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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Learnings from the Gibraltar and Grand Slam

Operation Grand Slam is virtually synonymous with the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War. It refers to a plan drawn up by the Pakistan Army, in May 1965, to attack the vital Akhnoor Bridge in Jammu and Kashmir, which was not only the lifeline of an entire infantry division in Jammu and Kashmir but could also be used to threaten Jammu, an important logistical point for Indian forces.

Let’s face it. Operation Gibraltar was an abysmal failure brought on by the combination of poor strategy and questionable tactics. It was supposedly a guerilla warfare operation but the sound principles of guerilla warfare were completely ignored in favor of wishful thinking. First of all, no meaningful political work had been ever conducted by Pakistan in IOK. Guerilla warfare is immensely dependent on the host population, and political/propaganda work spanning even years is essential.

For instance, when Ho Chi Minh commissioned Vo Nguyen Giap to build a military for Vietnamese freedom fighters in the early 1940s, the first “military” units Giap established were “propaganda” units whose sole responsibility was political work in order to facilitate active guerilla warfare later on. Operation Gibraltar instead “hoped” fervently that the local populace would support the unknown guerillas against a vindictive and cruel Indian army at great peril to themselves! When “hard work” is substituted by “hope” alone, failure assuredly ensues! General Mahmud in his brilliant book “Illusion of Victory” has also eloquently rued the 17 years of slumber before Gibraltar: “17 years of lack of preparation could not be made up suddenly by barely two and a half years of brilliant effort.”

Read more: The saga of Operation Gibraltar and Grand Slam in 1965

The snap decision to launch Gibraltar in a matter of weeks (planning started in May, and the operation was launched at the end of July) not only violated the canons of guerilla warfare, but it also set an impossible task regarding training and logistics. The “guerillas” were merely given six weeks of training. Many of them weren’t even properly acclimatized to the conditions of Kashmir. General Akhtar did indeed cover a lot of ground in a very short time regarding logistics, but serious deficits remained. A very telling failure was that proper maps of the areas in which Gibraltar forces were to operate were lacking.

The guerillas carried only one week’s supply of rations and ammunition and were supposed to live off the land after that. In the absence of any synergy and prior arrangements with the locals, “living off the land” was only possible if these guerillas resorted to looting and theft from civilians, but that would have defeated the purpose. So, predictably, Gibraltar’s forces’ activities fizzled out after initial contact with the enemy owing to a lack of supplies. Actually, this eventuality was accurately predicted beforehand by Colonel S. G. Mehdi, but instead of heeding his sage advice, he was fired from his position as the commander of SSG.

Another problem with Gibraltar was the too ambitious goals set for the Gibraltar forces. For instance, how on earth could the 600-odd men of the Salahuddin force be expected to overrun Srinagar airport, destroy tunnels at Banihal, and fight battles with the Indian forces in Baramulla and Srinagar simultaneously with their meager supplies? Even if the locals had wanted to help them, how would these 600 men protect the locals from Indian wrath? Even if the locals had wanted to join in the fighting from whence the ammunition and arms for those volunteers was to come? It wasn’t surprising at all that 4 out of 5 Gibraltar forces utterly failed.

But, it was surprising, nay astounding, that the Ghaznavi force managed to achieve the impossible and accomplish many of its objectives in Rajouri. Just one victory in battle convinced a huge section of the locals that the guerillas meant businesses and then they did their best to aid the Ghaznavi force. This collaboration was the main reason for this force’s success.

Read more: Takeaways from the 1965 war at sea

But Ghaznavi’s success brings me to another disastrous effect generated by Gibraltar. What happened to those Kashmiris who did aid the Gibraltar forces? When Gibraltar forces exfiltrated (or were ordered to retreat in case of Ghaznavi force), what happened to those few freedom-lovers who had aided the guerillas at great peril? The answer lies in the ashes of the houses that the Indian army burnt in Srinagar at the slightest hint of cooperation of the residents with the Salahuddin force! According to Lt. General Lehrasab Khan (who was a member of the Gibraltar operation and did infiltrate into IOK in August 1965), the Kashmiri independence struggle was set back at least 15 years by Gibraltar’s failure and the repression that followed.

Basically, we hastily went in with a poorly thought out strategy, adapted lofty ambitions and faulty tactics, and after a few days, we flew away leaving the hapless Kashmiris to suffer at the hands of occupying forces! Those who came out to support the guerillas of Gibraltar (who were completely unknown to them) represented the purest element of freedom fighters in Kashmir, and it was this element, this most valuable nucleus for the freedom struggle, which was wiped off by Indians in the wake of Gibraltar! A clear message was delivered to the people in IOK that we weren’t reliable and couldn’t be counted upon to actively participate in the struggle for Kashmir over a long time period.

