Massive crime if contents of leaked ‘cipher’ true, says PM Shehbaz

Published August 10, 2023
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in an interview with WE News on Thursday. — screengrab
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in an interview with WE News on Thursday. — screengrab

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has said that if the alleged contents of a diplomatic cipher — which ex-premier Imran Khan cited as proof of a conspiracy to remove his government — published in a US-based news organisation were true, it was tantamount to a “massive crime”.

The purported cipher — sent to Islamabad last year by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US — 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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

In an interview with WE News today, PM Shehbaz was asked if The Intercept story proved Imran’s claims regarding the cipher and the foreign conspiracy.

“The answer to your question is that two meetings of the National Security Committee were held on the cipher under my leadership. In one of the meetings, former ambassador and Foreign Secretary Asad Majeed clearly stated that there was no discussion of a conspiracy in his meeting with Donald Lu,” the outgoing premier said.

He said former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and other service chiefs also confirmed that there was no conspiracy against Pakistan, adding that Majeed too had stated that there was no question of a conspiracy at all.

“Imran Niazi said that this conspiracy was hatched because of his growing relations with Russia … but my government purchased cheap oil from Russia.

“If god forbid this government had come from a US conspiracy, then it would have been a moment of shame for us,” PM Shehbaz asserted.

He also recalled that Imran had himself retracted from his narrative and said that the US never hatched any conspiracy. “Will you consider Imran Niazi’s first statement genuine or the other one?” the prime minister asked, adding that the PTI chairman’s statements were poles apart.

“Can a former prime minister spew hatred against the country to this extent?

“In itself, if the contents of the cipher are published (in the international newspaper), and are if true, then it is a massive crime,” he added.

PM Shehbaz reiterated that Imran’s conspiracy allegations were a “bunch of lies” from “head to toe” and there was no reality in them.

He went on to say that the coalition government worked tirelessly to mend US-Pakistan relations, which he said were damaged during the PTI tenure, and establish mutual respect and trust.

In response to a question on Pakistan’s soured relations with other “brotherly countries”, PM Shehbaz said the Imran-led government had made Saudi Arabia upset.

“I can’t go into details, but to demean Saudi Arabia, efforts were made to form a block to isolate Saudi Arabia,” he claimed, adding that it was “shameful” that a country that had helped Pakistan over all these years was treated in such a way.

Later, he expressed similar views on Geo News show ‘Capital Talk’, saying had the US aided his government in coming to power, “we should have received helped from the West on matters with the IMF (International Monetary Fund)”.

When pointed out that other nations had come to Pakistan’s help regarding the IMF deal when the country was at the brink of default but not the US, the premier replied, “But they also did not oppose [the deal].”

PTI demands formation of judicial commission

Meanwhile, the PTI said the cipher story had “irrevocably established the credibility and justness” of the stance Imran Khan had reiterated regarding developments leading to the removal of his government through a no-confidence vote.

“At the meeting of the National Security Committee that Khan convened to discuss the matter, it was concluded that the cypher communication ‘amounted to blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan by the country in question which was unacceptable in any circumstances’.

“‘The NSC also decided to issue a demarche to the country in question, both in Islamabad and the country’s capital through a proper channel in keeping with diplomatic norms’,” the party said in a statement released by its Central Media Department.

The PTI recalled that the subsequent meeting of the NSC — presided by PM Shehbaz — “reaffirmed the decisions of the previous meeting”.

“From denying the cipher’s existence to calling it meaningless to blaming Khan for making it public, the ruling clique took one somersault after the other to mitigate its importance and relevance. It is important that the cipher debate should now be put in its right perspective and acknowledge that intervention in Pakistan’s internal affairs had indeed taken place which led to the moving of a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Imran Khan,” the statement said.

It further demanded that a “high-powered judicial commission” should be constituted to investigate the issue and make its findings public.

The Intercept story

“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, 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 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 Imran’s visit to 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 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 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.

Cablegate

The controversy surrounding the no-confidence motion against Imran last year took a dramatic turn when the embattled former premier brandished a letter at a rally on March 27, 2022 — days before his ouster — claiming it contained evidence of a “foreign conspiracy” hatched to topple his government.

Imran had kept mum about the contents of the letter when he first unveiled it but he spilled the beans days later by naming the United States when the exit of his government appeared imminent.

However, in November 2022, he had taken back his statement about US involvement and said he no longer “blamed” the US administration for his removal from power.

Imran’s allegation that the US spearheaded his exit from power was based on a cipher received from Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Asad Majeed, in which the envoy had reported about a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs Donald Lu.

Majeed had reportedly said that Donald Lu warned that Imran’s continuation in office, who was set to face a vote of no confidence, would have repercussions on bilateral relations.

The US was said to be annoyed with Imran over his “independent foreign policy” and visit to Moscow.

The Pentagon and the State Department have repeatedly rejected the accusations, saying there was no veracity to them.

The National Security Committee (NSC), which includes all services chiefs as well as the head of Pakistan’s top intelligence agency, took up the matter on March 31 with then-premier Imran in the chair. The forum decided to issue a “strong demarche” to a country that it did not name over what it termed as “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan”.

It had also termed the interference “unacceptable under any circumstances” and said the language used in the communique was undiplomatic.

While the forum had stopped short of calling the interference a conspiracy at the time, another meeting of the NSC was held on April 22 with newly elected premier Shehbaz Sharif in the chair, and which included the same military chiefs who attended the March 31 session.

During its second meeting, the NSC statement said it “reaffirmed the decisions of the last NSC meeting” and explicitly went on to add that it found no evidence of a foreign conspiracy.

Earlier this year, an alleged confession of Azam Khan, Imran’s former principal secretary, surfaced on social media wherein it was claimed that the narrative behind the cipher was fabricated.

The alleged confession said when Imran saw the cipher, he was “euphoric”, termed the language used in it a “blunder” of the US and said it could be “manipulated for creating a narrative against the establishment and opposition” and used to divert the public’s attention from the no-confidence motion he was facing as the prime minister at the time.

According to the statement, Azam had handed over the cipher to Imran who later told him that he had misplaced it and did not return it despite repeated requests.

Imran responded by questioning the veracity of the cipher, saying he would not believe it was from Azam Khan until he has heard him say it himself.

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