SOME of the writing about the Indo-Pakistan war of September 1965 borders on mythology. It is no surprise that generations of Pakistanis continue to believe that India was the aggressor and that one Pakistani soldier was equal to 10 Indian soldiers.
A few have argued that the war began in August when Pakistan injected guerrillas into the vale of Kashmir to instigate a revolt and grab it before India achieved military dominance in the region. That was Operation Gibraltar.
When it failed to trigger a revolt and drew a sharp Indian riposte along the ceasefire line, Pakistan upped the ante and launched Operation Grand Slam on Sept 1. Infantry units of the army backed by armour overran the Indian outpost in Chamb, crossed the Tawi river and were headed towards Akhnur in order to cut off India’s line of communication with Srinagar.
In the minority view, the Indian response on Sept 6 across the international border at Lahore was a natural counter-response, not an act of aggression.
I asked Sajjad Haider, author of the new book, Flight of the Falcon, to name the aggressor. He retired as an air commodore in the Pakistan Air Force. A fighter pilot to the bone, he does not know how to mince words: “Ayub perpetrated the war.”
In April, skirmishes had taken place in the Rann of Kutch region several hundred miles south of Kashmir. In that encounter, the Pakistanis prevailed over the Indians. Haider says that the humiliation suffered by the Indians brought Prime Minister Shastri to the conclusion that the next round would be of India’s choosing.
The Indian army chief prepared for a war that would be fought in the plains of Punjab. Under ‘Operation Ablaze’, it would mount an attack against Lahore, Sialkot and Kasur. Of course, the trigger would have to be pulled by the Pakistanis.
On May 12, says Haider, an Indian Canberra bomber flew over the Pakistan border on a reconnaissance mission. To quote him: “The PAF scrambled interceptors which got within shooting range of the intruder. Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s permission was sought to bring down the intruder. He sought clearance from the president on the newly installed direct line but Ayub denied permission fearing Indian reprisal.” Laments Haider, “If this was not an indication of Indian intentions, what else could have been?”
Oblivious to what had just taken place in the skies above Punjab, and failing to anticipate how India was gunning to equalise the score, Ayub gave the green light to Operation Gibraltar on the advice of his foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (later president and prime minister). Bhutto had sought out the opinion about Indian intentions from Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi during a meeting at the Karachi airport and concluded from the latter’s body language that India would not respond.
So Ayub gave the green light to send 8,000 infiltrators into Indian-held Kashmir. These, says Haider, were mostly youth from Azad Kashmir who had less than four weeks of training in guerrilla warfare. The entire plan was predicated on a passive Indian response, evoking Gen Von Moltke’s dictum: “No war plan survives the first 24 hours of contact with the enemy.”
It is also worth recalling what the kaiser said to the German troops that were heading off to fight the French in August 1914: “You will be home before the leaves have fallen off the trees.” The three-month war turned into the Great War which lasted for four years.
Operation Grand Slam abruptly ground to a halt. An Indian general cited by Haider says in his memoirs: “Akhnur was a ripe plum ready to be plucked, but providence came to our rescue.” The Pakistani GHQ decided to switch divisional commanders in the midst of the operation. The new commander, Maj-Gen Yahya (subsequently army chief and president), claimed later he was not tasked with taking Akhnur.
I asked Haider whether the Pakistani military was prepared for an all-out war with India, a much bigger country with a much bigger military. He said it was the army’s war, since the other services had been kept in the dark. The army was clearly not prepared for an all-out war since a quarter of the soldiers were on leave. They were only recalled as the Indian army crossed the border en route to Lahore, a horrific sight which Haider recalls seeing from the air as he and five of his falcons arrived on the outskirts of Lahore.
Maj-Gen Sarfraz was the general officer commanding of the No.10 Division which had primary responsibility for the defence of Lahore. Along with other divisional commanders in the region, he had been ordered by GHQ to remove all defensive landmines from the border. None had been taken into confidence about the Kashmir operation. The pleas of these generals to prepare against an Indian invasion were rejected by GHQ with a terse warning: “Do not provoke the Indians.”
Haider notes that the gateway to Lahore was defended by the 3rd Baloch contingent of 100 men under the intrepid Major Shafqat Baluch. He says, “They fought to the last man till we (No.19 Squadron) arrived to devastate the invading division. There could have been no doubt even in the mind of a hawaldar that an Indian attack would come. But the ostriches at the pulpit had their heads dug in sand up to their necks.”
In the 1965 war, the Pakistani Army repeated the mistakes of the 1947-48 Kashmir war, but on a grander scale. No official history of the 1965 war was ever written even though President Ayub wanted one. Gen Yahya, his new army chief, just sat on the request until Ayub was hounded out of office by centrifugal forces triggered by the war.
Pakistan’s grand strategy was flawed. None of its strategic objectives were achieved. And were it not for the tactical brilliance of many mid-level commanders, the country would have been torn apart by the Indians. Ironically, in Ayub’s autobiography, one would be hard pressed to find any references to the war of 1965. One is reminded of De Gaulle’s history of the French army which makes no reference to the events that took place in Waterloo in 1815.
War, as Clemenceau put it, is too serious a business to be left to the generals.
The writer has authored Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.