Imran Khan claims there is an American plot against him. Why do so many Pakistanis believe this?
By Rhea Mogul and Sophia Saifi, CNN
Standing on top of a truck, overrun by a huge crowd, a visibly enraged Imran Khan repeated the claim which became a rallying cry for his millions of followers.
Pakistan, the ousted former prime minister said, was ruled by “traitors” installed by “a foreign conspiracy” plotted in the United States.
Khan spoke early Thursday in the capital, Islamabad, in what he said was “the biggest protest ever” in the country’s history, after protesters clashed with security personnel and he was forced to cut short the event.
But his announcement comes with a warning: “I am giving this imported government six days to declare new elections. Otherwise, I will return to Islamabad with 2 million people.
Enthusiastic cries of support and chants of outrage against the United States and the current Pakistani administration echoed through the crowd.
Khan’s claims of a US-led plot against him have become a fixture at the many rallies he has held across Pakistan in a bid to return to power after he was ousted on April 10 in a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
The claims struck a chord with a young demographic in a country where anti-American sentiment is common and anti-establishment sentiments are fueled by a growing cost-of-living crisis.
But Khan’s critics say there is a problem with his claims: there is no evidence of a conspiracy.
The US and Pakistani military have strenuously denied Khan’s claims, and the former prime minister has refused to offer anything substantial to substantiate them.
“Imran Khan is trying to tap into anti-American sentiments to mobilize support,” said Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States and the United Nations. The “faithful group of followers of Khan [are] willing to dismiss the facts and believe his alien conspiracy tale even if there is not a shred of evidence to back it up.
The goal, Lodhi said, is clear: Khan sees playing on decades-old animosities as his path to power.
What are Khan’s conspiracy allegations
Khan has repeatedly claimed that Donald Lu, assistant secretary of the US Office of South and Central Asian Affairs, met Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington in March and told him that Khan should be removed from his post during the vote of no confidence.
Khan told CNN on Monday that Lu had threatened Pakistan with “consequences” if he was not removed from his post.
“There is no truth to these allegations,” a US State Department spokesperson told CNN, after denying any involvement in Khan’s ouster.
When asked to provide evidence for his claims, Khan said there were note takers from both the US and Pakistani sides at the meeting, but did not respond directly when asked. would make public notes – for each of the allegations.
He also said with evidence that a cipher – an encoded diplomatic cable – outlining the details of the meeting sent by the Pakistani ambassador was passed on to the Pakistani cabinet. Khan claimed to have presented the minutes of this meeting to the National Security Council (NSC) of Pakistan.
Last month, the NSC strongly rejected Khan’s accusations, saying in a statement it had “found no evidence of a conspiracy”.
Khan also said he was aware that his official visit to Moscow in late February, coinciding with the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, likely angered US officials.
Khan has also previously accused the Pakistani military and the opposition led by current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of conspiring with the United States, which they both deny.
“People are so angry and feel insulted that these criminals have been imposed on us,” Khan said.
A story of mistrust
To understand how even the flimsiest of conspiracy theories could prove such a powerful rallying tool in this South Asian democracy of 220 million people, experts point to the mutual distrust that has been simmering for decades.
It’s a remarkable period that covers wars on Pakistan’s doorstep, perceived betrayals, special forces operations and rogue CIA contractors. Against this backdrop, according to Islamabad-based political analyst Hussain Nadim, “foreign conspiracies don’t seem too far-fetched.”
In fact, they are “credible,” he said.
Much of the mistrust stems from events in neighboring Afghanistan, where many Pakistanis blame US actions for destabilizing their own country – including attacks by Afghanistan-based militants on Pakistani soil.
The chaotic scenes of Afghans, desperate to escape the advancing Taliban, clinging to the wheels of planes taking off from Kabul airport in August 2021, are fresh in the minds of Pakistanis. And as the security situation deteriorates, many Pakistanis feel they are the ones who will pay the price.
The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks – when it launched its hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terror network – only deepened the rift.
While Pakistan was the first to sign up to George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” many in the Muslim-majority country saw the invasion – and the ensuing war in Iraq – as aimed at Islam.
A series of wartime controversies exacerbated this sentiment; Islamabad accused the United States of killing thousands of Pakistanis in drone attacks on Pakistani soil and felt humiliated when the United States failed to give it advance warning of the US raid Navy Seals at bin Laden’s hideout in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad in 2011.
His anger was heightened by a bogus vaccination program run by the CIA to collect DNA samples to verify bin Laden’s presence at the compound. The operation was a success in American eyes, but Pakistanis responded with skepticism, anger and violence over the vaccines.
In 2011, an American CIA contractor named Raymond Davis killed two Pakistani men in Lahore. Davis claimed he shot the men in self-defense when they tried to rob him at gunpoint, but authorities at the time called the case a “plain and simple murder”.
He was charged with murder and unlawful possession of a firearm, but was acquitted after more than $2 million in compensation was paid to the families of the victims. The incident has heightened tensions between the two nations, with Congress warning Pakistani leaders that billions of dollars in US aid could be jeopardized without Davis’ release.
Such events have caused “irreparable damage to trust”, according to Hassan Kamal Wattoo, a lawyer and columnist in Islamabad, who added that it “gives credence to the belief that dark figures are plotting against Pakistan from afar”.
This troubled history goes some way to explaining why even when Khan was in power — apart from a brief period of getting along with former US President Donald Trump — he was keen to play the anti-American card.
Now that he seeks to return to power, Khan is looking for a familiar tool to rally support, said Madiha Afzal, foreign policy officer at the Brookings Institution.
“This is part of a long history of conspiracy theories gaining traction in Pakistan, particularly about the West’s role in the country,” she said.
“It’s something his followers blindly believe.”
Khan’s distinguished cricketing career ensured his enduring appeal to voters. Riding a wave of popular support, he was elected four years ago on a promise to eradicate poverty and corruption and build a “new Pakistan”.
According to Afzal of the Brookings Institute, Khan’s supporters have been drawn to the former prime minister’s argument that it is the corruption of the traditional parties “that have ruled Pakistan for much of its democratic period that is at risk.” root of Pakistan’s problems”.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif – who led the campaign to oust Khan as prime minister with his ruling Pakistani Muslim League-N party – is a scion of the steel dynasty who faces charges of unresolved corruption.
His brother Nawaz Sharif is a three-time former prime minister who has been accused of corruption and banned by Pakistan’s highest court from holding political office.
According to former ambassador Lodhi, there is now “an outpouring of sympathy for Khan” because of the way he was ousted.
And Wattoo, the lawyer, said Khan’s supporters saw him as a “wildly independent and fearless alternative to a more conventional political elite”.
What happens next?
Whether that support will be enough to bring Khan back to power remains to be seen. But what seems clear is that, more than a month after taking office, the government of Shehbaz Sharif has done little to tackle rising inflation and rising of the economic crisis that contributed to Khan’s ousting.
As the government lifted the fuel price cap on Thursday, which will secure a much-needed deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Karachi-based financial journalist Ariba Shahid said the power struggle will not only made things more difficult. .
“This need for political influence is costing long-term average Pakistani inflation, a rapidly depreciating rupee and possibly higher taxes to offset the large deficit,” she said.
Meanwhile, Khan’s popularity has “reached unprecedented heights”, said Nadim, the political analyst.
For his supporters – mostly young, middle class and tired of corruption and the political elite – Khan remains the obvious choice as the country’s leader.
“(His ousting) made him a victim and a political tragedy,” Nadim said, adding that these were “two very powerful emotions” that galvanized public support for Khan.
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