Let’s contrast Gibraltar with a contemporary guerilla warfare struggle in Asia

In the 1950s, the USA had propped up the puppet state of South Vietnam as a bulwark against communism. Initially, it was promised in 1954 at the Geneva conference that North and South Vietnam will be reunited after nationwide elections. But since everyone was sure that the communists under Ho Chi Minh would sweep the elections, the US like India propped up a puppet government and shamelessly ate her own pledges. But North Vietnam behaved very differently from Pakistan and started political work in the South right away. After a few years, low-intensity guerilla warfare was ignited which gained in intensity with time.

Ultimately, the will of the people triumphed over imperialism but only after a struggle spanning nearly two decades and costing millions of lives. Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap clearly knew and understood the concept of sustainable effort fueled through immense willpower, ideological commitment, and immense sacrifice. A concept that was incomprehensible to the likes of Bhutto and Ayub. Interestingly General Akbar Khan, who had led the liberation of most of AJK while commanding tribal volunteers and Kashmiri freedom fighters in 1947-48, had suggested a plan similar to the North Vietnamese one to President Iskander Mirza in the 1950s.

Read more: 1965 War: The Air and Naval Battle

He had recommended training only a few hundred guerillas out of whom only 500 were to operate inside IOK at one time. He had explained that after two years of this continuous effort, the conditions would become more suitable for more major operations. But, his suggestions were ignored in favor of continuing our slumber. Then, suddenly, we jumped into a massively ambitious operation like Gibraltar in a spasmodic fit of activity!

Lessons from Grand Slam

Fear robs the foot of strength to rove abroad,

And filches from the brain the power of thought.

Whatever evil lurks within thy heart,

Thou can be certain that its origin is fear:

Fraud, cunning, malice, lies all these flourish on terror, who is wrapped about with falsehood and hypocrisy for veil,

And fondles foul sedition at her breast.

And since it is least strong when zeal is high, it is most happy in disunion.

Who understands the Prophet’s clue aright sees infidelity concealed in fear.

Rumuz-e-Bekhudi (English translation by A. J. Arberry)

Unlike Gibraltar, Grand Slam wasn’t a poorly thought-out operation. Unlike Gibraltar, Grand Slam wasn’t out of sync with the conceptual basis of its mode of operation (for Gibraltar it was guerilla warfare, for Grand Slam it was good old conventional warfare). Unlike Gibraltar, Grand Slam wasn’t a victim of unachievable objectives, poor logistics, and lackluster execution. Grand Slam had a spectacular start and was on its way to a swift victory when our high command was afflicted suddenly with a mortal fear of “all-out” war. Apparently, they had thought in May that India would just smile and wave at us across the Wagah border as we captured Akhnur, but suddenly it dawned on the fine morning of 2 September on the top brass that Akhnur might be a “red-line” for India!

It was fear that led to Grand Slam’s grand failure. And that’s the only lesson that has to be learned and learned well here. Look before you leap into war, but once you have leaped then show commitment! History offers us many examples of fear ruining even the best of plans and courage rewarding its practitioner with improbable victories.

For instance, during the US civil war, the materially and numerically superior North was unable to achieve any success in quelling the rebellion in the initial phase because the Northern commander General McClellan always managed to let fear dominate his judgment on the eve of battle. The fear of losing, after embarking on a military adventure, birthed an abysmal failure for McClellan in the peninsular campaign. At Antietam, it was fear that led McClellan to squander the opportunity to crush the rebellion in a single blow.

Read more: 1965 War: The battle of Khem Karan and Asal Uttar

Luckily for the North, McClellan was an anomaly, and President Lincoln was not a man to be daunted easily. All Lincoln needed to achieve victory was a courageous general, and when he finally found him in U. S. Grant (a man who was ridiculed as a drunkard and was considered mediocre in intellectual ability), there was no stopping the progress of the Northern army! Unfortunately, Pakistan on the other hand has always been cursed by leaders steeped in cowardice.

Leaders of a supposedly “ideological” state who are ever ready to sacrifice ideology for meager material gains accrued through beggary and slavery! Generals of a supposedly “Islamic” military who are quite comfortable in surrendering to the enemy, abandoning the simpletons who dared to cooperate with them (Kashmiris in Srinagar/Rajouri, Al-Badr/Al-Shams, etc in East Pakistan), and staying blissfully ignorant of the Islamic way of fighting till the end in the spirit of Karbala even in the hopeless of situations!


The writer is a doctor and an avid reader of history. His columns have been published in the Urdu daily “Nawa-e-Waqt” and “Global Village Space”. He also runs a social media channel “Tarikh aur Tajziya” which is dedicated to the study of history and current affairs. Currently, he heads the India Desk at South Asia Times, Islamabad.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.