Why Imran Khan’s coup theory is so popular in Pakistan
In June 2021, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, promised Pakistan’s senate “that under Prime Minister Imran Khan, there will be no American base on Pakistani soil.” Such a promise was politically popular in Pakistan — a country that faced a significant escalation in terrorism over the course of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Less than a year later, Imran Khan was no longer prime minister. With only two votes to spare, Khan was removed from office through a no-confidence vote in April. Given some of this context, it’s easy to understand why Khan’s party saw political value in labeling this a silent U.S. coup, and why a large segment of Pakistan’s population believes that to be true. But this time, as Stephen Kinzer, who has written extensively on the CIA and on U.S. coups, put it to me, there is no smoking gun.
But there’s lots of smoke, and that is enough for Khan’s supporters to conjure the illusion of a coup. As The New York Times said, Khan “oversaw a new era of Pakistan’s foreign policy that distanced the country from the United States.”
“Seeking more independence from the West, (Khan) disengaged from the so-called war on terrorism,” the NYT writers Christina Goldbaum and Salman Masood charged in April. Though the U.S. launched hundreds of drone strikes and operations from Pakistan during the war in Afghanistan, Khan swore that he would “absolutely not” allow the CIA or U.S. special forces to use Pakistan as a base ever again. “There is no way we are going to allow any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan. Absolutely not,” he said. It is unclear whether the United States ever sought such an arrangement in the first place, but it also cannot be written off as inconceivable.
As the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, the problem of getting quality intelligence and counterterrorism emerged. Pakistan was key not only to that problem, but to the problem of the peace process. “The U.S. now plays only a minor role,” then-President Ashraf Ghani said a year ago in 2021, “the question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands.” And Pakistani hands didn’t seem to be shaking hands with American hands on Afghanistan. Back in September, Secretary of State Blinken told Congress that Pakistan has a “multiplicity of interests, some that are in conflict with ours,” and recalled Pakistan’s “harboring members of the Taliban” in the past.
Perhaps most importantly, Pakistan is a close friend of China and has moved closer to Russia. It is a member of the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which attempts to balance U.S. hegemony and create a multipolar world.
Khan refused to line up with the U.S. against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. It is noteworthy that India, too, has failed to cave to Washington’s demands. On the day the invasion was launched, Khan was in Moscow, meeting with Putin. He defied Washington by refusing to cancel the meeting. Khan also refused to join U.S. sanctions on Russia, abstained from the General Assembly votes condemning the invasion and suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. When 22 diplomatic missions pressured Khan to condemn Russia, he struck back, asking, “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves…that whatever you say, we will do?”
The Times reports that Khan had “lost the support of the country’s powerful military.” The military “eased its grip on the opposition parties,” which potentially emboldened those parties to pursue the no-confidence vote, according to the paper. Adam Weinstein, a Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute and a specialist on Pakistan, says that the “[o]opposition parties saw worsening relations between Imran Khan and the military as an opportunity to strike.”
Khan insists that the opposition removing him from office was part of an American-backed coup. He says the U.S. consul met with members of his party shortly before they defected. He also claims that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu communicated a warning through official channels that the Biden administration would impose dire consequences if the non-confidence vote didn’t pass.
Despite the smoke, though, Weinstein told me that he “doesn’t think there’s any evidence to support the claim of a U.S.-backed attempt for regime change, adding, “I’ve also seen no evidence — not even circumstantial — that it was orchestrated by Washington.”
But it is convenient that the new replacement government may be more amenable to Washington. “There may be some in Washington who find the new government easier to work with than Imran Khan’s,” said Weinstein.
We all know that the U.S. has an extensive history of supporting coups. Some in Pakistan believe that this legacy extends back to the 1977 overthrow of the Bhutto government by General Zia-ul-Haq, a strongman with whom, according to CIA expert John Prados, CIA director William Casey was impressed. The U.S. supported and worked with Zia.
The Pakistan coup theory has also been fed by Washington’s own willingness to help opposition parties against governments that are uncooperative in joining the bloc against Russia. Belarus’ Svetlana Tikhanovskaya recently met with Blinken in Washington where she says she “was assured of full support for the Belarusian democratic movement.” She says they “also spoke about providing Belarusian journalists and activists with equipment and technology.” The State Department “emphasized the United States’ enduring support for the Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations.”
Behind the smoke, there is no evidence of a smoking gun. There is no evidence that the events in Pakistan are a U.S.-supported coup as Khan and his supporters have alleged. But the change in government is convenient for the U.S. nonetheless, and its history of coups makes the suspicion appear plausible in vast areas of the world that are justifiably suspicious of American intervention.
Khan may or may not be removed for good. Weinstein says that Khan’s supporters feel “sidelined by the change in government.” He told me that “Imran Khan’s base vehemently supports him and their numbers are big enough that they cannot be ignored in future elections.” If he can continue to feed their suspicions, that will inevitably be true.