Opting for war in pursuit of political objectives is somewhat akin to surgery. Surgery has the potential to deliver definitive treatment for a medical problem, but if performed by a quack wracked with doubts about his own ability and the efficiency of the procedure itself, surgery has the potential to kill the patient as well. The same is the case with war. A lot of lessons can be learned from Mahmud Ghaznavi and Otto von Bismarck, who taught how war can be, and has been, used successfully to achieve political aims.
On the other hand, incompetent, hesitant, timid, faithless, and lazy politicians and generals provide an essential ingredient for disastrous wars and national debacles. Unfortunately, Pakistan has mostly been cursed by the latter form of leaders, and as a result, its military history is mostly one of many lost opportunities, debacles, and defeats brought on by inadequate preparation, faulty planning, wishful thinking, cowardly decision making and disunion/discord bred by egoistic impulses inside the highest echelons of power!
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The saga of Operation Gibraltar
All these elements can be observed in the saga of Operation Gibraltar which gave birth to the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Operation Gibraltar was a plan to send guerillas into Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) during the summer of 1965 in order to incite a rebellion by Kashmiris against the occupying forces. The plan’s originators were Pakistan’s then foreign minister Z. A. Bhutto and the flamboyant commander of Pak Army’s 12th Division: General Akhtar Malik. In May 1965, the plans of Operation Gibraltar were presented to and approved by President Ayub Khan and General Musa Khan (who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Pak army then).
Both Ayub and Musa were reluctant to pursue military options against India for IOK’s liberation but the former was convinced by Bhutto and Akhtar (Bhutto argued that the relative Indo-Pak disparity in the military sphere will preclude the military option for Pakistan in a few short years and seal IOK’s fate, whereas Akhtar convinced Ayub that his plans were bound to succeed if undertaken immediately). The latter was a proverbial man at a straw with a weak personality and habitually went along with his boss.
Operation Gibraltar was in fact only the first stage of General Akhtar’s grand plan. After Gibraltar had managed to fan the flames of rebellion in IOK, some Indian forces would be forced to deploy away from the borders and into the interior of Kashmir to combat the guerillas and the rebels. This would produce an opportunity for Pakistan to launch an attack on India’s Achilles heel: the Munawar-Tawi gap. The second stage of General Akhtar’s plan was named Operation Grand Slam. It was to be launched through the Bhimber sector into the Munawar-Tawi gap with conventional infantry and armored forces of the 12th Division only after Gibraltar had succeeded in diverting some Indian forces away from this vital sector.
After plunging into the Munawar-Tawi gap, Pakistani forces would capture the bridge over the Chenab at Akhnur and then continue on to Jammu (located only a few miles away). Jammu was the lifeline of Indian occupying forces in IOK and its capture could have bottled up all the Indian forces inside IOK. The logic of the plan went on to suggest that at this point India would sue for peace in order to save her beleaguered forces and would agree to a plebiscite according to the UN resolutions.
Read more: 1965 War: The Air and Naval Battle
Interestingly, President Field Marshall Ayub Khan ordered General Akhtar to move away from Jammu and towards Rajouri after capturing the town of Akhnur. Rajouri didn’t possess any special strategic importance and this change in plan was only made because Ayub didn’t want the Indians to be provoked into an all-out war over Kashmir. General Akhtar did amend the plan as ordered but told his subordinates in the 12th Division that he would himself tell them to move towards Rajouri or Jammu after capturing Akhnur!
The Course of Operations Gibraltar and Grand Slam
“If at any time you take the route of violence or support of violence, then you commit yourself to carry it through, and it’s too late to have second thoughts.”
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
On 7 August 1965, Operation Gibraltar began. About 2500 guerillas were organized into five “forces” titled “Tariq”, “Qasim”, “Khalid’, “Salahuddin”, and “Ghaznavi”. These guerillas had been trained for six weeks. It was expected that the local populace would welcome them with open arms. How would the local populace welcome them when it wasn’t even aware that they were coming?
Well, for asking this question the chief of SSG Colonel Ghaffar Mehdi had been fired prior to Gibraltar. General Akhtar thought it best to keep the whole operation secret from even those (the locals) who were supposed to aid it with supplies, protection, and recruitment. Too bad. In the event it happened, the Indians found out about Gibraltar earlier than most of the top brass in Pakistan, and the Kashmiris. On 8 August, two Captains of the Pakistan army were captured, they immediately divulged the outline of Gibraltar, and their confessions were aired over All India Radio that same night.
All Gibraltar forces had been given stellar objectives but meager means. “Tariq” was to cut off Kashmir from Ladakh by operating in the Zojila region. It managed very little and exfiltrated by 10 September. “Qasim” and “Khalid” were to dominate the region of North West Kashmir and even operate on the outskirts of Srinagar in collaboration with “Salahuddin”.
