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Pakistan’s Lettergate: A political ploy or a real threat?

At the heart of Pakistan’s current political crisis is a letter that Prime Minister Imran Khan has described as evidence that the country’s opposition has colluded with a foreign power to overthrow his government. 

On Sunday, Khan asked President Arif Alvi to dissolve assemblies and call fresh elections, plunging the nuclear-armed nation into a state of uncertainty. 

He was supposed to face a no-confidence motion that day, as an alliance of opposition parties claimed to have gained enough support to prove that the majority of lawmakers in the 342-member National Assembly were on their side and against Khan. 

But Qasim Suri, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly and a member of Khan’s party, did not allow the vote to go through, saying it was being pushed at the behest of a foreign power. 

Khan disclosed the existence of the “threatening” letter at a massive rally of his supporters on March 27 in Islamabad. 

The entire contents of the letter haven’t been made public. It contains a message purportedly received by Asad Majeed, a Pakistani diplomat in Washington, from Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Majeed relayed the diplomatic cable to Islamabad. 

Lu had warned Majeed of implications for Pakistan if Khan survived the no-confidence vote, the prime minister alleged in a televised address. 

Prime Minister Khan has also been questioned on why some dissident lawmakers of his party visited the US embassy days before the controversial vote was to take place. 

Experts say Khan’s government should have handled the matter diplomatically, instead of dragging Washington into Pakistan’s internal politics. 

“What’s wrong with this entire saga is that the prime minister has used a diplomatic cable for his own survival. This has nothing to do with protecting the interests of the state,” says Shaista Tabassum, the former head of the University of Karachi’s international relations department. 

Khan waited more than two weeks before sharing concern over what the American diplomat might have said. “Why did he wait so long? The government could have responded immediately through official channels and raised a ruckus about how the US is interfering in Pakistani politics,” she says. 

Washington has rejected Khan’s claim, with US State Department spokesperson Ned Price saying there’s “no truth” in the allegation that US President Joe Biden’s administration had tried to destabilise Khan’s government.

Lu, the diplomat at the centre of the controversy, has avoided commenting on the issue. 

“We are following developments in Pakistan, and we respect and support Pakistan’s constitutional process and the rule of law,” he said in brief remarks when asked to comment during his visit to India this week.

Khalid Rahman, the head of the Islamabad-based think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), also wonders why Khan didn’t take up the issue with the US through diplomatic channels. 

“He instead turned it into a political issue.”

Could it affect the Pakistan-US ties? 

Pakistan’s powerful military, which has massive influence over the country’s foreign policy, has reportedly tried to contain the fallout. 

“We share a long history of excellent and strategic relationships with the United States, which remains our largest export market,” army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa told a security conference.

The US lists Pakistan among 17 Major Non-Nato Ally nations that get access to American military tech and hardware. 

But the gulf between Washington and Islamabad has widened in recent years as the US shifts focus towards India to counter China’s global ambitions, says Tabassum. 

Prime Minister Khan met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the same day that Russian troops crossed over into Ukraine. He also rebuked European envoys for asking Islamabad to condemn Moscow, saying: “Are we your slaves?” 

Pakistan was among the countries which abstained from voting against Russia at the UN. 

IPS’s Rahman says Pakistan-US ties had already hit rock bottom, and the latest letter controversy would have only a marginal impact on their future. 

“For a long time, their relationship has been transactional. Washington has openly said that it doesn’t view Islamabad like it used to.”

Pakistan helped bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, which allowed US forces to exit an indecisive and costly two-decade-long war. 

At the same time, Pakistani officials complain that the US has blocked military sales, such as the T-129 attack helicopters, which run on British-American-made engines. 

Tabassum says the letter controversy might not have an immediate bearing on the relations, but the “Americans won’t digest this easily.” 

“What Prime Minister Khan has done will have repercussions… there will be an economic and political reaction from the US.” 

For its part, the opposition alliance, which includes the party of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, says Khan used the letter to avoid the vote of no-confidence. 

But there’s no denying that Washington has used the office of assistant secretary of state to meddle in Pakistani politics before. 

Richard Boucher, the former assistant secretary for state for South and Central Asian Affairs, repeatedly met Bhutto in the mid-2000s when she was aiming to return to politics and sought reconciliation with the military dictator Pervez Musharraf, writes Shuja Nawaz in his book “The Battle for Pakistan.”

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise if the US is trying to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. It has done that on multiple occasions. The regime change in Iraq is one example,” says IPS’s Rahman. 

“More recently, the Americans have let the Taliban come into power but are withholding Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves. Washington wants the Taliban to rule as per its wishes.” 

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