Edited by Sam Thielman
THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION recently scored two foreign policy wins for the price of one, as revealed by some excellent investigative reporting in The Intercept.
Last month, my friend Maz Hussain and Ryan Grim confirmed that, in March 2022, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu suggested to Pakistan's U.S. ambassador that Islamabad's relationship with Washington could best overcome recent turbulence once Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had visited Moscow ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, was removed. Lu told Amb. Asad Majeed Khan that the U.S.—one of Pakistan's top trade partners—and the European Union were likely to make it "tough going" for Pakistan's western-facing relationships in the wake of Khan's openness to Moscow. But, Lu continued, the U.S. would be content to let the matter drop should Khan lose power—and wouldn't you know it, there was a no-confidence vote over Khan's leadership looming in the parliament.
"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," Lu said in a conversation memorialized by a "cypher" cable The Intercept obtained. Hussain and Grim reported that once this American green light flashed, "on March 8, Khan’s opponents in Parliament moved forward with a key procedural step toward the no-confidence vote." Khan is now not only deposed, but convicted on corruption charges that he challenges as political. (Khan also faced charges for revealing that Lu's cypher cable existed.)
The State Department has denied that it contributed to Khan's ouster. "Nothing in these purported comments shows the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan should be," spokesman Matthew Miller told Grim and Hussain. Although Miller might be able to cling to a debater's point that Lu doesn't promote a specific alternative leader, his line is plainly untrue. Lu was telling Khan that Pakistan's leader shouldn't be Imran Khan—at least not if Islamabad wanted smooth dealings with Washington while it endured an economic crisis. But the State Department has to issue denials like these, particularly when caught red-handed. Crisis management here is a form of alliance management with the Pakistani military, which backed the no-confidence vote, and its associated politicians.
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This week, Grim and Hussain did it again. This time they revealed that the U.S. secretly prevailed upon the post-Khan Pakistani government to provide Ukraine with much-needed artillery shells during the first year of the war. In exchange, the U.S. quietly let the International Monetary Fund know that Pakistan was about to be a little more cash-flush, making it safer for the IMF to proceed with a bailout package that would stabilize the political situation for Khan's opponents, like the U.S.' traditional partners in the Pakistani military.
"Securing the loan eased economic pressure, enabling the military government to delay elections—a potential reckoning in the long aftermath of Khan’s removal—and deepen the crackdown against Khan’s supporters and other dissenters," Grim and Hussain wrote.
FOR U.S. FOREIGN POLICY, this is an unambiguous, caveat-free, 100 percent success story. And an instructive one about what it looks like when Washington moves the world in its direction.
First, it's a leverage situation. Su and his superiors—per The Intercept, the National Security Council had discussed Khan's trip to Moscow—recognized that Russia's invasion of Ukraine created pressure to discipline fence-sitters, especially those who have traditionally been U.S. clients. The Biden administration might talk about not wanting to see the world carved up into blocs, but it won't accept its historical allies triangulating between Washington and its adversaries. Great Power Competition is supposed to benefit us, not offer our client states a chance to comparison-shop.
Second, it's a creative solution to the problem of Imran Khan. In office, Khan was less anti-American than advertised. But he represented a reaction to the U.S. making Pakistan an instrument of the War on Terror. "Anyone who is a nationalist and cares for his own country, and does not jump at whatever the Americans ask you to, is considered anti-American," Khan told The Guardian before his premiership. Khan had fallen out with the army leadership, which made his position precarious. But who would have thought that Ukraine could provide the opportunity for the State Department to signal it wouldn't object to getting rid of him?
Third, in one stroke, the U.S. gets another non-European country added to the pro-Ukraine coalition. It also gets to take away diplomatic inroads Russia had made during Khan's tenure. Even better, their contribution is material. Even better than that, the specific contribution helps make up for the shortages in the artillery production-line shortfall that is a consequence of the U.S. military-industrial complex's economic incentives.
Fourth, the U.S. didn't overthrow Khan itself. It aligned with existing currents in Pakistan that maneuvered his downfall and which wanted to preserve a relationship with Washington anyway. Greenlighting a foreign partner's move against Khan is as cost-free as it is high-reward.
Finally, the diminishment of the War on Terror within U.S. grand strategy and the corresponding emphasis on Great-Power Competition—forgetting for a moment how well those two phenomena pair in practice—means that the U.S. needs Pakistan less than at any time in the past generation. Pakistanis understand this pattern extremely well. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, we heard a lot about U.S. neglect. After 9/11, that quickly gave way to the problem of relentless U.S. pressure. Now the U.S. needs India, Pakistan's enemy, as a bulwark against China, to the point where apparently Narendra Modi feels so invincible that he can pull an MBS. But at the same time, the U.S. giving the thumbs-up to getting rid of Khan is different from giving the thumbs-down to Pakistan, since the U.S. is saying yes to the Pakistani Army brass. I would suspect the prevailing assessment in Lu's Foggy Bottom directorate is that Khan's defenestration helps cement U.S.-Pakistani amity amongst those who really run Pakistan.
THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO LOSE are Pakistanis—those who support Imran Khan and those who'd prefer that they, and not the military, select their own leaders. Probably those who don't want an intensifying military crackdown on politics, too. However they feel about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now they find the machinations of the great powers are sacrificing them to it. But they're not exactly the sort of people that U.S. foreign policy is particularly designed to help. They're the sort of people who might mar an otherwise flawless policy victory. Best not to think about them—which, as it happens, is just U.S. diplomatic muscle memory.
Grim and Hussain quote Arif Rafiq of the Middle East Institute (and his own business consultancy) making the essential point better than I could:
“The premise is that we have to save Ukraine, we have to save this frontier of democracy on the eastern perimeter of Europe,” said Rafiq. “And then this brown Asian country has to pay the price. So they can be a dictatorship, their people can be denied the freedoms that every other celebrity in this country is saying we need to support Ukraine for — the ability to choose our leaders, ability to have civic freedoms, the rule of law, all these sorts of things that may differentiate many European countries and consolidated democracies from Russia.”
Here's the thing about U.S. foreign-policy victories like the one The Intercept revealed took place in Pakistan. As long as they're understood as victories, U.S. statesmen will look at them as templates. What's a successful bet without a parlay?