• ‘All will be forgiven’ if no-confidence vote against ex-PM succeeds, Pakistan envoy quoted US official as saying in purported cipher
• FO refuses to comment on leak
• Timing of document’s leak raises eyebrows, minister offers tacit confirmation of contents published by US outlet
• US refutes allegations of interfering in selection of Pakistan’s leadership

WASHINGTON: In a startling revelation, a US-based news organisation has published what it claims is the text of a diplomatic cipher, sent to Islamabad last year by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and which former prime minister Imran Khan cited as proof of a US conspiracy to remove his government last year.

The purported cipher contained an account of a meeting between US State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Pakistani envoy Asad Majeed Khan, and was reproduced on Wednesday by The Intercept.

Dawn was unable to independently verify whether the contents of the cable reported by the US-based publication were indeed authentic.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch told Dawn the department “does not comment on alleged leaks”. Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb and Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal did not respond to requests for comment.

But the US State Department — while refraining from commenting on the veracity of the published cable — said its contents did not show the US taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan should be.

As per the purported contents of the cable, the US objected to Imran Khan’s foreign policy regarding the Ukraine war.

“Don[ald Lu] 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’,” said the excerpt published by The Intercept.

In response, Asad Majeed Khan said that this was not a correct reading of the situation as Pakistan’s position on Ukraine was a result of intense interagency consultations.

“I asked Don[ald Lu] if the reason for a strong US reaction was Pakistan’s abstention in the voting in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly]. He categorically replied in the negative and said that it was due to the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow,” The Intercept quoted from the purported cable.

According to the text, Mr Lu then said “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.”

These words were ostensibly the threat that the former PM alluded to when he claimed there was a US conspiracy to overthrow his government.

“Obviously there is no conspiracy, but for a US official to use these words is unacceptable,” a senior diplomat commented, referring to Mr Lu’s remark that “all will be forgiven” if the vote of no confidence succeeds.

The purported text of the cable details how Asad Majeed Khan tried to dispel the impression that Mr Khan’s visit to the Russia was anything but a bilateral one that shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of Moscow’s action against Ukraine. The ambassador also conveyed how there was also a “feeling that while the US expected Pakistan’s support on all issues that were important to the US, it did not reciprocate and we do not see much US support on issues of concern for Pakistan, particularly on Kashmir.

Asad Majeed Khan also asked the US diplomat that if Pakistan’s position on Ukraine was so important to Washington, why it had not engaged with Islamabad prior to the Russia visit by then-PM Imran Khan.

At this, Donald Lu 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.”

Subsequently, in his own assessment at the tail-end of the purported text of the cable, Asad Majeed Khan noted that Mr Lu could not have conveyed such a strong sentiment “without the express approval of the White House, to which he referred repeatedly.”

In the envoy’s own assessment, it was clear that Mr Lu “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 US charge d’affaires in Islamabad.

Timing and source

Although The Intercept has claimed in its report that they were provided with the document by an anonymous source in the Pakistani military “who said that they had no ties to Imran Khan or [Mr] Khan’s party,” many believe that the source of the leak could be the PTI itself.

The timing of the purported cable’s publication seems quite significant, as it comes in the wake of the imprisonment of Imran Khan over charges of graft in the Toshakhana case.

As per protocol, only a handful of key officials had access to the confidential document. These included the foreign minister, the prime minister and the army chief. After the document’s existence was first revealed by Mr Khan in a public meeting in Islamabad, a meeting of the National Security Committee was held in which the cipher’s contents were shared with the participants.

In addition, that is the question of a copy of the cipher which was provided to the prime minister. According to his former principal secretary Azam Khan, Mr Khan reportedly ‘misplaced’ his copy of the cipher, something the former PM also admitted. However, Mr Khan has claimed in subsequent interviews that there was no question of such a sensitive document being misplaced, and that the cipher was safe and sound at the Foreign Office.

‘Sinister, seditious act’

Meanwhile, in an indirect admission of the contents of the purported cipher published by The Intercept, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said, “Though there is nothing new in this story, the investigation needs to [be] held to establish the authenticity of the information or source document. Potentially, it is a very sinister, treacherous, and seditious act.”

In a tweet, the minister said that it should not be forgotten that Mr Khan had a copy of the cipher, which “he has not returned and has accepted (on record) that he misplaced or lost it. If proven guilty, Khan should be tried under the Official Secret Act”.

US State Department response

At a briefing on Wednesday, spokesperson Matthew Miller confirmed that Washington did “express concern privately to the government of Pakistan” and then did the same “publicly [when] then PM Khan [went] to Moscow on the very day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

While he refused to comment on the veracity of the document reproduced by The Intercept, Mr Miller said that these comments “in no way show the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan ought to be… I think what they show is the US government expressing concern about the policies choices the PM was taking.”

“The allegations that the United States has interfered in internal decisions about the leadership of Pakistan are false, as we have stated they were false. They were always false and they remain false,” Mr Miller said at the State Department briefing.

When it was pointed out that the US had a history of ousting leaders in other countries and how the remarks may be construed as such, Mr Miller said: “I would say how those comments, number one, could be taken out of context and, number two, how people might desire for them to be taken out of context. They might try to use them to advance an agenda that is not represented by the countries themselves.”

He added: “I think a number of people have taken them out of context to use them in political process.”

US concern over current events

Before the publication of The Intercept story, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said at a briefing on Wednesday that the United States is watching “with concern” events in Pakistan.

Reuters reported that Mr Kirby made these remarks after being asked about the situation in Pakistan, where former PM Imran Khan was recently imprisoned and there has been a spike in militant attacks.

“We’re obviously concerned about any actions, particularly violent actions, that can contribute to instability in Pakistan or frankly any other country with whom we share a set of common interests when it comes to counterterrorism, so we’re watching it with concern,” he said.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2023

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