President Joe Biden has framed his support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion as part of his “worldwide commitment” to defending countries’ rights to sovereignty. But a report from The Intercept suggests that the Biden administration was willing to meddle in Pakistan's democratic process in its efforts to rally a global coalition to isolate Russia.
The Intercept published a diplomatic cable it said it obtained from an anonymous source in Pakistan’s military documenting a U.S. State Department official encouraging the Pakistani government to oust the country’s then-prime minister Imran Khan from power using a no-confidence vote. (NBC News has not independently corroborated the authenticity of the cable.) A month later, Pakistan’s parliament removed Khan from power in a no-confidence vote, in a move that experts say was partially enabled by the powerful Pakistani military’s rift with Khan.
The U.S. was angling to interfere with the democratic process in Pakistan in order to extract a specific geopolitical goal that serves its own interests.
Regardless of whether the U.S. ended up having an impact on that vote, which opposition parties had been discussing in months prior, the contents of the cable are alarming. They suggest that the U.S. was angling to interfere with the democratic process in Pakistan in order to extract a specific geopolitical goal that serves its own interests. The intention alone crosses the line of respecting the autonomy of democracies. And it underscores the inconsistency of the U.S. when it comes to respect for countries’ sovereignty, and how rhetoric about freedom and democracy only seem to matter when the U.S. believes it has something to gain from a situation.
Reportedly, the cable provided to The Intercept describes the details of a meeting between U.S. State Department officials and Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. on March 7, 2022. According to the cable, in the meeting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu told then-Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan the U.S. was unhappy Pakistan was taking a neutral position on Ukraine and upset that Imran Khan had visited Russia the day it invaded Ukraine. Lu then repeatedly implied that Washington favored Imran Khan’s ouster from power, according to the cable: “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.” In the months prior to that meeting, Pakistani opposition parties were reportedly building a coalition for a no-confidence motion against the prime minister.
Later on in the cable, the Pakistani ambassador expresses hope that Imran Khan’s visit hadn’t negatively affected the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, and Lu responded that it had: “I would argue that it has already created a dent in the relationship from our perspective. Let us wait for a few days to see whether the political situation changes, which would mean that we would not have a big disagreement about this issue and the dent would go away very quickly. Otherwise, we will have to confront this issue head on and decide how to manage it.” At the end of the cable, the ambassador concludes in his final assessment that Lu had spoken “out of turn on Pakistan’s internal political process.”
In a statement to The Intercept, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “Nothing in these purported comments shows the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan should be” and declined to comment on diplomatic discussions. In the past, the U.S. has denied claims by Imran Khan that a cable existed showing that the U.S. encouraged a no-confidence vote.
The cable does not provide any examples of the U.S. waving specific carrots or sticks to induce Pakistan to do what the U.S. says. But it didn’t have to. The U.S. has tremendous power when negotiating with any country, but it has a particularly influential hand with a country like Pakistan, a strategically situated developing country and rentier state that relies on great powers for huge amounts of economic aid and security assistance. Maintaining a favorable relationship with the U.S. is also vital to Pakistan’s national security interests, because it sees closeness to Washington as a bulwark against its rival India, and because the U.S. has enormous influence over its neighbor Afghanistan’s stability.
It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze if and how the U.S. made an impact on the no-confidence vote. It is both plausible that the no-confidence vote would have transpired successfully without any U.S. backing, and it’s also plausible that the U.S.’s signaling could’ve played a decisive role in mobilizing Khan’s opposition.
But for now what’s worth scrutinizing is the manner in which the U.S.’s interests were allegedly communicated to Pakistan’s ambassador. They provide a window into understanding the domineering way that America projects its power in the global arena. It is no surprise that the U.S. would express displeasure to Pakistan over its position on Russia, and that it would try to persuade the country to join its alliance. What goes beyond the pale is trying to foment chaos in a country's internal affairs in order to achieve that end. Even if we were to read Lu’s statements in the most constrained way possible, he is informing a government official that it would be desirable for the head of a country to be ousted in order to satisfy the U.S.’s policy goals. Given that the U.S. knows how much power it has, and Khan’s beleaguered status as he was losing the backing of the military, it was a meaningful signal. And that signal did not encourage democracy, but undercut it.
In the West, there was a great deal of unity in forming a coalition to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically after it invaded Ukraine. But the Global South is a different story entirely. Many countries outside the West saw the U.S.’s position on Ukraine as hypocritical given its long foreign policy record of meddling with and invading other countries. And many developing countries have long-standing economic and diplomatic ties to Russia that they were unwilling to forfeit for a war that they didn’t see as affecting their own geopolitical interests.
If the U.S. wanted to try to bring these countries on board by discussing shared interests, that’s fair. But doing that by trying to tamper with the internal democratic process of a country is imperious.