Explainer: Unpacking Conspiracy Theories Around the Ouster of Pakistani Prime Minister Khan

In a dramatic midnight move on April 9, Pakistan’s National Assembly voted to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan in a no-confidence resolution. Minutes before voting, the Speaker of the House, a member of the ruling party and a known friend of Khan, resigned from office after waving a quasi-confidential letter at the legislators. This letter allegedly contained a “threat” from a US diplomat, warning that the US would “punish” Pakistan if Khan remained in office. Khan also accused the US Embassy in Islamabad of hosting the defectors from the ruling party to support the no-confidence motion.

A closer look at the facts shows that even if Khan wasn’t in US President Joe Biden’s good graces, his ouster owes not to external meddling, but to the prime minister’s failure to run an efficient government, and to the fact that rather than helping to solve Pakistan’s grave economic problems, Khan’s government actually made them worse. In this explainer, I explore the removal of Khan in all its complexity, thereby dispelling some of the more popular conspiracy theories proliferating at the moment.

The Domestic Case against Khan

Khan came to power in the 2018 general elections. While he was the candidate with the most seats, he did not have a clear majority in the National Assembly. The major opposition parties asserted that Pakistan’s military had engineered the elections for Khan. The chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Bilawal Bhutto, invented the term “selected Prime Minister” to undermine Khan’s electoral legitimacy. Despite carrying the stain of election fraud, Khan, a cricket celebrity and fundraiser, is a charismatic leader.

For years, Khan has maintained that the major opposition parties are family fiefdoms organized to loot national resources. He further contended that the prominent members of opposition parties have stashed billions of dollars in foreign accounts and own expensive properties in the United Kingdom and other countries. Khan’s campaign slogans appealed to millions of voters, including numerous retired military generals who supported Khan on talk shows, a favorite form of entertainment for the political establishment.

The case against Khan started to build when his government, consisting of passionate but ineffectual ministers, failed to fix the economy. Khan knew little about statecraft except for lofty rhetoric and naïve economic concepts. Resting on the shoulders of a failing economy, the opposition parties latched on to James Carville’s phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Under Khan, the exchange rate halved the value of the Pakistan rupee in international markets. The prices of flour, sugar, lentils, fuel, and medicines skyrocketed. The government went from door to door among friendly nations to borrow just a billion dollars. The people began to turn against a leader who promised too much but delivered too little.

Khan’s downfall escalated when he started to play favorites with the military generals. The military high command does not accept any civilian interference in the military promotions and appointments. Khan resisted the transfer when the military decided to move the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) chief. The army that helped Khan win the 2018 elections began to have second thoughts about Khan and publically declared its neutrality in the contest between Khan and the opposition. As a compulsive rhetorician, Khan fired back in public gatherings, saying only animals are neutral, but humans have a sense of right and wrong.

Betting too much on his magnetic appeal to the people, Khan alienated influential powerbrokers in his party. For example, Khan lost Jehangir Tareen, a wealthy donor who had supported Khan in winning the 2018 elections, by wooing influential political families. Khan filed cases against Tareen and his family, causing many party legislators in the National Assembly to defect from the ruling party and join the opposition.

Khan’s removal from government became inevitable when he started to break the Constitution in blatant attempts to defeat the no-confidence resolution. Khan ordered the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker of the N.A. to veto the no-confidence resolution because nearly two hundred (200) legislators in the National Assembly voting for the resolution were disloyal to Pakistan under Article 5 of the Constitution and had conspired with the US to overthrow him. Subsequently, Khan dissolved the National Assembly and ordered new general elections within ninety days. This series of unconstitutional acts plunged the nation into a crisis and chaos, forcing the Supreme Court to take a suo moto action.

A Supreme Court bench of five Justices reversed the Speaker’s ruling, restored the National Assembly, and ordered the no-confidence motion to proceed under the Constitution in a unanimous opinion. The opposition had already gathered the required number of votes to pass the no-confidence resolution by winning over the parties allied to Khan without using a single defector from the ruling party. However, Khan’s narrative that the US conspired with the opposition leaders to overthrow his government refuses to go away among his supporters and voters.

The US Case against Khan

Since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, the US has supported Pakistan with substantial economic assistance and military equiPrime Ministerent and continues to do so, though less significantly. In return, Pakistan has been a US war ally and fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan joined the US war on global terrorism, suffering economic losses worth billions of dollars and paying a massive loss-of-life price in US drone attacks and retaliatory terrorism by the Pakistan Taliban. Various Pakistani civilian and military governments resented what the US was doing. Still, they were not open or bold enough to publicly take on the US policy of attacking the Pakistan “tribal areas” indigenous population located next to Afghanistan.

Khan has been a fierce critic of the US war on terror, specifically drone strikes, graphically highlighting the maiming of innocent children who lost their body limbs in collateral damage. Despite this criticism, then-US President Donald Trump invited Khan to the White House on an official visit. Khan supported Trump’s decision to open talks with the Taliban, resulting in a negotiated Doha agreement, a precursor to the Taliban’s government after the US left Afghanistan.

Khan supported Trump in his reelection in 2020. Allegedly, the Pakistan embassy in Washington D.C. under the Khan administration allowed a Pakistan-American business person to open a Trump campaign office in the embassy, a move that annoyed Biden. If true, Khan interfered in the general elections, an act prohibited under US laws. After winning the election, President Biden telephoned scores of world leaders, but not Khan, a phone call that Khan said he was not waiting to receive. Concerning the August 2021 US troops’ departure from Afghanistan, Secretary of State Blinken visited Afghanistan and India but not Pakistan, further slighting Khan.

