How India Fought Pakistan 50 Years Ago

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How India Fought Pakistan 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago, India and Pakistan fought a war that would change the subcontinent forever.

How India Fought Pakistan 50 Years Ago
Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Much has changed in the Indian subcontinent since India and Pakistan fought a war over disputed Jammu and Kashmir fifty years ago. Yet, the Kashmir dispute remains as intractable today as it was in 1965. Each year, Pakistan commemorates September 6 — the day India launched a two-pronged offensive against Pakistan across the International Border (IB) — as Youm-e-Difa (Defense Day). This year, the government of India declared a month-long “celebration” to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war, including a “victory carnival,” a show of “military might, song and dance” that is planned for September 20.

The genesis of the India-Pakistan 1965 War can be traced back to Operation Desert Hawk, launched by the Pakistan Army in the region of the Rann of Kutch in April 1965. The Pakistan Army’s offensive, led by armored regiments equipped with Patton tanks newly acquired from the U.S., made substantial gains before a Great Britain-led initiative brokered a temporary truce. These gains, coupled with the belief that Pakistan’s window to force a resolution on Jammu and Kashmir on terms favorable to it was closing, encouraged Pakistan’s leader, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and his Foreign Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to plan and launch Operation Gibraltar in August 1965.

Operation Gibraltar followed the familiar vector of Pakistan’s use of a combination of regular and irregular forces to cross the Ceasefire Line (CFL) into Indian Kashmir and foment a local insurgency against Indian rule. Ayub chose to motivate his troops by naming the offensive after the Arab conquest of Gibraltar in 711 AD by the Moorish general Tariq bin Ziyad.

However, much to the surprise of the invading forces, the local population in Indian Kashmir not only refused to cooperate, but also alerted and handed over many infiltrators to Indian troops. India, caught by surprise by the attack, rushed in additional troops to neutralize the infiltration and launched a counter-attack across the CFL, eventually taking Haji Pir Pass, which served as Pakistan’s main logistic base for Operation Gibraltar.

The failure of Gibraltar notwithstanding, the Pakistan Army, now fearing an Indian attack on Muzaffarabad, Pakistani Kashmir’s largest city, launched an offensive across Jammu and Kashmir’s Chamb sector, with the aim of capturing Akhnur, which would have logistically cut the Indian Army off areas west of the Chenab River.

This attack, codenamed Operation Grand Slam, was launched on September 1, and forced the Indians to fall back to Akhnur. However, Pakistan, quite inexplicably, changed commanders while in the midst of the attack, by replacing Maj. Gen. Akhtar Malik with Maj. Gen. Yahya Khan. The change in commanders resulted in a 24-hour delay in Pakistan’s offensive, by which time the Indians were able to bring in reinforcements.

With Chamb under significant pressure and Pakistan’s offensive proceeding on multiple axis, India’s then-Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri elected to open another front by attacking Pakistan across the IB on September 6. The Indian and Pakistani armies fought each other another 15 days, during the course of which both armies won their share of tactical victories — India in Phillora and Khem Karan, Pakistan in Chawinda — but none decisive enough to alter the ultimate result of the war. A ceasefire was called by the UN on September 22 and the Tashkent Declaration was signed between Ayub and Shastri in January 1966, thus bringing an end to hostilities.

The 1965 War offered significant lessons to the political-military establishments in both countries, many of which continue to be relevant today. India was plagued by poor intelligence throughout the war. It failed to detect the initial infiltration by Pakistan Army troops and Azad Kashmir Regiment irregulars as part of Operation Gibraltar and was only alerted to the extent of the infiltration by locals. India also did not anticipate Pakistan’s attack in Chamb on September 1, even though there was information of heavy Pakistani troop movements in the area since August 26.

Issues of jointmanship — the concept of integrated military planning, decision-making and execution — hampered India’s war effort in 1965 and still continue to be an area of concern today. JG Nadnarki, the former Indian Navy chief, once rather acerbically opined that jointmanship in India “exists to the extent of the three chiefs routinely being photographed blackslapping each other, but not much more beyond that.”

The Indian Air Force was not involved in the Indian army’s planned offensive across the IB and as a consequence, did not conduct pre-emptive strikes against Pakistani air bases before the army’s thrusts towards Lahore and Sialkot. Terming it an “unpardonable act,” India’s official war history concludes that “[t]here was a lack of joint planning between the Indian Army and the Air Force, and it appears that the Indian Army top brass ignored the potentiality of a modern air force like the IAF to destroy the bulk of the PAF on the ground on 6 September itself.”

Poor supply chain management also played a part in what some in India feel was a premature end to the war. Indeed, in the waning days of the war when a ceasefire appeared to be an inevitability, Shastri asked Gen. JN Chaudhry, the Indian army chief, whether India could win the war if it were prolonged for a few more days. Chaudhry informed Shastri that most of India’s frontline ammunition had been exhausted, although it was later discovered that only 14 percent of India’s frontline ammunition had been fired.

The military analyst Maj. Agha Amin, who has written extensively about the 1965 War, termed Pakistan’s performance a “case of military incompetence at the highest level combined with [a] lack of resolution.” Ayub, goaded by a hawkish Bhutto, overestimated the capabilities of the Pakistan Army and underestimated India’s political-military leadership. That he cast the war in ideological terms is clear from his August 29, 1965 missive to Pakistan’s army chief, Mohammad Musa, that “[a]s a general rule, Hindu morale would not stand for more than a couple of hard blows delivered at the right time and the right place.” Ayub was also responsible for propagating the myth in Pakistan that one Pakistani soldier was equal to ten Indian soldiers.

Poor planning and communication hindered Pakistan throughout the war. The Pakistani leadership did not think that India would risk a general war by attacking Pakistan across the IB. Even after Pakistan’s local commanders intercepted and relayed a coded Indian message signaling the imminent Indian attack across the IB, Pakistan’s military leaders made no specific plans to counter India’s offensive nor informed Ayub about India’s intentions. Indeed, Ayub only learned of the offensive when we has awoken at 4am on September 6 and informed that the Indian Army had crossed the border.

Pakistan’s leaders also overestimated the extent to which their allies would intervene or assist in its war effort. As a member of SEATO and CENTO, Pakistan expected American support during the war. However, not only did the U.S. remain largely neutral during the war, it also placed arms embargoes on Pakistan and India, which hurt Pakistan more than it did India. Pakistan had also hoped to count on China’s assistance during the war, and although the Chinese publicly backed the Pakistanis during the final days of the war, they did not intervene forcefully on Pakistan’s behalf.

The end of the 1965 war brought with it leadership changes in India and Pakistan. Shastri’s passing (after signing the Tashkent declaration in 1966) saw the emergence of Indira Gandhi in India. In Pakistan, opposition against how the war was directed by Ayub and his military leadership grew. Ayub was increasingly isolated, having already been abandoned by Bhutto, and eventually handed power over to Yahya Khan in 1968. Although 1965 was militarily inconclusive, Pakistan was left considerably worse off, with its strategic objective of “liberating” Jammu and Kashmir from Indian control having been defeated by an adversary that it gravely underestimated – not for the last time.