The Cost of 1965 War

6 September 2015 is being celebrated across Pakistan as the golden jubilee anniversary of the Pakistani defence of the homeland against Indian aggression. The day has been marked by special supplements in the newspapers, remembrance programs on the television, two minutes silence in the morning to commemorate the martyrs of the war and a spectacular air display in the capital city. Thousands of citizens watched with bated breath as jet fighters performed aerobatic rolls and pull ups at supersonic speeds.

For me it has been a day of serious reflection. My father was an officer in the air force and I witnessed the 1965 war first hand as a child at an air force base. It seemed a lot of fun then as we heard sirens wailing and sitting in trenches for the duration of the air raids, which used to take place it seemed on fixed hours at dawn and dusk. Most of the time, the Indian pilots were in a rush to dispense with the bombs they were carrying and to rush back to the safety of their own air space that they rarely found their targets. Once they did hit some houses in the vicinity of the Peshawar air base leaving behind some injured people cursing them for their poor marksmanship.

Much later I served in the armed forces. My career stretched over better part of four decades. I did not participate in any full-fledged war but I had my share of excitement and rush of adrenaline as I experienced enemy bullets fired from across the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir. I was also part of a number of military mobilizations in anticipation of a war. After so many years as a citizen of the country and as a former soldier, I wonder what indeed are the takeaways from the 1965 War?

The war that we celebrate as the good war was preceded by an infiltration across the LOC. The purpose of the so-called Operation Gibraltar was to defreeze the Kashmir issue, which the political leadership felt was losing significance. It is widely believed in Pakistan that General Ayub Khan was led up the garden path by the hawkish foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had convinced him that such an enterprise would remain localised and would not be responded to by the Indian army across the international border. One wonders if Ayub Khan was so naïve that he was so easily duped by his youthful minister. Bhutto would later unseat him from power by leading a popular agitation against the so-called sell out at Tashkent. The general populace was led to believe that the agreement brokered by the Soviets between Pakistan and India was a betrayal to the blood of the martyrs. It was surmised that Shastri died in Tashkent after the declaration was announced because he couldn’t contain his happiness for getting from Pakistan what he could not on the battlefield.

The infiltration in Kashmir by irregulars supported by Pakistan had predictable results. The Indians first responded in occupied Kashmir by occupying the Haji Pir Pass and Kargil. The infiltrators couldn’t convince the unprepared Kashmiris to raise lashkars for mounting a freedom movement. Indian army launched a scorched earth policy and were soon able to evict or round up most of the infiltrators. Operation Grand Slam was mounted to balance the situation. Pakistani armor crossed the working boundary to occupy Chamb and moved towards Akhnur. The operation lost momentum after initial successes because of an operational pause to allow a mysterious change of command to take place. After all this noise and fury in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu, international actors including the UN called for restraint. This, however, gave the Indians enough reason to launch a multipronged offensive across the international border towards Sialkot and Lahore. Pakistani forces were caught unaware but as an equally tentative Indian advance guard stopped within stone throw of Lahore, Pakistan was able to recover and put a strong defence. This is where the courage of the soldier and the initiative of the junior officer came to the fore and resulted in saving the country. A counter offensive by Pakistani 1st armored division petered out, when the logistics failed to keep pace with tanks that had debouched from the bridgehead and had raced past Khem Karan. At nightfall the tanks pulled back into the leaguers for replenishment, allowing the Indian defenders to flood the paddy fields making it impossible for the tanks to advance any further.

During the 1965 War, the nation was gripped by a patriotic fervor. Soul stirring patriotic songs sung by the legendary Noor Jahan and Mehdi Hasan were produced and played to exhort the soldier to stand fast and to pay tribute to his incomparable courage and valor. The masses rooted for their armed forces and lapped up each word that the government controlled radio and the press said about stunning victories. Kashmir seemed within the grasp of the freedom fighters. In all this show of patriotism, what did not become immediately visible was the reaction of the East Pakistani. The policy of the defence of East lies in the West brought home the reality to the people in East Pakistan that they were actually left to fend for themselves. This became the beginning of the six points propagated by the Awami League, in which inter alia they demanded the right to raise militias to defend themselves. In six short years the Bengalis would secede from West Pakistan because they sincerely felt that the West Pakistani leaders were not sincere to them and that the defence of Lahore meant more to them than the welfare and prosperity of the eastern wing.

Kashmir cause was indeed briefly revived but mostly it was a losing battle on the diplomatic and political front. American aid was suspended and the Kashmir issue lost appeal with countries that mattered. Pakistan was no longer a dependable ally and its image as a progressive country among the Muslim nations lost its sheen. Pakistan’s economy that was experiencing a remarkable growth lost steam and spluttered as the costs of war mounted. The 1971 war would put paid to Pakistan’s ambition of becoming the leading nation in Asia.

There is no gainsaying the fact that whereas, the soldier rose to the occasion in 1965, the national leadership grossly failed to achieve the desired results. It had not reckoned with an attack across the international border. It was not prepared for the costs of the infiltration in Kashmir. It had no appetite for a prolonged war. The actual war lasted only 17 days and the government heaved a sigh of relief once the ceasefire took place because of the intervention of the great powers.  The trust of the East Pakistanis was lost forever and became one of the reasons that they decided to go their separate way. The Kashmir issue lost its genuineness in the UN and other international fora. Pakistan could never recover economically from the aftereffects of the war.

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