Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has formally called out the Biden Administration repeating his “regime change conspiracy” charge, taking his anti-US stance a notch higher. He has puzzled the U.S, embarrassed the new Shehbaz Sharif Government and has likely annoyed the all-powerful army that has been named as a “co-conspirator.”

In a tweet on May 2, Khan asked the Biden administration whether by indulging in the ‘regime change conspiracy’, it had “lessened or increased the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.” This indicates that he is playing on the perennially latent, and periodically vocal, sentiment that has worked in Pakistan for the past six decades.

Anti-American sentiment in particular, Pakistan watchers say, is easy to incite among the conservatives and the clergy in the Muslim majority nation. This also comes handy for the political classes to garner votes in elections. In one of his television addresses, Khan exhorted the people to “fight slavery” and declared that “a Muslim can never be a slave.” The new worry is the support among the young that Khan is perceived as enjoying.

By raising the tempo on being out of office, Khan has made ‘conspiracy’ his principal political plank as he pushes to advance elections to the National Assembly. This poses a major challenge to the Sharif Government, to all of Khan’s opponents and to the military that, through the deliberations of the National Security Council, has debunked the conspiracy charge.

Khan has used the charge to the hilt, displaying as ‘evidence’ views expressed by Rebecca Grant, an analyst on the Fox TV, when neither the analyst, nor the TV network has any formal or official status.

The US has denied any role in Khan’s ouster. Khan utilised a March 7 Foreign Office communication sent to his government by then ambassador in Washington after an informal talk with US State Department official Donald Lu as ‘evidence’ of the US’s intentions to depose him.  The US official was supposed to have conveyed disapproval of Khan’s visiting Russia on the day (February 24) his host, President Vladimir Putin, launched an attack on Ukraine.

Khan has also claimed that he was ousted because he refused military base facilities to the US as its forces evacuated from neighbouring Afghanistan in August 2021. The US has denied seeking such help. Security analysts have surmised that the US was unhappy with Pakistan’s double-dealing with the US and promoting sections of the Taliban favourable to Islamabad.

In a blame-all gambit, Khan has accused the top army brass of doing the US bidding and aiding desertions from his party and alliance ranks. Khan was voted out of office last month after the Supreme Court took note of the way legal and constitutional norms were flouted in the National Assembly, heard all sides concerned and with its verdict, cleared the way for the lawmakers to exercise their choice in a no-confidence motion. Khan has also blamed the apex court for not heeding to his ‘conspiracy’ charge.

Pakistani media outlets, for long targeted by the Khan Government, are now coming forth with reports and analyses that debunk the conspiracy theory.

Journalist and author Zahid Hussain warned in Dawn newspaper (May 1, 2022): “Imran Khan’s move to weaponize this and whip up nationalist sentiments has dangerously polarised the country. It has not been uncommon in Pakistan’s power game to use the ‘anti-state’ label against political rivals. Almost every political leader in the country has, at one time or the other, been branded a traitor. But Khan has taken this to a new level. He has declared himself the sole defender of national interests, while painting all his opponents as ‘American agents’.”

Writing in The Friday Times (May 3, 2022) analyst Ahmad Faruqui lists “six reasons” why the US did not work to depose Khan. One, Noam Chomsky, a known critic of the US has not called it out.

Two, Russia and China, now ranged against the US over Ukraine said no such thing. The two, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE have been quick to congratulate the new prime minister.

“Thirdly, if the theory had merit, Republican Senators would have pounced upon it to score points against the Biden administration. Senator Lindsay Graham, a staunch friend of Pakistan, has been silent.” There is no word from former president Trump who called Khan “a great leader” in 2019.

Four, although Washington disapproved of Khan’s Moscow visit, “that in itself does not constitute sufficient cause for the US to want his removal from office.”

The US has forced regime changes in countries like Chile, Libya, Iraq when it has “a lot at stake.” Regime changes have “rarely been peaceful and they have not relied on a single meeting between a mid-level State Department official with the ambassador of the targeted country.”

“Fifth, the Pakistani military, which dominates the decision making in Pakistan and which views itself as the guardian of Pakistan’s national security, has not endorsed the conspiracy theory argument. It would have been the first one to object.

 “Sixth, neither has the Pakistani Supreme Court endorsed the conspiracy theory. It convened an emergency session to review the matter and rejected it.”

Nevertheless, the Sharif Government must prepare for not just political backlash of Khan’s campaign. It would also need to be alert about the Islamist groups who could join Khan’s campaign.  Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), one of the major ones, has already given notice, criticising Sharif for being close with Europe amidst Islamophobia.

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