Rude awakening for Pakistan

Despite making major mistakes, the Indian armed forces displayed tactical superiority to hold the balance in the 1965 war

As described in 'From Gibraltar to Grand Slam' (IE, December 10), for Pakistan's first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the moment of truth arrived at 4 am on September 6, 1965. He was roused from his bed and informed that the Indian army was on the march towards the prized city of Lahore. This took him completely by surprise. After brief consultations with his top commanders and civilian advisors, the first man he met was understandably the United States ambassador, Walter P. McConaughy. According to Khan's principal confidant and biographer, Altaf Gauhar, the envoy started by telling him: "Mr President, the Indians have got you by the throat." Khan replied: "Any hands on Pakistan's throat would be cut off." He still believed that on the battlefield, Pakistan "would defeat the Hindu".

There is no point going into daily details of the war as it went on because most of these have been discussed threadbare. Attention should focus, therefore, on crucial landmarks and major mistakes both sides made in the heat and dust of war. Pakistan's greatest folly was to go on lying to its own people, telling them that the Indian invaders were being "thrown out". Come the ceasefire, and the rude reality could no longer be hidden.

On the Indian side, it became evident on the very first day that coordination between intelligence, then the monopoly of the monolithic Intelligence Bureau (IB), and the army, was appalling. As our armoured columns advanced, they discovered that Pakistan had dug the Ichchogil Canal as a tank trap of which they had never been informed. Which of the two institutions was to blame became a major dispute then, and, to an extent, remains so even now. The IB maintained that it had conveyed the necessary information to the government and the army headquarters. It wasn't its fault if the army leadership failed to pass it on to the formations in the field. The army denied this vehemently, and never let up on its trenchant criticism of the IB.

The second failure of both the army and the IB was more serious, and it came to light most embarrassingly. To compel the Pakistan forces still struggling to occupy Chamb-Jaurian to return hastily to defend their motherland, the Indian army opened a second front in the Sialkot sector. An important calculation behind this action was that Pakistan, like India, had only one armoured division that was frantically trying to defend Lahore. But, totally unknown to India, Pakistan had raised a second armoured division that met the Indian attack in and around Sialkot.

The third unfortunate feature of the Indian situation was that cooperation between the air force and the army left a lot to be desired. The IAF seemed to be concentrating on establishing air superiority rather than providing ground support to the troops.

Meanwhile, Pakistan had managed to establish a bridgehead to the small Indian town of Khem Karan across the border. They were convinced that, thanks to the US-supplied, state-of-the-art Patton tanks, their counter-offensive would make a breakthrough all the way across the Punjab plains to Delhi. This was, as future developments were to demonstrate, pure hubris on their part. But the Pakistani arrival beyond Khem Karan, combined with the discovery of a second Pakistani armoured division, caused grave anxiety at the army headquarters.

Presumably to err on the side of caution, the army chief, General J.N. Chaudhuri, ordered the GOC-in-C of the Western Command and overall commander of the battlefield, Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, to withdraw his forces to the east of the Beas river. To his credit, Harbaksh flatly refused. Had he carried out the directive, it would have been the greatest folly of the war, and perhaps an invitation to disaster. Some doubts have been expressed about this episode, but Captain (retd) Amarinder Singh, now a Punjab Congress leader and a former chief minister of the state, was in 1965 the ADC to Harbaksh Singh, and a witness to the telephonic exchange.

Although the distressing episode became known widely fairly soon, Harbaksh the gentleman, refused to discuss it. In his book, War Despatches: Indo-Pakistan Conflict, 1965, published a quarter of a century later, all he said was: "There appeared to be a tendency in the higher command to succumb to [the] pressure of events and fall an easy prey to dark and gloomy apprehensions. This is a dangerous attitude."

In any case, Pakistan's planners had counted without the tactical virtuosity of the Indian commanders in Khem Karan, Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, Maj Gen Gurbaksh Singh, commander of 4 Mountain Division, and Brig Thomas Theograj who commanded the two armoured regiments hastily assigned to the defenders. In September, in Punjab's fields, sugarcane grows to full height. Indian generals then hid their tanks in these fields to welcome the Pakistanis. The biggest tank battle since World War II thus began. They then played their masterstroke. They cut off the embankment of a conveniently located canal. Pakistan's tanks got literally stuck in the mud. Soon enough, the nearby village of Asal Uttar became a graveyard of Patton tanks. Indian Centurions and Shermans of World War II vintage had decimated them.

How this climax to the war played out in Pakistan is best left to Gauhar to describe. He records that Khan had called him into his office and was happily explaining to him, on a map, how the Khem Karan offensive, personally approved by him, was progressing. He then adds: "While Ayub was explaining the details of the operation, his military secretary, General Rafi, walked into the room in a state of great agitation and almost shouted that the Indians had cut the Madhupur Canal." Khan wanted to know, writes Gauhar, how long it would take for the battlefield to be submerged. "The GHQ had no clue." Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then heading the water and power authority, was of some help. "At this juncture Ayub discovered, to his dismay, that General Nasir, the commander of the operation, had relied on old survey maps."

"The Khem Karan counter-offensive," concludes Gauhar, "ran aground on September 11, and with that collapsed Pakistan's entire military strategy. For Pakistan, the war was over."

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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