ narrative and force the party on the defensive (c) Re-align the relationship with the establishment while Khan continues to damage his ties with them.
Illusions and delusions, if not punctured in time, lead to great debacles.
The writer is a journalist & political commentator.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2022