Cipher saga

Published August 12, 2023

THE enigmatic cipher is back in the spotlight. The purported text of the internal diplomatic cable sent by our then ambassador to the US, Asad Majeed Khan, after a meeting with State Department official Donald Lu last year has recently been published by the American outlet The Intercept, reigniting debate around the cipher’s contents.

While the text of the cable — the veracity of which has not been denied either by the US or Pakistani authorities — does not strengthen the PTI’s narrative that a grand conspiracy was hatched to dislodge it from power, it does speak of the massive power imbalance between Washington and Islamabad, with the former using a tone more suited to an imperial overlord threatening his vassals.

Mr Lu was apparently unhappy over the PTI administration’s “aggressively neutral position” on the Ukraine conflict, while telling Mr Majeed that if a no-confidence vote against Imran Khan succeeded, “all will be forgiven”, or else things “will be tough going ahead”.

One diplomatic exchange does not constitute a regime change conspiracy, and the PTI itself has changed positions on the issue numerous times. It is also true that as prime minister, Imran Khan milked the affair to boost his domestic standing.

Yet there is much in this reported document that reflects American arrogance and unwarranted meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs. The most problematic aspect of the cipher is the tone the American official reportedly adopted while addressing the ambassador of a sovereign state.

While Mr Majeed did attempt to question the American perspective, and at one point the diplomat pointed out that US support for issues close to Pakistan, such as Kashmir, was insufficient, a much stronger protest should have been lodged to indicate that this country did not appreciate such sermons on its internal affairs.

Unfortunately, American meddling in Pakistan’s internal matters is nothing new, and commenced soon after independence, with this country hopping onto the West’s Cold War bandwagon.

From thereon, Washington has exercised an oversized influence in Islamabad, offering ‘advice’ to both dictators and democrats.

From putting in their two cents about suitable candidates for Pakistan’s top offices, to working with military strongmen such as Zia and Musharraf to achieve their geostrategic aims in Afghanistan, the Americans have for long weighed in on decisions that should have solely been the prerogative of Pakistan’s people.

Yet, the fact is that we have ourselves bargained away our sovereignty due to our political instability, lack of democratic continuity, and financial profligacy.

When we frequently petition Western capitals for bailouts, we can expect more of the same condescending tone purportedly found in the cable.

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons to be drawn from the cipher drama is that to command respect globally, we must put our own affairs in order.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2023

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