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PR Commentary
Pakistan, US and the Cipher Controversy: The problem of an inherently asymmetric relationship

  Femy Francis

What happened?
On 9 August, The Intercept news organization reproduced the controversial "Cipher" cable transcript accounting for the minutes of the meeting between the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu and the then Pakistan Ambassador to the US Asad Majeed Khan on 7 March 2022. The minutes of the conversation alleges that the US State Department pressurized Pakistan to impeach the then Prime Minister Imran Khan if they wanted warmer and cordial relation between the two countries. The document ascribed that the US was disgruntled with Imran Khan's neutral position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and expressed their concerns over Imran Khan's visit to Moscow one day before the war. On 19 August, PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi was taken into custody by the Federal Investigation Agency for claiming the "cipher" controversy is real and that the US did engineer the ousting of Imran Khan.

What is the controversy all about? And what does cipher say?
On 9 April 2022, Imran Khan was deposed by a no-confidence vote in the parliament. For the opposition, the no-confidence motion was because of the government's inability to revive the economy after COVID and Imran's failure to make Pakistan corruption-free. Imran Khan claimed a foreign political conspiracy was being hatched against him, where he claimed to have the minutes of the "Cypher", which consisted of the conversation between state department heads of the US and Pakistan a month prior. Imran Khan repeatedly called his removal a "foreign funded conspiracy" by Washington and the then Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The Cipher document reflected the US's objection against Imran Khan's neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, with Donald Lu expressing to Asad Majeed Khan: "I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister, otherwise I think it will be tough going ahead." Lu also warned Pakistan's Ambassador of "isolation," where not only US but they would be marginalized by their European allies as well. Pakistani Ambassador stated that they felt they were being taken for granted, where Washington expects Islamabad's support on all its issues while the same is not reciprocated. Additionally, the Ambassador expressed that different rules were applied for India and Pakistan, where they had a different response to India's abstinence from taking a stance while they expected more from Delhi, but what bothered them more was the neutral stance of Islamabad. The conversation ended with Asad reaching out and hoping that this would not affect their bilateral relationship, while Lu quite explicitly proclaimed that the dent had already been made and asked the Ambassador to wait to see whether there was a change in the political setup. If there is a favourable shift, Lu conveyed that there will not be any disagreement and that the "dent will go away very quickly."

What have been the responses?
The US State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller iterated that the reproduced secret documents allegations that the US had a role in the political power shift in Pakistan: "are false, they have always been false, and they remain false." Miller stood to his earlier stance of disagreeing with US involvement. When asked about the case earlier in July, he responded: "The allegations that the United States has interfered in internal decisions about the leadership of Pakistan are false, as we have stated they were false. They were always false and they remain false."
Shehbaz Sharif said they met with the National Security Committee and that if the "Cipher" document is valid, "then it is a massive crime." Rana Sanaullah, who was in Shehbaz Sharif's cabinet, questioned the cable's authenticity.

What does the controversy reflect?
First, overlapping loyalties of Pakistan. After Imran Khan, Pakistan has moved on from its neutral stance and has been leaning towards supporting the Ukrainian cause. Additionally, Pakistan has been an arms and ammunition supplier to Ukraine while acting as a bridge between the Western alliance and Ukraine, aiding with hardware supply. On the other hand, Pakistan has received a large shipment of discounted Russian crude oil, which was suspend on 13 August 2023, the government blames the quality of Russian crude oil where the refiners have objected to process the oil as more furnace oil was produced rather than petrol. Additionally, on 03 August the federal cabinet signed a security agreement with US on the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CIS-MOA). The pact facilitates bilateral military and defence closeness where Pakistan can get military hardware from the US. Pakistan has its leg on both boats trying to balance its way through the relationship's without compromising or losing the other. The move reflects the changing political dynamics where while US influence and role in Pakistan was minuscular with aggressive Chinese and Russian involvement. For US there is realigned focus towards Pakistan as it cannot escape the influence of big brother the US. 

Second, questioning the US role amidst the controversy. Pakistan is trying to keep all channels of diplomacy open, where it is trying to strategically manoeuvre through and even leveraging bilateral ties for a better deal with regional and international players. The Cypher controversy is another example of the pressure exerted by the big brother US. There are speculations over US's role and even of the authenticity of the document. There is a possibility that Imran Khan's removal was premediated by the opposition and the establishment who allegedly got him to power but grew increasingly disgruntled with him. Since his ousting, Imran Khan and his party PTI has faced severe crackdown by the federal coalition headed by the PML-N. Several of its leaders have been ostracized there has been a wave of defections. This makes Imran Khan the latest addition to a long list of Prime Ministers of Pakistan who were unable to complete their tenure. The question that remains is whether it was a foreign conspiracy or a dissatisfaction by the opposition towards Imran Khan. Nevertheless, what can be concluded with certainty is that nearing the no-confidence motion there were several who stood disappointed with him and several who would be content with his removal.

Saleh Mughal, “'Missing cipher' stokes legal troubles for Imran,” The Express Tribune,16 August 2023
Imran Khan Booked Under Official Secrets Act In Cipher Case,” The Friday Times, 18 August 2023
US again rejects Imran’s ‘cypher’ narrative,” The Express Tribune, 28 June 2023
Cipher saga,” Dawn, 12 August 2023
Umer Burney, “
IHC reserves verdict on plea challenging Imran’s Attock jail trial in cipher case,” Dawn, 12 September 2023
Massive crime' if leaked cipher alleged contents true, says PM Shehbaz,” Business Recorder, 10 August 2023

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