Pakistani protesters burn a US flag in Islamabad on April 1, 2022. Photo: Screengrab / NDTV

PESHAWAR – Rising anti-US sentiment, stoked by supporters of ousted premier Imran Khan, threatens to destabilize Pakistan ahead of new general elections and while the economy is teetering towards collapse.  

Khan, who this month was voted out of power by the country’s parliament, has since urged his followers to prepare for a sit-in in Islamabad against what he says was a “foreign conspiracy” to topple his government because he would not bow to US demands including for access to Pakistani military bases.

“Wait for my call to bring two million people to Islamabad. We are not going to accept the ‘imported government’ and our campaign will intensify in the coming weeks. This nation must decide once and for all whether they want subjugation to a foreign power or to get real independence,” Khan said in several recent speeches.   

In tweets, Khan has said he would not accept “US-backed regime change” that “bring[s] into power a coterie of pliable crooks” while branding his political opponents “national traitors” and the new caretaker setup an “imported government.”

Specifically, Khan alleges that Donald Lu, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, warned Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington that there would be “consequences” if Khan was not voted out of parliament.

The Joe Biden administration has vehemently denied the accusation. Analysts note Khan’s ouster came just weeks after he paid an official visit to President Vladimir Putin, which coincided with Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Khan’s anti-US rhetoric has drawn large crowds in major cities across the country, demonstrations he is now angling to leverage to force an early election. Khan, who has been critical of “the subjectivity” of the country’s Chief Election Commissioner, has called on him to resign immediately from his post.

Pakistani men sit near a poster of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Photo: Aamir Qureshi / AFP

On Tuesday, Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party held protests outside election commission offices in different cities, including the capital Islamabad, to press for the resignation of Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja, who Khan appointed in January 2020.  

Zahid Khan, central spokesperson for the Awami National Party, told Asia Times that the PTI’s protest against its own appointed election commissioner was conflicted because it is currently investigating an illegal foreign funding case against the party.

“Evidence of theft, lies and illicit funding have been unearthed by the election commission and a decision is likely to come in the next few weeks. PTI is now putting pressure on a constitutional body to delay the imminent verdict, but this conspiracy will not work,” Zahid claimed.

He claimed the PTI would crumble as a party if the military establishment stopped protecting it. 

“Certified evidence of illicit funding has come to light, now Imran Khan is demanding the resignation of the election commissioner because he knows the consequences are very grave for him and his party,” Zahid said.

Khan has been defiant since his ouster and leveraged his underlying popular support to pull large and raucous crowds in Karachi, Peshawar and Lahore, replete in spots with American flag burning. All have denounced the alleged role of the US, which Khan claims sponsored “regime change.”

He also claimed the US funded and otherwise supported the motley coalition of opposition parties to table the no-confidence motion that brought on his political demise. 

On April 22, new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif convened a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) – a military-civil security watchdog – to consider the alleged US conspiracy.

Premier Sharif chaired the meeting, which was attended by senior military and civilian officials along with Asad Majeed, the then-Pakistan ambassador in Washington who sent the cipher allegedly conveying the US conspiracy against Khan’s government. 

New Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has the opportunity to reset Pakistan’s foreign relations. Image: Screengrab / NTV

As widely expected, the NSC declared there has been no foreign conspiracy behind the dismissal of Khan’s government.  

“The NSC after reviewing the contents of the communication, the assessment received, and the conclusion presented by the security agencies, concludes that there has been no conspiracy,” said a statement issued from the prime minister’s office on April 22.

In an immediate reaction, US State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said on April 23 that the US welcomed the statement.

“Let me just say very bluntly there is absolutely no truth to these allegations. Of course, we continue to follow these developments, and we respect and support Pakistan’s constitutional process and rule of law. But again, these allegations are not true,” Porter said.

Analysts suggest Khan’s anti-US narrative is a bid to boost his diminished popular standing, which while in office was dragged down by runaway food inflation, scarce jobs, entrenched poverty and a moribund economy during his four-year tenure. 

They said a new surge of political agitation and instability would further damage the country’s already teetering economy.  

Renowned Pakistani-American economist Atif Mian said last week that Khan inherited a bad economy, but left it in even worse shape. 

“After the Covid-19 pandemic came to a close, Pakistan again started facing serious trouble,” he posted on Twitter after Khan was voted out of office. “There has been zero increase in average income, and Pakistan never got out of the balance of payment (bop) crisis.”

Follow FM Shakil on Twitter at @faq1955