Pakistan’s prime minister blamed the ousting on US interference. Here’s why.
Khan’s claims had received backing from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which issued a statement condemning “brazen interference” by the United States in Pakistan’s political affairs for its “own selfish purposes”. The missive reflected how, while global attention remains riveted on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, renewed tensions between Moscow and DC have also shaped political developments in unexpected ways.
Such a show of unity between Khan and Russian officials against the US might come as a surprise, given Pakistan’s characterization as a longtime US ally. A closer look at the historical relationship between the two countries, however, reveals that Pakistani political leaders have long used popular anti-American sentiment for domestic political ends, while at the same time playing on the many facets of great power rivalry. .
The United States and Pakistan have been allies for most of the latter’s existence as a nation state since 1947.
Key moments crystallized this alliance. Pakistan took the first significant steps by signing two US-backed regional mutual defense and cooperation agreements: the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization in 1954, followed by the Central Treaty Organization in 1955. Like NATO, these mutual security agreements provided the United States with key military allies at the start of the Cold War.
Then, in 1971, Pakistan provided a crucial secondary channel for communication that facilitated the diplomatic breakthrough in US-China relations. A decade later, the country provided a haven for US intelligence activities during the Soviet-Afghan War, arguing that its location would prove indispensable to US geopolitical goals. Likewise, in the 21st century, Pakistan has become a vital ally in the “war on terror”, once again taking advantage of its strategically valuable location.
In return, from the mid-1950s, Pakistan became one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid. It has benefited from the fruits of United States military and economic aid, including funding and technical assistance to institutions of higher learning, modernization programs in agriculture and family planning services, as well as construction of large-scale infrastructure projects such as Mangla and Tarbela. dams. This aid has long shaped socio-economic and political life in Pakistan.
Although these exchanges were beneficial for both parties, mistrust has constantly marred this relationship. The United States has often accused Pakistan of playing multiple roles geopolitically, while the Pakistani government has denounced the United States’ relations with India and its position on Kashmir, especially in times of crisis such as the war. Indo-Pakistani of 1965.
A virulent strain of anti-Americanism has also flourished among middle-class urban Pakistanis. The first public manifestation of this anger occurred less than a year after Pakistan’s independence. In May 1948, over 3,000 demonstrators stormed the US Embassy in Karachi to protest US recognition of Israel. Since then, Pakistani citizens have periodically taken to the streets, chanting anti-American slogans and burning American flags. Some even burned down the embassy in Islamabad in November 1979, in response to a rumor that the United States had taken control of Masjid al-Haram (the Great Mosque of Mecca), a holy site in Saudi Arabia. . Several people, including two Americans, were killed.
US foreign policy is at the root of this discontent, with Pakistani citizens saying they have had to bear the tragic costs of geopolitical maneuvering between the political leaders of the two countries. However, it also stems from bitterness over US attempts to shape geopolitics and socio-economic life in the Muslim world.
Not surprisingly, given US actions in the region and this suspicion, conspiracy theories accusing the US of covert interference in Pakistan’s domestic politics have also flourished.
After the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, in 1951, rumors swirled that the CIA played a role of punishment for Khan refusing to secure oil contracts in Iran for American companies. In 1958, Pakistanis again accused the United States of orchestrating Iskander Mirza’s constitutional coup to install a pro-American regime. In neither case was there substantial evidence of such interference.
But that has done little to lessen the prevalence of such claims. In 1977, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto even made such accusations public. He alleged that the CIA funded opposition forces in response to Pakistan’s expanding nuclear program and Bhutto’s seemingly unaligned foreign policy positions – including his refusal to support the Vietnam War.
A tilt towards non-alignment in the Cold War and away from allegiance to the United States had been a cornerstone of Bhutto’s foreign policy. However, many observers of Pakistani politics saw Bhutto’s claims of a foreign conspiracy theory as intended to carve out domestic political space in a tense standoff with opposition parties.
Although there is little evidence to support the rumors of these particular instances of American interference, American behavior has, at times, fueled them. For example, some CIA activities in Pakistan have been well documented, such as collecting DNA samples through a fake vaccination campaign as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the 2000s. operations have shaken the confidence of Pakistanis in the United States to do anything other than safeguard their own interests.
Much like Bhutto around half a century ago, Khan, prime minister since 2018, has also advocated non-alignment. On several occasions, he presented India’s foreign policy during the Cold War as a model to emulate – surprising, given the enmity between the two countries.
Given this background and the country’s current economic crisis, it becomes easier to understand why, when most of the world rushed to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin after the invasion of Ukraine, Khan instead took a long-planned trip to meet Putin. Khan’s two-day visit to Russia was the Pakistani prime minister’s first in more than two decades, and his government hailed it as a much-needed breakthrough for Pakistan’s economic and energy stability. While in Moscow, Khan struck a major trade deal with Russia to import 2 million tons of wheat and buy natural gas.
Soon after, Pakistan became one of 35 countries that abstained from voting against the Russian invasion at the United Nations General Assembly.
These moves reflected how, with the US leaving Afghanistan and deepening ties with India, Khan has turned to an emboldened Moscow-Beijing axis, which is increasingly flexing its muscles. While Pakistan shares a historically strategic friendship with China, the country’s relationship with Russia has wavered in recent decades. For his part, in his speeches, Khan often located Pakistan’s neutrality as a potential tool to avert a new Cold War, offering to negotiate improved diplomatic relations between the United States and China.
Critics see Pakistan’s behavior over the past two months as a clear demonstration that the country is moving away from its traditional alliance with the United States. Khan’s government, on the other hand, claimed that it was pursuing a “balanced and independent foreign policy” that centered the needs of Pakistani citizens on geopolitical concerns.
This context shapes Khan’s accusations of a US-backed ploy to oust him from power. Anti-American rhetoric has long been a powerful tool in Pakistani politics. Many of Khan’s predecessors also clung to anti-American conspiracy theories to gain political influence or to retain power in the face of domestic political upheaval. Social media only facilitates the dissemination of these ideas.
Deploying these historical tropes made sense for Khan, as accusations of a US-backed conspiracy theory allowed him to brand his opponents “traitors” to the national interest and security – rather than just corrupt politicians. While that hasn’t been enough to stay in power, it could give him a key weapon in Pakistan’s upcoming elections.