In February 2022, Khan’s visit to Moscow on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Pakistan’s subsequent abstention from a General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine did not sit well with the US and the European Union. Representatives of 22 Western countries stationed in Islamabad wrote a letter to Khan asking him to condemn the Russian attack. In response, Khan, addressing a political rally, said, “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves . . . that whatever you say, we will do?” Khan’s s supporters endorsed his bombastic rhetoric.

In Pakistan, cult triumphs over common sense. Khan, an Oxford graduate, praises Western democracies and claims superior knowledge of the Western culture–a point he repeatedly makes in political rallies. However, he confuses the public with obtuse arguments, blowing hot and cold. This confusion deepens when Khan admires China for its one-party political model holding it superior to Western democracy. On a visit to China, Khan wished he had the China-like power to smash his corrupt rivals.

The “threat letter” that Khan offered as a source of conspiracy to throw him out of power is a cipher, a diplomatic document, that the Pakistan ambassador sent to Islamabad on March 7 after a meeting with Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. In the “threat letter,” Khan claimed that Lu told the Pakistan ambassador that the US supports the no-confidence resolution against Khan and that Pakistan would face a challenging relationship with the US if the resolution failed; however, Pakistan would be “forgiven” if the no-confidence motion succeeds in ousting Khan. The “threat letter” seems threatening because Khan made it public to gain political advantage.

While visiting India, Lu, a seasoned diplomat who speaks Urdu and has served as a political officer in Peshawar, was asked if he talked to the Pakistan ambassador and threatened to punish Pakistan if Khan survived the no-confidence motion. Lu evaded the question and said that the U. S. supports the constitutional process and the rule of law in Pakistan. Prime Minister supporters interpreted Lu’s evasion as an admission of the threat. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the US interference in the internal matters of Pakistan.

Diplomatic customs and practices do not require ambassadors and other state officials engaged in foreign policy to offer explanations of the statements attributed to them. Furthermore, state officials convey the negative views of their governments to the ambassadors of foreign governments with the knowledge and the intention that the ambassadors would pass on these negative views to the leaders back home.

Still, if accurate, Lu’s comments about seeking the removal of Khan fall outside the bounds of diplomacy. Pakistan issued a demarche to protest Lu’s statements, a standard diplomatic practice. (Previously, Pakistan had sent demarches to India and Afghanistan for various reasons.) The US State Department said there was “absolutely no truth to these allegations.”

There is little doubt that the Biden administration was unhappy with Khan for supporting Trump in the US election and later Putin in the Ukraine attack. Foreign policy, by definition, contains criticisms of other nations’ international and domestic behaviors. Every country likes certain foreign leaders and dislikes others and wishes they would lose power. Khan had routinely criticized India’s Prime Minister for his Kashmir policies and discriminatory treatment of Indian Muslims, sometimes in highly provocative language.

The US desire that Khan loses power does not amount to interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan. The US is under no domestic or international legal obligation to welcome a hostile head of the government, such as Khan, no matter how popular the leader is in their country. The Pakistan foreign ministry understands this point, but not the Khan supporters and his party members.

US ‘Conspiracy’ to Oust Khan

Foreign policy criticisms of a government do not automatically shape-shift into conspiracies to overthrow a foreign government. Khan argued that the “threat letter” was sufficient proof that the US conspired with the opposition to launch a no-confidence motion because of the temporal proximity of the threat letter and the no-confidence resolution. Jumping from foreign criticism to foreign conspiracy is a significant step for which Khan could not make a persuasive case except for his staunch supporters. The ISI and the Pakistan military refused to endorse Khan’s assertion of US conspiracy. The US rejected the threat allegations as baseless.

The nine opposition parties voting for the no-confidence motion had sufficient legislators’ votes to constitute a majority of the total membership of the National Assembly. They did not need the votes of defectors from the ruling party. Thus, the argument that the US embassy officials met with the defectors to oust Khan, though questionable, turns inconsequential. Before receiving the “threat letter,” Khan had accused the defectors of taking vast sums of monies from the opposition to switch their loyalty. One way or the other, Khan was outsourcing the blame for the defectors’ disenchantment with him.

Unfortunately, the US holds a questionable reputation in the international community for destabilizing foreign governments, a policy that once contained the assassination of foreign leaders. Typically, the Central Intelligence Agency and not the State Department engages in regime changes and military coups. However, in Khan’s case, there are no facts in the public sector to show that the US conspired with the opposition leaders to launch the no-confidence resolution. Undeniably, the US and the opposition leaders preferred that Khan is ousted through a no-confidence resolution, a constitutional procedure. This meeting of the minds appears to be fortuitous rather than conspiratorial.

It seems incredible that nearly 200 legislators (including defectors) elected by the people in the 2018 general elections, accumulatively receiving 70% of the total votes, conspired with the US embassy in Pakistan to oust Khan. These legislators belong to nine well-established political parties, some nationalist, some leftist, some known for their anti-American rhetoric. Sadly, Khan’s accusation that the opposition leaders are traitors and the US lackeys sells well with his supporters and party members, including Khan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who arguably should know better. On April 11, the National Assembly elected Shahbaz Sharif, whom Khan called a thief and a traitor, to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He has written numerous scholarly articles and commentaries on constitutional law. In addition, he has regularly contributed to JURIST since 2001. He welcomes comments at legal.scholar.academy@gmail.com