These two forces did inflict some casualties on Indians via ambushes but couldn’t achieve any strategic objective and exfiltrated after exhausting their supplies. “Salahuddin” (the largest among the Gibraltar forces) was to enter Srinagar, capture the airport, arrest all Indian stooges in the puppet J&K government, destroy the tunnels at Banihal pass, and attack Indian army targets in Srinagar, Pattan, and Baramulla region.
For these tasks, “Salahuddin” had a grand total of 600 men (about the strength of a single battalion!). Some locals did try to help this force in Srinagar. In response, Indians torched hundreds of houses in Srinagar! “Salahuddin” also failed to achieve any strategic task and started exfiltrating after 18 August.
“Ghaznavi” proved to be the most successful Gibraltar force by far. This was due in large part to its gallant and intelligent commander: Major Munawar Awan. “Ghaznavi” was tasked with blowing up the vital bridge on Chenab at Ramban, dominating the Rajouri division, and attacking Indian forces in the Rajouri region. It couldn’t accomplish the first task as the bridge was being guarded by a full battalion of the Indian army but it succeeded in dominating parts of Rajouri. Major Munawar established his HQ at Budil and ambushed a strong Indian column sent to recapture Budil.
Read more: 1965 War: Fighting in the Sialkot and Rajasthan sectors
This resounding victory boosted “Ghaznavi”’s morale and also encouraged a lot of Kashmiri youths to join this force. “Ghaznavi” was the only force that managed to establish synergy with the locals, and that was the major reason for its success. “Ghaznavi” remained in possession of about 500 sq. miles inside the Rajouri region until the end of the 1965 war on 23rd September. After the ceasefire, it exfiltrated following Ayub Khan’s orders despite Major Munawar’s protests.
By mid-August, it was clear that Operation Gibraltar had failed to incite the populace and gloom had descended on the 12th Division headquarters. But little did they know that their enemy was way more rattled than they could possibly imagine. Guilty conscious of their misrule and tyranny in Kashmir, the Indian rulers panicked in the wake of Gibraltar. They started seeing guerillas and rebels everywhere even where there weren’t any. In their panicked state of mind, the Indians took two vital decisions. First, they shifted some strong forces to attack parts of AJK through which Gibraltar guerillas had infiltrated.
This shifted a major chunk of their crack forces to the North West of Kashmir, away from the Achilles heel in the Jammu region. Second, they moved two brigades from the Jammu region into Kashmir’s interior to counter the guerillas (most of whom had already left!). This weakened their forces in Jammu further. At the end of August, the Indians managed to capture the important Haji Pir Pass but this didn’t bother General Akhtar at all. The opportunity that Gibraltar’s failure had robbed him of, was placed on a platter before him by the Indians themselves. Frantically, General Akhtar started to plead with President Ayub and General Musa to let him launch Operation Grand Slam. He received their assent on the 29th of August, and the operation was launched in the early hours of 1 September 1965.
In contrast to Gibraltar, Grand Slam had a spectacular start. Though no expert in guerilla warfare, General Akhtar was clearly a master at conventional warfare. Within 24 hours, Pakistani forces had captured Chamb and crossed the Munwar-Tawi river by routing the Indian 191 brigade. On 2 September, Akhnur was just a few miles away and no organized Indian resistance was barring the way. Victory seemed to be beckoning when the devil known as cowardice struck doubt into the heart of General Musa Khan. He abruptly removed General Akhtar from command and replaced him with the “legendary” General Yahya Khan. The attack stopped in its tracks.
More time was wasted by Yahya Khan in pursuing unimportant lateral targets. Despite all this, Pak forces had captured Jaurian by 5 September (which by then had become heavily defended) and now they were within sight of the vital bridge at Akhnur. But the attack on Akhnur wasn’t launched to the astonishment of most frontline commanders. Later, General Yahya Khan told his artillery commander Brigadier Amjad that he had been ordered to halt at Jaurian!
Apparently, General Musa (and most probably Ayub Khan) had awakened to the fact that India would jump into an all-out war with Pakistan if Akhnur falls. Unfortunately, this epiphany dawned on them when Pakistan was committed to the Akhnur operation and India had already initiated moves for an attack on Lahore to take pressure off the Akhnur sector.
The only thing Musa’s decision did was to snatch failure from the jaws of success and even Indian generals and analysts declared this decision an incomprehensible one that saved India from a dire military defeat. According to General Akhtar, had the attack been allowed to press home, it would have precluded the Indian attack on Sialkot because the Indians would have diverted all their available forces to wrest back Jammu and Akhnur in order to rescue their forces in IOK. The battle of Chawinda would have been fought on IOK’s soil near Jammu instead!
General Akbar Khan (commander of Azad forces in the first phase of 1947-48 Azad Kashmir liberation war, and the victor of the famed Battle of Pandoo in the second phase) was spot-on when he declared, “No people can be free who do not face up squarely to the dangers that are inherent in being free. From the very start, fear dominated the minds of our leaders.” It was poor planning and negligence spanning 17 years that led to the Gibraltar fiasco. And it was fear that ruined Grand Slam!
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.