June 14, 2024
Dissecting Pakistan’s cypher saga  - The Hindu

Dissecting Pakistan’s cypher saga  – The Hindu

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The setting up of a special court in Pakistan to look into the cases filed against former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his senior cabinet Ministers, including former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) is sharpening the spotlight over the mysterious diplomatic “cypher” that has held Pakistani polity in thrall for more than a year. On Tuesday, he received a reprieve in one case that he was arrested for (the ‘Toshakhana’ case) but remains in Attock jail over the OSA case, for which he will be presented in court on Wednesday. As the case unfolds, it is clear that it could have a lasting impact on Pakistani politics and its relationship with the military. It also bears closer scrutiny for India, Bangladesh and other countries in South Asia, ahead of the elections next year.

Allegations of conspiracy

Last week, police in Pakistan arrested Mr. Qureshi and charged him along with Mr. Khan under Sections 5 and 9 of the Official Secrets Act (a British-era law dating 1923 that India shares) for illegally retaining a diplomatic cable sent by the Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. (who then became Foreign Secretary) Asad Majeed Khan in March 2022. The FIR also accused the leaders of misusing and misrepresenting the cable’s contents with “malafide intention”, as the leaders had used the cable as proof of a “foreign conspiracy” behind the no-confidence vote in parliament, that Imran Khan subsequently lost. While Mr. Khan and Mr. Qureshi deny leaking the cypher, they openly publicised it during the run-up to the no-confidence vote and after, revealing details of the note in public rallies, and even held a cabinet meeting to discuss the cypher, where its contents were reportedly shown to Ministers on a “teleprompter”.

Earlier this month, the contents of the cypher were finally reproduced by U.S. web portal “The Intercept”, and while the U.S. State department spokesperson found no corroboration of any conspiracy in the conversation between Ambassador Majeed Khan and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu, he didn’t deny the conversation outright either. In the cable describing a meeting between State department officials and the Pakistan Embassy in Washington on March 7, 2022, Mr. Lu reportedly expressed the U.S.’s deep disapproval of Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow on February 24, which coincided with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. While there is little to show that Mr. Khan knew the invasion would be launched while he was in Russia, there is no question that he approved of a “neutral position” in the conflict, and even praised India’s steadfast stand on engaging with Russia throughout the conflict. Referring to the U.S.’s belief that the former PM, who was at odds with the Pakistani Military establishment on Ukraine was overly tilting towards Moscow, Mr. Lu purportedly said, “I think if the no-confidence vote (set for April 9, 2022) against the Prime Minister (Imran Khan) succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister”. According to the document, Mr. Lu further said that, “Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.”

Pakistani politics, scarred by its history of coups, coalitions and assassinations is by nature, rife with conspiracy-theories. Chief among these theories is that its political leadership is being pulled by one external string or another. Many of these theories are disbelieved, especially when accompanied by the kind of grandiose bombast that Imran Khan employed for the “cypher saga”. Yet it is hard to look away from the cold hard facts of what followed the conversation between Mr. Lu and Mr. Majeed Khan, which may have tipped the scales in helping the Pakistani military establishment consolidate its role in the political events that followed.

The aftermath

As it happened, the no-confidence vote did succeed. Pakistan’s policy towards Russia and Ukraine did show a perceptible move away from Moscow, particularly after Army Chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, speaking at an international security conference in Islamabad on April 2, 2022, slammed Russia’s actions. In his speech, General Bajwa, openly opposing the line taken by Mr. Khan, and one clearly more palatable to the U.S. State department said the “Russian invasion against Ukraine [was] very unfortunate as thousands of people have been killed, millions made refugees and half of Ukraine destroyed”. He said Russia’s actions against a smaller country could not be condoned, and that Ukraine’s defence of its territory had “given heart” to other countries, in a veiled comparison with India and Pakistan. In doing so, the Pakistani military has attempted once again to cast itself as the only credible power in Pakistan for the U.S. to engage with, especially as the U.S. seeks to counter the influence of China and Russia in South Asia.

Within days of the new government, formed by a coalition of non-PTI parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League (N) PML(N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in on April 11, 2022, Washington’s behaviour towards Pakistan also underwent a change. U.S. President Joe Biden had not once spoken to PM Imran Khan during his 15 months in office, despite several attempts by Mr. Khan’s government to set up a call. It is worth noting that Mr. Biden is no stranger to Pakistan, and received the Hilal-e-Pakistan in 2008 from then President Zardari.

On May 18, 2022, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in New York, the first of three official visits to the U.S. that year. A few weeks later, the U.S. mooted a plan at the Financial Action Task Force to take Pakistan off the greylist, that it had been on since 2018. Even as sanctions eased, floods struck Pakistan.

In September, President Biden met with PM Sharif at a function in New York, and commiserated about the damage from floods, accepting Pakistan’s contention that they were caused by global warming and climate change.

The contacts have strengthened militarily too — General Bajwa spent a week in Washington before he retired in 2022, and shortly after General Asim Munir took over as Army Chief, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, General Michael Kurilla visited Islamabad in December 2022, and the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley spoke to him over the telephone.

Earlier this month, reports of the two sides approving the renewal of the CIS-MOA foundational agreement between their militaries also showed that the Pakistan-U.S. engagement is on a surer footing. In addition, Pakistan’s red carpet for the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba, who visited Islamabad in July, points to a big change in the country’s policy, and appeared to confirm reports that Pakistan is helping Ukraine with weapons exports, at the prompting of the U.S..

A message to the subcontinent

What also emerges is the U.S.’s complete silence over the treatment meted out to Imran Khan by the opposition — over more than 100 cases filed against Mr. Khan including serious terror charges, his arrest and that of all senior opposition leaders, as well as over the OSA case against him and three cabinet ministers over the leak of the cypher, just as Pakistan heads for general elections.

The contrast couldn’t be more stark to the U.S.’s behaviour with India’s other South Asian neighbour Bangladesh. After sanctioning members of Sheikh Hasina’s crack counter-terror force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), for alleged human rights violations, the U.S. State Department imposed a new visa policy for Bangladesh in May this year — any Bangladeshi official, judge, law enforcement officer or politician that was “found to be impeding or undermining free and fair elections” in Bangladesh would be ineligible for U.S. visas, along with their families. “Our view is that the defence of democracy is both necessary and essential for Bangladesh to continue to move forward as a leader in South Asia and around the world,” said Mr. Lu, speaking to a Bangladeshi journalist shortly after the policy was declared. The message for PM Sheikh Hasina couldn’t be more in contrast to the U.S.’s free pass to PM Sharif and the Pakistani caretaker government now in place. It is also a message New Delhi cannot choose to ignore, given that the stage events are playing out on, are India’s backyard.

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