A nation that does not learn lessons from its mistakes is condemned to repeat them. Bertrand Russel writes that public opinion can and should be ignored if it causes unhappiness, but professional advice should never be ignored. A study of history expands beyond mere recollection, beyond raking ashes of memory to determine guidelines, directions for future course of action. The pathology of Romantic toying with nostalgic memories or being haunted with guilt, shame, trauma, despair can be remedied by the interpretive study of history to learn lessons and thereby construct a better future strategy.
This framework is used to raise an oft-repeated, pertinent question about the conduct of the top Pakistan Army brass not only in the 1965 Indo-Pak war but also in the 1971 war.
Read more: Did Gen Yahya’s appeasement of Mujib lead to fall of East Pakistan?
Where did President Ayub go wrong?
Pakistan Army’s short, sharp defeat inflicted on the Indians in the Rann of Kutch in mid-1965, gave a boost to President Ayub’s spirits and Pakistanis’ confidence was bolstered by friendship with China. Ayub Khan heeded the advice of Bhutto to take a “courageous and bold decision” to find a settlement to the Kashmir problem. Sympathy for the sad plight of Kashmiris and concern over Indian intransigence as well as enormous Western military aid pouring into India were the primary reasons to push Pakistan into considering a radical solution.
Ayub khan personally handed the responsibility for the operation in Kashmir over to Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik, commander of the 12th Division of the Pakistan Army. Maj. General Akhtar writes that the objective was “to de freeze the Kashmir issue, raise it from its moribund state, and bring it to the notice of the world” and bring India to the conference table without provoking general war.
Hassan Abbas writes in his book Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism: Allah, The Army, And America’s War On Terror, “General Akhtar Malik was a man of towering presence and was known for his acuteness of mind and boldness of spirit. He was loved and admired by his subordinates but was far too outspoken to be of any comfort to most of his superiors. His professional excellence, however, was acknowledged both in military and civilian circles”.
Gen Akhtar planned to capture Akhnur, a small town astride the Jammu-Srinagar Road with the objective to cut the chicken neck, the main Indian artery into the Valley of Kashmir, to contain the Indian forces there, and accordingly exploit the situation. When Operation Grand Slam started, the Indian forces were running amuck, and as Hassan Abbass writes “Akhnur lay tantalizingly close and inadequately defended”.
Read more: The tragedy of East Pakistan: 50 years later
While the Pakistani forces were only three miles short of Akhnur, there was, in the words of the Indian journalist, MJ Akbar, a sudden and “an inexplicable change of command”. The rule that horses should not be changed in the midstream was blatantly overruled. The C-in_C General Musa, unexpectedly, appeared on the scene and without giving any reason handed the command of the 12th Division over to Lt. General Yahya Khan, who was accompanying him.
General Malik has flown away from the theatre of operations
This untimely and fateful change of the military commander changed the contours of the battle Not only there was the loss of time inherent in such a change, but also the change of Gen. Malik’s plan by Yahya Khan’s incompetence as well as egoistic intrusion further wasted precious time and gave Indians enough time to strengthen the defences of Akhnur. This was the end of a promising operation, which had been methodically planned with meticulous attention to the minutest details. At a critical time, when the capture of Akhnur was imminent, the change of the military commander, as well as his brilliantly conceived plan, slashed the execution of the operation.
Gen. Yahya’s selfish ambition to claim the credit for the victory and be hailed as a hero ended up in humiliation. The contents of a letter that Maj. General Akhtar wrote to his younger brother Lieutenant-General Ali Abdullah Malik in 1967 from Turkey, where he was sent away after the 1965 war, disclose that this was “a betrayal of many dimensions” It is worthwhile to quote him, “I reasoned and then pleaded with Yahya that if it was credit he was looking for, he should take the overall command but let me go up to Akhnur as his subordinate, but he refused. He went a step further and even changed the plan”.
Maj. General Akhtar with his remarkable foresight warned that India will not sit back in comfort rather it will prepare hard to hit back at the slightest excuse. As an insightful war strategist, he also foreboded that India’s next move will be made in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. He wrote in the same letter, “I have little doubt that the Indians will never forgive us the slight of 65 and will avenge it at the first opportunity. I am certain they will hit us in E. Pak [East Pakistan] and we will need all we have to save the situation … The worst has still to come and we have to prepare for it”.
Regrettably, his choral voice remained unheeded
It is both heartening and painful to read Gen. Akhtar Malik’s letter to his younger brother Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Malik. It is heartening for the reason that it bolsters up the sagging faith in the innate goodness of human beings. Despite the yahoos that are running all around us there are still many good people, both competent as well as committed. It is a painful read to see how a brilliant initiative caved in by the opportunism of a few power-hungry, egoistic people.
What deterred Gen. Malik from writing a book on his experience as the architect of Operation Gibraltar and Grand Slam Operation is his patriotism, as in his view such a book could demotivate, demoralize the army and lower its prestige in public. This refusal to aggrandize himself and thereby satisfy his ego is an exemplary demonstration of a soldier’s principle of service above self, the cohesive spirit of putting collective wellbeing above self-interest. Self-abnegation for the sake of larger interests is, unfortunately, a rare virtue, certainly not the product of feeble minds.
The General could foresee that in case he wrote such a book, it would be used as a textbook by the Indian army against Pakistan. It is educative to read the letter in his own words, “I have given serious consideration to writing a book, but given up the idea. The book would be the truth. And truth and the popular reaction to it would be good for my ego. But in the long run, it would be an unpatriotic act. It will destroy the morale of the army, lower its prestige among the people, be banned in Pakistan, and become a textbook for the Indians”. Ironically after the war, General Akhtar Malik has entrusted the task of war analysis. His analysis is a scathing criticism of the way the higher command conducted the war.
Read more: The tragedy of East Pakistan: Killing fields of Bengal
Once in power, General Yahya Khan, as the Commander-in-Chief of the army, started consolidating his power by promoting and placing his favorites and loyalists in key positions. There was side-lining of competent and sincere officers like General Akhtar Malik, who was posted out to Turkey, along with a collection of discredited officers around him. This policy of patronizing personal loyalty over that of competence and professionalism resulted in professional pride gradually giving way to servile behavior. Yahya Khan, one of the main players in this game, perpetuated this legacy of collecting incompetent sycophants around him and the terrible result was the debacle of East Pakistan in 1971.
It is educative to quote from Brig. (R) Saadullah Khan H.J.’s criticism of top army brass in his book East Pakistan to Bangladesh, “The venture in East Pakistan was reckless: it succeeded for the time being through the untiring efforts of the dauntless servicemen whose only ambition was to fight for Pakistan and they strained every sinew in its service. Unfortunately, Yahya Khan and his coterie drew the wrong lessons. For them, the success was justification for the continuation of this disastrous course”. Brig. Sultan Ahmed SJ & Bar expresses similar views in his book r when he quotes Norman Dixon, the psychologist, “the higher people go up the organizational pyramid of armed forces, the more incompetent they become.”, and he adds, “In the case of Pakistani armed forces’ leaders, this was especially true” in 1965 and 1971, despite the fact that the heroic courage of junior leadership of Pakistan army was undeniable.
To conclude, meritocracy must be promoted to check and halt the advancement of incompetent and corrupt people to positions of power. Committed, competent and courageous people should be identified, appreciated and given opportunities to make the best of their potential and reach the highest level.
Professor Dr. Aalia Sohail Khan, former Vice-Chancellor Rawalpindi Women University Pakistan. 33 years of experience in teaching English literature and language at the postgraduate level and has 7 years of administrative experience. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.