Pakistan's military Thursday dismissed allegations by ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan that the United States had conspired with his political opponents to force him from office but said the U.S. had used language that amounted to interference in Pakistani affairs.
Major General Babar Iftikhar, the military spokesman, also attempted in a televised news conference to distance his powerful institution from having anything to do with the no-confidence vote in parliament that ended Khan's almost four years in power on Sunday.
The 69-year-old former cricket star has relentlessly alleged, before and after losing the vote, that "a foreign conspiracy of regime change" was behind his ouster to punish him for paying an official visit to Russia against Washington's advice. Khan visited President Vladimir Putin on February 24, the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Khan's allegations are based on a March 7 ciphered communication sent to Islamabad by the then-Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Asad Majeed Khan, after a meeting with Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs.
The ousted prime minister said the message contained details of an alleged U.S. plot and that its authenticity had been affirmed at a meeting of Pakistan's National Security Committee (NSC), comprising top civilian and military leaders, that he chaired on March 31.
A statement issued after the NSC meeting expressed “grave concern" at the communication from Washington and concluded that it “amounted to blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan.”
Islamabad summoned the acting U.S. ambassador to the Foreign Ministry hours later that day and issued a demarche, or diplomatic note of protest, accusing the U.S. of interference in Pakistan's internal affairs.
Iftikhar defended the demarche as a "diplomatic procedure," but he challenged Khan's interpretation of the NSC statement.
"Is there any word such as conspiracy used in it? I don't think so," the general stressed. "However, it is clearly written in the statement that the language used [by the U.S. official] is akin to interference (in internal affairs of Pakistan)."
Since his removal from office, Khan has said he left behind declassified copies of the controversial ciphered message with heads of key Pakistani state institutions, with a call for them to have it investigated by a high-powered judicial commission.
He used the NSC statement to try to block the no-confidence vote, but the top Pakistani court outlawed his actions and bound him to face the parliamentary process.
In his bid to force his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, to announce snap elections, Khan has launched a series of nationwide massive public rallies, where he continues to blame Washington for orchestrating his departure, charges U.S. officials have repeatedly rejected.
"Our message has been clear and constant: There is no truth whatsoever to the allegations that have been put forward," State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated Thursday.
"We support the peaceful upholding of constitutional and democratic principles, including respect for human rights," Price told reporters.
Iftikhar also described the no-confidence motion against Khan as part of the "democratic process" in Pakistan's parliament, claiming the military continues to adhere to its "apolitical" role in line with the country's constitution.
The general repeatedly asserted at the news conference that the military is not interfering in politics but acknowledged that the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, attempted to mediate the deadlock over the no-confidence vote between Khan and the opposition.
Iftikhar said Khan had asked Bajwa to convey to opposition leaders that the prime minister would call early elections if the vote against him was withdrawn.
"[Bajwa] went to the opposition and placed this request in front of them, [but] they said that they wouldn't take any such step," the spokesman added.
Skepticism about army claims
Critics remain skeptical about the military's claims that it is adhering to its nonpolitical role. The skepticism stems from three military coups since the founding of Pakistan 75 years ago that led to 34 years combined of dictatorial rule in the country.
Generals continue to influence democratically elected governments from behind the scenes even when they are not in power, according to independent observers.
Human rights defender Tahira Abdullah said that the military spokesman's news conference was "riddled" with contradictions and conflicting statements.
"It is difficult to comprehend as to whether or not the military wishes to be perceived as being part of our political theatrics any longer," Abdullah said. "It cannot simultaneously ride with both the hares and hounds."
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at Washington's Wilson Center, said the military's decision to offer extensive remarks Thursday was likely meant to clear the air and offer its own view on issues, including the circumstances of Khan's ouster.
"While the military certainly is not keen to stage coups these days, it continues to wield influence behind the scenes and continues to be a key but quiet political powerbroker," Kugelman noted.
Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the U.S.-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Pakistan's civil-military imbalance is driven by the "incompetence" of civilian leaders as much as by the interference of generals.
"The military establishment enjoys an informal but powerful veto in political affairs. But Pakistan's civilian leaders have also been more than happy to leave key governance tasks to the generals rather than take responsibility for it," Weinstein said.
He added that outside powers such as the United States also empower the military establishment by sending clear signals that they are content to work directly with them on matters of foreign policy.
"Washington views the military establishment as more predictable than civilian leaders, and so it's frankly happy with wherever imbalance exists," Weinstein said.
VOA's Cindy Saine contributed to this report.