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Imran Khan could be up against spies, lies and black propaganda in Pakistan

Former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) gestures during a lawyers' convention in Lahore on May 18, 2022 [ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images]
Former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) gestures during a lawyers' convention in Lahore on May 18, 2022 [ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images]

Millions of Pakistanis are being asked to converge on the capital Islamabad by charismatic ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan and his supporters who claim that he was removed from office in a dirty tricks campaign run by US intelligence agents because his policies were against America's regional and global interests.

The former international cricketer-turned-politician's claim is astonishing, but not beyond the realms of possibility. Someone watching events closely is British historian Rory Cormac, who is an expert in the global history of subversion and intelligence. He thinks that we might have to wait another 50 years before the truth surfaces about Khan's removal from power after a no-confidence vote last month.

Cormac's latest book is How to Stage a Coup: And Ten Other Lessons from the World of Secret Statecraft. It will be published next month and reveals exactly how some of the world's leading powers, including Britain, ran top-secret misinformation programmes for decades in the Middle East and Asia. According to documents he uncovered in newly declassified intelligence archives, the British were the originators of fake news which they used to destabilise Cold War adversaries. The black propaganda was intended to stir up racial and religious tension, incite violence and reinforce long-held prejudices against communism.

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His research uncovered extensive evidence of British meddling and the existence of a top-secret "Special Editorial Unit" in Westminster which pumped out black propaganda using compliant or selected journalists to manipulate public opinion. He told me that this was "a drop in the ocean compared with US and Russia covert operations."

So maybe Khan's allegation of behind-the-scenes US operations to destabilise his government is true? "The role of the hidden hand can often be exaggerated and gets mythologised over the years," replied Cormac. "We know that this kind of subterfuge has taken place historically, but it can also be cited to blame external actors when things go wrong. In Pakistan's case, we need to be shown some evidence; one of the dangers of covert roles is that we end up scapegoating and blaming external actors to mask internal problems."

Imran Khan, though, is convinced that he has the evidence. During a rally in March, he waved a document in his hand and said that its contents contained proof of a foreign conspiracy to oust him and his Tehreek-e-Insaf Party government. During a press conference, a diplomatic cable received from one of Pakistan's missions abroad was produced which supported his claims. The cable was sent on 7 March, a day before the opposition party submitted a "no-confidence" motion and requested a National Assembly session to vote on it.

Cormac, a professor of international relations at Nottingham University, says that he would probably want more proof, but it's unlikely any that American intelligence documents or communications will surface unless leaked or revealed by a whistle blower. The official line from Washington at the moment is one of complete denial. The good news is that the US is usually more willing to release classified documents much earlier than a very secretive British government.

"There is still much more to see from the 1960s when Britain was up to all sorts in the Middle East but those archives are still closed. I'd love to read about David Cameron's activities in Libya and Syria after the Arab Spring but I'm afraid I'll be long dead before the MI6 files are declassified. We've got them up until 1949, so it will probably come out in the next century," Cormac explained.

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Meanwhile, as the latest political drama unfolded in Islamabad, I was reminded again of a couple of interviews I had with the legendary Lt General Hamid Gul who was Director-General of Pakistan's Inter-Services-Intelligence spy agency for two years between 1987 and 1989. Gul worked closely with US intelligence agencies and was regarded highly by the Americans until he gave outspoken support to the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan. He went on to become a figure of loathing in Washington after his retirement in 1993.

I asked the late three-star general about his high-flying military career and if he had ever held ambitions for the top job as the Pakistan Army's Chief of Staff. He smiled and replied, "As long as Washington has a say in the appointment of the head of Pakistan's army, outspoken people like me will be overlooked."

When I asked for clarification, he was adamant that the US had serious input on the most senior military appointments and maintained that Washington had "vast networks of influence across the political, academic, media and diplomatic elite in Pakistan." My first interview was during General Pervez Musharraf's tenure as President and the second was during Asif Ali Zardari's presidency, when he repeated similar claims. Gul, who died in 2015 aged 78, would no doubt be calling me today if he was still alive to say "I told you so" about the current accusations of US meddling in Pakistani affairs.

While academics like Cormac want more evidence, millions of Pakistanis have already shown this week that they have all the proof they need. As they continue to turn out in force in support of Khan it is looking, as I wrote in MEMO last month, as if Pakistan could be embarking on its own version of the Arab Spring.

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Clashes between riot police and protestors were reported all day yesterday as the authorities blocked all roads leading to the capital, where Khan's party is holding a rally to demand the removal of the government and an immediate general election. Khan launched the march from north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which is governed by his party, and urged the entire nation to take part.

By mid-morning false rumours were being spread that a last-minute deal had been done and the march was called off. "Absolutely not!" tweeted Khan. "We are moving towards Islamabad and no question of any deal. We will remain in Islamabad till announcement of dates for dissolution of assemblies and elections are made."

It seems, therefore, that a black propaganda unit is already pumping out the sort of fake news that Cormac details in his new book. That a dirty tricks department is already up and running to stop the Islamabad rally in its tracks is alarming, and arguably yet more evidence to support Imran Khan's belief that dark forces are at work in and beyond Pakistan to undermine him.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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