Captain vs. America: Pakistan’s Khan drags US into regime change
Pakistan’s flamboyant cricketer-turned-Prime Minister Imran Khan is known to his supporters as ‘Kaptaan’ (Captain) for his anti-odds style of leadership. On Sunday, he pulled the needle out of the only political grenade he had left in his populist arsenal, dissolving parliament and urging snap elections to avoid being ousted in a no-confidence vote he would lose.
Khan used a cricket term to explain his defense of the political challenge he faces and had vowed last week to defend his government to the “last ball” against so-called foreign conspirators and their local assets. Who was he referring to? Right-wing Pakistan’s main enemy: the United States.
Pakistan’s leader claims Washington is pushing for regime change in Islamabad. “The move to oust me is (a) blatant interference by the United States in domestic politics,” he said. The White House denied the allegation. This latest maneuver – seen as desperate by the opposition – came in response to Khan not having the numbers to keep his job in Parliament, where the opposition had tabled a vote of no confidence in him. Critics had recommended that he make an honorable exit and resign with dignity.
But by drawing a quick one, Khan has denied the opposition (and coalition partners and party dissidents who recently dumped him) the opportunity to have his scalp. In short, he has transported the nuclear-armed nation from a leadership crisis to absolute constitutional emergency.
As the Supreme Court weighs whether its move was legal and Pakistanis prepare to go to the polls within 90 days, alleged US interference has become the focus of national political debate.
“Being pro-American in the Pakistani salon or boardroom is the key to success, but not on the street. There, it is politically advantageous to be anti-American,” said Brig. Muhammad Zeeshan, a retired Pakistani intelligence officer and currently director general of the Center for Peace, Security and Development Studies in Islamabad. “As the elections approach, Imran Khan will take to the streets with this message. But the US and Europe are our biggest markets and we need to keep an eye on the rapprochement with Washington.”
Khan’s anti-American argument is hazy. He says he was punished by Washington for trying to pursue an independent (pro-China, pro-Russia) foreign policy. To back up this argument, he has touted a diplomatic cable from the outgoing Pakistani ambassador to the US that says (based on a meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State for South Asia Donald Lu) that the US is not too happy with Khan’s government.
Also Khan Expectations that dissidents from his party are in increasing contact with the US embassy in Islamabad. Over the weekend, Khan continued to pound the narrative that the US was after him in multiple speeches, interviews and tweets.
“Imran Khan’s claim that the United States engineered his fall is fallacious,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior researcher at the United States Institute of Peace. “The US and Pakistan have several problems, but Imran Khan and his so-called ‘independent foreign policy’ are none of their business. So I don’t see anyone backing the bizarre idea of removing Khan — let alone the way Khan claims he was threatened.”
Khan is now likely to take allegations of US conspiracy to the Supreme Court arguing that rejecting the motion of no confidence and disbanding the meetings is constitutional, says Mir, who believes Khan will lean heavily toward anti-American rhetoric to compensate for the lack of constitutional and legal grounds for his moves.
“Imran Khan is attempting to bring about regime change at home, capitalizing on the conspiracy theory narrative that the US is trying to bring about regime change against his government,” says Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. “On one level I find this statement by the Prime Minister hilarious, but at the same time it is extremely dangerous because tens of millions of people believe it given the poverty of thought in the country.”