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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Op-ed: Accepting Bhutto-led FO’s advice during 1965 war cost Ayub Khan dearly

While the heroism and professionalism displayed by our heroes and martyrs at the tactical level was exemplary, decisions at the strategic level particularly by those at the very top of the national hierarchy could have been much better.

The heroism displayed by our soldiers, sailors and airmen in the 1965 India – Pakistan War has been given extensive coverage by national print and electronic media. The shortcomings at strategic planning levels, however, have rarely been discussed publicly, although the command failures have been identified at the Services Staff and War Colleges including the National Defence College. This is an attempt to truthfully and accurately convey to the Pakistani public some of the crucial failures at the highest level of decision making during the 1965 War.

The 55th anniversary of Pakistan’s Defence Day was celebrated by the nation with fervour and enthusiasm—as it should have. The rank and file of the three services with the support of the Pakistani public had blunted a full-fledged military invasion by a much larger enemy and in the bargain gave it a bloody nose. While the heroism and professionalism displayed by our heroes and martyrs at the tactical level was exemplary and needs to be recounted and remembered for the current and future generation, some of the decisions at the strategic level particularly by those at the very top of the national hierarchy could have been much better. Two examples to illustrate the failures would suffice.

Ayub falls prey to naive advice from foreign minister Bhutto

After the Operation Gibraltar failed to achieve its military objective, Operation Grand Slam was conceived that planned to capture Akhnur, the key logistics supply route in the Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) through a swift military offensive. Loss of Akhnur by India would have practically cut off the Kashmir Valley from the rest of India leading to its liberation from Indian clutches.

When the plan was presented to President Field Marshal Ayub Khan, he initially demurred. During his reign of seven years over the country originating from his military takeover in 1958, Pakistan had made rapid economic progress and was dubbed as an Asian tiger. He was not willing to involve the country in an all-out war with its much larger neighbour India which would have severely dented the economic progress made after much effort.

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His Foreign Minister, the young and ambitious Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB), aided by some of the top generals of the Pakistan Army convinced the President that according to the appreciation of the Foreign Office based on their study, the battle would remain confined to Kashmir. Reluctantly the President agreed and gave his formal approval. Unfortunately, the advice of the Foreign Office proved horribly wrong. On September 6, 1965, India launched a major land and air invasion across the international boundary.

Acceptance by Ayub Khan of the naive advice by the Foreign Office under ZAB is beyond comprehension. It displayed a very poor understanding about the art of warfare by a person who held the topmost military rank of a Field Marshal.

Weak strategic decision making in 1965 Pakistan-India war

Operation Grand Slam made rapid progress, and the capture of Akhnur was within sight. By then the Foreign Office had received credible intelligence from one of Pakistan’s key allies that having failed to defeat Pakistani offensive in IOK, India had started full-scale military mobilisation to launch a major land invasion across the international border. To his credit, ZAB did brief the President of the latest development.

Ayub Khan developed cold feet and according to reliable sources, ordered a change of command of Operation Grand Slam, replacing Lt. General Akhtar Hussain Malik with Lt. General Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan was asked to stall the momentum of the Akhnur invasion in the hope that India would suspend its planned offensive if Pakistan could prevent Aknur from falling. He even ordered the military not to mobilise and take up full defensive positions as per the war plan fearing that it might give the Indian leadership the excuse to launch a full fledged invasion.

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The Indian invasion did materialise as predicted by the foreign intelligence report on September 6, 1965. Lahore was thinly manned because of the decision by Ayub Khan not to mobilise. Only the heroics of the likes of Major Raja Aziz Bhatti (Shaheed) of the Pakistan Army and his comrades, and Wing Commander Sajad Haider and his brave squadron mates prevented the Lahore sector from collapsing under the weight of the infantry and armored offensive by the Indian Armed Forces.

The precious time bought by the holding forces allowed the full deployment of the defensive forces to counter the Indian offensive. The Indian Army Chief’s boast of enjoying a peg of his favourite whiskey in Lahore Gymkhana by the evening of September 6 was blown to smithereens.

Stalling the Operation Grand Slam offensive and not ordering the Armed Forces to take up full defensive positions before September 6, 1965, displayed signs of weakness, a euphemism for cowardice exhibited by Ayub Khan. Great military commanders aim for the best and prepare for the worst, always having a contingency plan ready.

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Despite the assurance given by the Foreign Office that a riposte across the international boundary by India was very unlikely, the Field Marshal should not have ruled it out. Had the President displayed more confidence and courage after Grand Slam was launched and allowed his forces to capture Akhnur while fully manning the defensive positions the September war might have ended as a victory rather than a stalemate.

We must learn from our mistakes

The grievous errors of judgment at the highest level of military command in 1965 Pakistan-India war had been identified after the ceasefire, but under euphoria of having successfully defended the Motherland against a much larger force, the blunders were swept under the carpet. Great nations remember and eulogise their heroes and martyrs, but they also fearlessly identify their weaknesses and failures and show no hesitation in their removal.

At the top hierarchy of the military command, one blunder is one blunder too many. While Ayub Khan paid for his follies a couple of years later, ZAB got off scot-free. If proper steps to free the nation of incompetent, weak or overambitious leaders had been taken in time, the fallout of the September War at the national level could have been avoided.

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The past is history and cannot be altered, but the bitter lessons of some of the failures at the strategic level can only be ignored at the peril of national security. The nation must take a solemn vow from henceforth not to tolerate incompetence and cowardice particularly at the higher echelons of its military and political leadership.

Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and national newspapers including Dawn, The News, and The Nation. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.