September 6, 1965 — The war that Changed Pakistan By Mushahid Hussain

The September 1965 War is a turning point in Pakistan’s chequered history. It nurtured many a myth about white gowned “holy men” gently deflecting Indian bombs with an angelic wave of divine hands. It fed our hero-loving masses with new tales of valour and glory in the tradition of Khalid bin Walid and Mohammad bin Qasim. And it turned out to be the first step in accentuating the yawning chasm between East and West Pakistan, which subsequently gave birth to the Third World’s first successful secessionist struggle.

The war also changed our geopolitical environment, unleashed dormant forces and generated a momentum which effectively destabilised a seemingly well-entrenched military dictatorship, while greatly radicalising the Pakistani political consciousness. The rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the decline of Ayub Khan are inextricably linked with the 1965 War. Fifty-six years on, cynics recognise that whatever success Pakistan managed to achieve on the battlefield was attributable to three As: Allah, Artillery and Air Force, besides the inspiring melodies of Madame Noor Jehan.

Apart from these home-truths, the “thousand-year-war” which turned into a 17-day stalemate, backed by the climb-down at Tashkent in January 1966, remains an essentially untold and largely forgotten story. Why did the normally cautious Field Marshal decide to take the initiative in 1965? He was a sure-footed General who avoided taking risks, particularly of the kind entailed by Operation Gibraltar.

Since no authoritative account of the 1965 War is available, it is difficult to really understand or analyse the reasons behind Ayub Khan’s decision to launch Operation Gibraltar which sent in forces into Indian Occupied Kashmir to foment a popular uprising against Indian rule. Three explanations are generally offered.

First, fresh from his “victory” over Miss Fatima Jinnah in the rigged Presidential poll of January 1965, Ayub Khan really wanted to do something spectacular so that he would go down in Pakistan’s history as one of its heroes and he was egged on by his sycophants as well as powerful hawks in the bureaucracy. In this regard, his March 1965 China visit proved crucial. Ayub and important members of his entourage were apparently very much impressed by the zeal, dedication and sincerity of the Chinese. At that time, the Chinese were promoting their theory of “People’s War”. This appealed to Ayub Khan and his colleagues in the context of a possible military adventure in Occupied Kashmir. It meant maximum gains (fomenting popular uprising in Occupied Kashmir with possible liberation) via minimum risks (Pakistan Army disclaiming involvement). Second, the brief successful military encounter with India in April 1965 over the Rann of Kutch produced illusions among Pakistani policymakers. They derived broader conclusions from this limited engagement in a desert area and this perhaps formed the basis of the confidence in GHQ that Occupied Kashmir could be targeted to change the status quo. Third, there was the apparent Foreign Office assessment conveyed to Ayub Khan which said that whatever Pakistan might do in Occupied Kashmir, India would somehow never dare violate the international border.

Whatever may have been the Foreign Office view and it would have been naive for Ayub to accept it in toto, the fact remains that ultimately the sole responsibility for his actions and its consequences rests on his shoulders since, as President, he was Supreme Commander and a professional soldier as well. The war which started as a two-phased military operation combining guerrilla and conventional aspects was undoubtedly a brilliantly conceived plan, but which fell victim to poor execution. Mediocre general-ship, lack of coordination and jitters among the high command managed to nullify the bravery and supreme sacrifices of jawans and officers on the battlefield. Inspired by the Maoist dictum that “guerrillas are like fish in water; just as fish cannot live without water, guerrillas cannot survive without people”, a “decisive solution” of the Kashmir conflict was attempted by employing Chinese-style people’s war tactics. On July 5, 1965 a clandestine station calling itself the ‘Voice of Kashmir’ declared that the war of liberation against Indian occupation had begun. The “Gibraltar force” of Pakistani regulars, said to number five thousand men, had started its operations in Occupied Kashmir.

The conventional phase of the operation code-named Operation Grand Slam (like Gibralter Force, also a brainchild of Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik, an avid bridge-player) was aimed at the capture of Chhamb, Jaurian and Akhnoor — the last one being a vital link in India’s communication with Occupied Kashmir. A daring military commander, General Akhter Malik saw an opportunity offered by an Indian military machine that was still recovering from its humiliation at the hands of China in 1962 and the popular agitation in Occupied Kashmir over the Hazratbal incident in 1964, when stealing of the sacred hair of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preserved in a mosque in Srinagar sparked serious riots. The Gibralter Force plan was undertaken without reference to the Kashmiri people, the need for adequate groundwork, or necessary psychological mobilisation among the Muslims of Occupied Kashmir for an arduous liberation struggle. With the successful completion of Operation Grand Slam near at hand (Chhamb and Jurian already been liberated), General Akhtar Malik was relieved of command in the middle of the battle and replaced by the then Major General Yahya Khan. By ousting a successful military commander and holding back on attacking Akhnoor, Operation Grand Slam was slammed shut! The decision remains inexplicable. One view has it that Field Marshal Ayub Khan personally ordered the change of command and a halt to the attack on Akhnoor under pressure from his former American friends. They had reportedly conveyed to him that an attack on Akhnoor would lead to a full-scale war with India. The other explanation for the change of command was that “credit” for the “victory” should go to the general being groomed for the top Army slot i.e. General Yahya Khan, rather than Akhtar Hussain Malik.

When India did attack Pakistan on September 6, it was a beaming American Ambassador who told Ayub Khan with an air of arrogance: “The Indians have got you by the throat, Mr President, haven’t they!” Concurrently, the CIA was said to have planned a covert operation to oust Ayub Khan through an in-house coup. The Telegraph, in its issue of September 13, 1965, wrote that the CIA tried to recruit Lt Gen Azam Khan, an estranged confidante of Ayub, also a former Governor of East Pakistan, as a potential coup-maker but, Azam “refused to play ball” and promptly informed his former boss. Ayub had earned the wrath of the US because of his friendship with China — the US ‘enemy number one’ then. Pakistan was punished by Washington in another important way. Its sole supplier of weaponry cut off all arms aid during the war.

The war had deep ramifications both in foreign policy and domestic politics. The Sandhurst-trained Field Marshal, with an impressive exterior, emerged with a much-reduced stature. He was found lacking in both military decisiveness and political astuteness. He was unable to stand up to external pressure when he had the entire nation to back him up with unprecedented patriotic fervour in both wings of Pakistan, establishing, for a fleeting 17 days at least, the mirage of a unified monolithic nation. The September war effectively sealed Ayub Khan’s political fate. He had failed in his attempt to liberate Occupied Kashmir. At Tashkent, he reneged on his solemn commitment that Pakistan would never withdraw its troops from the borders until the Kashmir issue was resolved. Kashmir wasn’t even mentioned in the Tashkent Declaration, brokered by the Soviet Union with American endorsement.

While soldiers and officers fought gallantly on September 6, 1965, with the people solidly united around their armed forces, the nation was let down by its leadership which could not take external pressure. What are three key lessons of the September War which remain relevant even today? First is a fundamental flaw in the absence of institutional decision-making. Decisions are taken in Pakistan, both by civilians or the military, secretly, even surreptitiously, by mostly a cabal, rather than through a democratic debate. Second, flawed assumptions become the reason for failure. For instance, the assumption of the September War was repeated in the Kargil conflict 34 years later: India wouldn’t respond effectively to Pakistani military incursions. Third, Occupied Kashmir can only be liberated and the status quo changed through an indigenous and popular struggle of the Kashmiri people, not remote-controlled operations.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 7th, 2021.

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