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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

1971 War: A military or a political defeat?

More than half a century after the traumatic event, the elite of this country are still feverishly debating if the 1971 war resulted in a military or a political defeat. As for the young generation, most of them hardly know that, till 1971, Pakistan had an eastern wing. And even those who know don’t care.

An animated discussion, spawned by the outgoing army chief’s remarks at his farewell function, has further aggravated the political turbulence that gripped Pakistan for the last many months. Almost a fortnight from today we will be observing the 51st anniversary of the dismemberment of Pakistan and the blood-stained birth of Bangladesh – erstwhile East Pakistan. More than half a century after the traumatic event, the elite of this country are still feverishly debating if the 1971 war resulted in a military or a political defeat. As for the young generation, most of them hardly know that, till 1971, Pakistan had an eastern wing. And even those who know don’t care.

My generation, which was witness to the events that led to the 1971 War, remembers the sudden outburst of anger, in October 1968, when a group of Rawalpindi’s Gordon College students, on their way back from a sight-seeing trip to NWFP(now KPK), were roughed up at a customs check post near Attock. The students had done some shopping at one of the smuggled goods markets that still dot Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.  They had bought some cloth and toiletry items which were confiscated by the customs officials.

Read more: The Ganga Hijacking in 1971

On returning to Rawalpindi, the students held a rally the next day to protest the high-handedness of customs officials. As if from nowhere, there was a sudden spurt of demonstrations across the country. The pent-up anger against Ayub Khan’s authoritarian rule had found expression in mass agitation. After about six months of unrest, Ayub Khan, who had himself been catapulted to power as a result of  President Iskander Mirza’s martial law, handed over power to General Yahya Khan who imposed another martial law- the second in Pakistan’s history.

General elections were held in the country in December 1970

There is a well-known and much thrashed-out political background to the 1971 War. We all know that the war resulted due to a struggle for power between Awami League, the Army, and the Peoples Party. This power struggle degenerated into a civil war, which was exploited by India to dismember Pakistan.

As a result of the 1970 general elections, Awami League emerged as the majority party in the parliament, but it did not have even a single representative from West Pakistan. Likewise, Peoples Party, the second largest party in the parliament, did not have any members from East Pakistan. In a mature democracy, handing over power to the majority party would have taken place without a hassle, provided there were no hidden motives. As the pre-poll strategy of the two largest parties suggests, the personal ambitions of Mujib and Bhutto had already reached a stage where they were not thinking in terms of a united Pakistan but nurturing ambitions of ruling their respective wing as their independent fief.

There was a so-called Legal Framework Order (LFO) promulgated by Yahya Khan, which laid down the code of conduct for the elections. Both Awami League and Peoples Party had been blatantly violating the LFO by basing their election campaign on parochialism and hatred. That Yahya Khan remained indifferent to these violations amply shows that he had his own hidden agenda. Probably he was thinking that he would exploit the differences between the two politicians to perpetuate his rule.

Read more: Recognizing the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971

The 71 War was a choreographed war in which Pakistan’s response was planned in Beijing in November 1971 where Bhutto, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan, and Air Marshal Rahim Khan decided to wash their hands off East Pakistan and present it to Indira Gandhi on a platter by not launching any meaningful military operation in the western theatre. It was done to bring Bhutto into power. As a quid pro quo, Gul Hasan and Rahim khan were to be rewarded by Bhutto by making Gul Hasan the Army chief and retaining Rahim Khan as the Air Chief.

It is therefore an open secret that while in Beijing, Bhutto, Gul, and Rahim conspired to wash their hands off a united Pakistan and choreograph the defeat of the Pakistan Army to bring Bhutto into Power. In his book, “Three Presidents and an Aide”, ambassador Sami Khan reveals besides the details of the conspiracy hatched in Beijing, the inside story of the phony preemptive airstrikes on IAF airfields that started the war.

I have written earlier that during WWI Germany put Lenin and Trotsky, along with many Bolsheviks, on a train and smuggled them into Russia to topple Tzar Nicholas II. The Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and, as quid pro quo to the German favor, Lenin made public the secret treaties between Germany and the Allies. The Pakistani Bolsheviks, led by Bhutto, facilitated the Indian and US designs to separate East Pakistan as part of their grand strategy.

Militarily, the dice were so heavily loaded against Pakistan, and Maneckshaw was so confident of India’s victory, that he had got the document of surrender prepared even before the start of the war:

“I was so sure that I will win that I had personally dictated the surrender document to headquarters Eastern Command and ordered them to make four copies. I asked them to give one copy to Jagjit Singh Sahib, one copy to Niazi, one copy to the government (of India, sic), and one copy I will keep in my office….. (After the ceasefire) I told Jagjit Singh ‘this is a great day for you. Take your wife along (to accompany you at the surrender ceremony, sic)’.

Read more: November 1971: The meeting in Beijing

I will cite two examples to support my thesis:

According to Arshad Sami Khan, PAF launched a series of half-hearted attacks on the IAF forward airbases at 1600 hours, 3 December 71. These attacks were a parody of Operation Focus – Israeli preemptive air strikes against Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian airfields. Resultantly, very little damage was caused to the IAF airfields. It was because the attacks were designed to fail.

In the battle of Longewala, the Indian air force harassed a Pakistani infantry brigade group (51 Brigade with under command 22 Cavalry). This force was launched into action without air cover and was without even troop-carrying vehicles (TCVs) for the infantry. The author says it with certainty because his unit was part of the attacking brigade and, due to the non-availability of TCVs, it had to commandeer tractor trolleys from the locals. Moving those trolleys over the dunes was a nightmare, so they were abandoned well short of the international border. IAF action disabled 50% of the enemy tanks (around 20) and many vehicles carrying ammunition and POL. A large number of surviving soft vehicles had to be abandoned as they got bogged down in deep sand.

Launching an armor operation without air cover was again a deliberate attempt not to achieve the military objectives. It was designed to fail.

A.J. Noorani, an Indian writer,  quotes an excerpt from Sher Baz Mazari’s book “A Journey to Disillusionment”.

If the Polish resolution had been accepted, the ignominy of 17 December (surrender) would have been avoided. The fact that it demanded the transfer of power to the elected representatives rankled Bhutto. It meant a return of Mujib and the Awami League. Bhutto would then have been reduced in political rank. As a parliamentary minority leader, he would have been relegated to the peripheries of power”.

Read more: Who Killed Bengali Intellectuals in 1971?

In the final analysis, we find that during the 1971 War

  • The civil and military dimensions of the war overlapped.
  • There were dissensions in the corridors of power which created multiple centers of gravity. One such center of gravity comprised Bhutto, Gul Hasan, and Rahim. These three conspired and choreographed Pakistan’s response to the coming war. Resultantly, the heavily outnumbered Eastern Command was abandoned to fend for itself.
  • Pakistan’s strategy, after the partition, was to defend East Pakistan from the West. However, deliberately no meaningful operation was launched in the western sector. It was because of fear that any territorial gain in the west would defeat the strategy of letting East Pakistan become Bangladesh.
  • The Eastern command was deceived into believing that the U.S. Seventh Fleet was on its way to rescue the beleaguered Eastern garrison.
  • While Pakistan’s armed forces fought valiantly, a small group led by Bhutto stabbed them in the back.



Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.