Pakistan’s military establishment has dismissed ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s claims that he was the victim of a US-led conspiracy, and described his visit to Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine as “embarrassing”.
In rare public comments on Thursday, Major General Babar Iftikhar, the army’s spokesperson, denied Khan’s assertions that Pakistan’s national security committee had concluded last month that there was a conspiracy to end the former cricket star’s premiership.
Iftikhar’s comments were a fresh blow for Khan, who on Sunday became Pakistan’s first premier to lose a parliamentary vote of no confidence and whose removal from office has sharply divided the country of 220mn.
To back up his conspiracy claims, Khan has referred to communications from Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, who had reported complaints by Washington officials over Khan’s trip to Russia in February.
Khan linked this to a national security committee statement in late March that said an unnamed country had been “interventionist” and that Pakistan had issued a diplomatic démarche in response.
“Is there any word such as conspiracy used in it?” said Iftikhar, referring to the security committee’s statement. “I think not.” Washington has repeatedly denied seeking regime change in the nuclear-armed state.
Claiming that Washington wanted him out over his support for Moscow, Khan has roused tens of thousands of supporters in night-time rallies by evoking a US-led plot.
Iftikhar said that the military had been on board with Khan’s February trip to Russia, but the outbreak of war made it “very embarrassing”, remarks that implied the Kremlin had not forewarned Islamabad about its plan to invade Ukraine. In Moscow, Khan was caught on camera remarking to a Russian official: “What a time to come. So much excitement.”
Huma Baqai, an associate professor at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, said the military had sent a message to Khan ahead of planned rallies in Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan’s two largest cities.
“They know he’s going to the masses. This was a way of politely cautioning him from saying things that could be very difficult,” said Baqai, adding: “I don’t think Imran Khan wants to go head to head with the military.”
The army may also want to protect its relationship with the US, analysts said. America has supplied arms over the years and its military coordinates with Pakistan on counter-terrorism.
“It is a relationship that the Pakistan army does not want to disrupt,” said Abdul Qayyum, a retired lieutenant general and former senator with new prime minister Shehbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party.
“Khan has tried to cover up many shortcomings in his own government by pushing the conspiracy line,” Qayyum added. “And now, the army has come out with a very candid view.”
After his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the 2018 general election, Khan’s opponents argued that the military had backed him. Yet as Pakistan’s political turmoil has spilled over in recent weeks, with anger over inflation turning voters against Khan, the military did not come to his aid.
Since Khan’s removal, a wave of anti-army sentiment has splashed across social media platforms like Twitter in Pakistan, said Baqai.
Baqai said Iftikhar was trying “to put an end to all this speculation about the military being a party to the transition that happened, and how they were seen as more accommodating of the government that took power” than Khan.