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Thursday, May 23, 2024

November 1971: The meeting in Beijing

In mid-November 1971, a few days before the Indian Army launched an all-out offensive against East Pakistan, Yahya Khan had sent Zulfikar Bhutto as head of a high-level delegation to China. He was accompanied by Lieutenant General Gul Hassan Khan, Chief of the General Staff, Pakistan Army, and Air Marshal Rahim Khan, Commander-in-Chief, of PAF.

Squadron Leader Arshad Sami Khan (retired) is a veteran of the 1965 war. After the war, he served as ADC to Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Later on, he was transferred to the Foreign Office and served as Chief of Protocol with General Zia ul Haq, Benazir, and Nawaz Sharif.

During his stint in Lisbon as Pakistan’s ambassador to Portugal, Arshad Sami Khan met with Air Marshal Rahim Khan, who was then serving as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Spain. After a dinner at the Air Marshal’s residence in Madrid, Arshad Sami Khan had a long discussion with the latter about his role in the 71 War, particularly at the meeting with Zhou En-Lai in Beijing a few weeks before the outbreak of the 1971 War.

Read more: The volatility of International borders

Understanding the matter better

It is 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.

In mid-November 1971, a few days before the Indian Army launched an all-out offensive against East Pakistan, Yahya Khan had sent Zulfikar Bhutto as head of a high-level delegation to China. He was accompanied by Lieutenant General Gul Hassan Khan, Chief of the General Staff, Pakistan Army, and Air Marshal Rahim Khan, Commander-in-Chief, of PAF.

Considering that Bhutto had a personal equation with the Chinese leadership, Yahya had chosen him to lead the delegation on the recommendation of Gul Hassan. The mandate of the mission was to ascertain the extent to which China would be willing to support Pakistan in case of war with India, which was looming large on the horizon with the deterioration of  Pakistan’s position in East Pakistan by the day.

In Beijing, Bhutto led the talks with the Chinese leadership, including Premier Zhou Enlai and Foreign Minister, Chen Ye. He briefed them about the rapidly deteriorating political and military situation in East Pakistan, and his assessment of the immediate future, including the threat of an all-out war with India.

The Chinese leadership expressed their deep concern over the situation and agreed that India was spoiling for an all-out attack on East Pakistan on the pretext of securing the political rights of the East Pakistani separatists the so-called Mukti Bahini that had been raised and equipped by the Indian Army for fighting the civil war in East Pakistan. While the Chinese assured of their complete political, diplomatic and material help, they were doubtful about their ability to provide any meaningful military support to Pakistan.

Read more: U.S apprehensions about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

This was because of the approaching winter, which, they said,  will make the Himalayan passes snow-bound and impassable. The movement of Chinese troops along the Sikkim border, or raising any form of military threat from China would thus become next to impossible. The Chinese leadership, therefore, advised that Pakistan should delay an open conflict with India, if possible altogether or at least till the opening of the snow-bound mountain passes in April/May of the next year.

After their political deliberations with the Chinese had concluded, Gul Hassan and the Air Marshal sat together to evaluate the proceedings after returning from a private dinner with Premier Zhou Enlai. Bhutto had retired for the evening, saying he was not feeling well.

After discussing the military situation in East Pakistan, both Gul and Rahim surmised that East Pakistan was doomed and Pakistan Army would not be able to withstand the Indian Army onslaught once an all-out war started. Having convinced themselves about the hopelessness of the situation, both of them agreed that they should join hands with Bhutto, and, when the ill-fated eastern wing falls, “we should somehow make Yahya willingly step down in favor of a civilian set up that would protect the likes of us who were only marginally involved in Yahya’s martial law”.

As mentioned earlier, during this discussion, Bhutto, the third character of the scheme, was absent and presumably sleeping in his bedroom. Reportedly, Gul had assured Rahim that if they sided with Bhutto and facilitated him in becoming the next ruler of Pakistan, they would be rewarded by keeping Rahim as the Air Chief and elevating Gul to the rank of C-in-C Pakistan Army.

Indian forces crossing the International border, launched a full-scale invasion in East Pakistan on the night of 20th/21st November 1971, attacking simultaneously as many as 23 salients along the border. The purpose of these attacks was to knock the Pakistani forces away from the border and gain space for establishing firm bases to be used subsequently for launching major attacks. In many places, these attacks were beaten back by the defenders. However, the much larger Indian forces kept the defenders embroiled.

Read more: Biden’s recent harangue against Pakistan: What is new in it?

The Government of Pakistan just proclaimed a state of emergency

At 1600 hours, on 3rd December 1971, PAF launched Operation Changez Khan – the code name assigned to the preemptive strikes carried out by the PAF on the forward airbases and radar installations of the IAF. The air strikes, a parody of the 5th June 1967 Israeli airstrikes against the Arab airfields, marked the formal initiation of hostilities of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.

At the PAF Air Command center, briefing President Yahya Khan. Air Vice Marshal Jamal (who later rose to the rank of Air Chief Marshal on becoming Chief of Air Staff) said that the bulk of the attacking force comprised the F-86 and MiG-19, fighter bombers, each carrying 2 bombs of 1000 pounds weight.

Their objective was to bombard runways of IAF airbases close to the West Pakistan border. According to Squadron Leader Sami. Who was also present at the Air Command center, he was very surprised at the use of the F-86 for the said purpose, as he had flown that aircraft extensively during the 1965 War.

Read more: A short history of strategic decision-making in Pakistan

The aircraft was excellent when it came to interception, dogfights, strafing, and rocketry. However, it was not very accurate in its bombing role, especially high-level bombing. Operation Changez failed to achieve its desired objectives because, as decided by Bhutto, Gul Hasan, and Rahim in Beijing, it was designed to fail.


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.