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The ouster of Imran Khan: How much involvement did the US have in Pakistan’s coup?

Imran Khan joins the long list of deposed prime ministers and underscores the reality that, in Pakistan, whoever the people elect, the U.S.-backed military is always in charge.

by Alan Macleod 

Part 3 - Why would the US want Khan gone?

Pakistan has, historically, had a close relationship with the United States, especially militarily. Between 2002 and 2018, the U.S. gave $33 billion worth of assistance to Pakistan, of which more than $14 billion was military aid. Its armed forces are stocked with the best American gear and its officers are trained in the United States.

Pakistan was also a key player in the U.S. occupation of neighboring Afghanistan, with successive administrations allowing the U.S. military to conduct operations from its territory. The result was a humanitarian disaster for the country; an estimated 83,000 Pakistanis lost their lives as a consequence of the War on Terror.

Khan, who had long opposed U.S. actions in the region, sharply reduced the nation’s involvement in the war. “There is no way we are going to allow any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan. Absolutely not,” he told an interviewer from Axios last year. He also began to increase military purchases from and cooperation with China, a decision that angered many of his army’s top brass.

Khan’s administration was not the first to move toward Beijing, but he certainly continued to build ties with China. Chief among these connections is the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $62 billion infrastructure network that links the two countries and helps boost trade worldwide. Often described as a Chinese Marshall Plan, projects under construction include a 700-mile motorway between Karachi and Lahore as well as a vast network of roads and high-speed rail links that criss-cross the country and connect major Pakistani cities with the trading hub of Kashgar in the far west of China.

Pakistan plays a leading role in China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative, thanks to the Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. The new port is already a major trading hub and is in the process of being vastly expanded. This process is set to make it one of the most important locations for world trade. Pakistan will soon be connected to western China via rail, creating a new Silk Road and a land route from East to West Asia, cutting delivery times and allowing Chinese ships to avoid the Straits of Malacca and the increasingly contested South China Sea.

A symbol of the improved relations between the two nations emerged earlier this year when Khan defied Western orders to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics and attended the opening ceremony. Khan has lauded China’s anti-poverty initiatives and been described as the country’s new “best friend” on the international stage.

The ousted prime minister also provoked Washington’s ire by pursuing cordial relations with Russia. Pakistan refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, let alone help the U.S. impose sanctions on Moscow. Indeed, by chance, Khan was in Moscow on February 24, negotiating an expansive economic deal whereby Pakistan agreed to purchase Russian gas and import 2 million tons of grain. The U.S. government directly communicated its displeasure with Khan over his decision to be the first Pakistani leader in over two decades to visit Moscow.

On a regional level, the Khan administration has also taken steps that have angered the world’s sole superpower. Khan has attempted to increase close bilateral collaboration to improve trade and transport links with Iran, describing their 517-mile border as a frontier of “peace and friendship” and expressing his happiness at the “positive momentum in brotherly relations between the two countries.” In 2019, he also tried to broker peace negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, an agreement that could have brought considerably more peace to the Middle East. The Trump administration vehemently opposed these negotiations, scuppering them weeks later by assassinating Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

Khan condemned the U.S. sanctions on Iran and called for their removal. “It is very unjust they are dealing with such a large [COVID] outbreak on one side, and on the other, they are facing international sanctions,” he said in 2020.

While he has supported Iran, he has also publically opposed many of the policies of key U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. Khan successfully campaigned against Pakistani involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen, while he has consistently championed Palestinian rights and demanded the Muslim world do more to help them. “A day will come when Palestinians will get their own country, a just settlement, and they will be able to live as equal citizens,” he said last year, comparing their struggle to that of the worldwide campaign against Apartheid South Africa. Meanwhile, he has also publicly supported imprisoned publisher Julian Assange.

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