Remembering 6th of September 1965

By Dr. Ahmad Faruqui


The 6th of September is observed as the Defense of Pakistan Day in Pakistan. According to the official history that has been taught to generations of Pakistani school children, on this day India launched an unprovoked attack on Lahore. The much smaller Pakistani armed forces successfully fought off a much bigger enemy and deserve to be recognized for their valor and courage.

While there is no question that the lower ranks of the Pakistani armed forces fought bravely in this war and there were several instances of brilliance and heroism in the middle ranks as well, the fact is that this war was brought on by the foolhardiness of the Pakistani high command. Much of the blame for the disaster that ensued rests on the shoulders of the military government headed by President Field Marshal Ayub Khan.

Ayub in 1965 blundered into a general war with India, fully knowing that Pakistan was in no position to fight one. His top-secret order, sent on 29 August 1965 to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Musa, was titled “Political Aim for Struggle in Kashmir.” It instructed the Pakistan Army:

To take such action that will defreeze Kashmir problem, weaken India’s resolve and bring her to a conference table without provoking a general war. However the element of escalation is always present in such struggles. So, whilst confining our action to the Kashmir area we must not be unmindful that India may in desperation involve us in a general war or violate Pakistan territory where we are weak.

In December 1964, New Delhi had absorbed Kashmir into the Indian Union. Sensing that the Indian military had begun a massive program of rearmament after its humiliation at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army in 1962, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, convinced President Ayub that a “now or never” window of opportunity had opened up to reactivate the liberation struggle in Kashmir.

Ayub initially rejected Bhutto’s plan to infiltrate irregular fighters into Kashmir, fearing that it would place Pakistan’s survival at stake. However, after witnessing the Pakistan army’s successful performance in the Rann of Kutch in April, he changed his mind. While in New York for medical treatment toward the end of his life, he would confide to G. W. Choudhury that this was his worst presidential decision. However, in the summer of 1965, he talked about how “Hindu morale would not stand a couple of hard blows at the right time and place.”

Operation Gibraltar, named after Tariq bin Ziad who conquered Spain in the year 711 with 10,000 Moroccans (whence the name Moors), was launched on August 5/6. Seven thousand fighters crossed the cease-fire line in Kashmir with a simple mission: spark a wild fire in the Vale of Kashmir and bring to a satisfactory conclusion the unfinished business of partition. However, it was soon evident that the fighters were insufficiently trained in the tactics of guerilla warfare and were in no condition to lead a revolt against Indian rule.

On August 7 the irregulars attacked Kargil, which would gain notoriety 34 years later. By mid-August, they had roused the ire of the Indian army and Pakistan was forced to commit regular troops to keep the fight from dying out. By August 21, the Indian forces had routed the irregulars and by the end of the month, all of them had been killed or captured. The situation was eerily similar to President John F. Kennedy’s fiasco in the Bay of Pigs in 1961, when the US landed 1,400 Cuban exiles on Cuba’s south coast, hoping to trigger a revolt against Fidel Castro. In two days of fierce fighting, 114 were dead and 1,200 captured. A chastened Kennedy called off the attack.

At this point in Pakistan’s history, Ayub too had the opportunity to call off the dogs of war. Instead, he chose to up the ante. Switching metaphors from Islamic history to the card game of bridge, the Pakistan army launched Operation Grand Slam on September 1. The objective was to capture Akhnur within 72 hours, cutting off India’s line of communication with Srinagar and forcing it to the negotiating table. The first stop along the way, Chamb, was taken in a day, as Indian forces withdrew under the weight of the Pakistani offensive. Four Indian Air Force (IAF) Vampires, brought in to stop the onslaught, were shot down by American-supplied F-86 Sabre jets of the PAF, leading to the withdrawal of 128 Vampires from the IAF lineup.

Then the attack stalled and Pakistan’s General Headquarters changed commanders in the heat of battle, allowing the Indian army to re-gird its defenses of Akhnur. On September 5, General Musa, the Pakistani army chief, impatiently harangued his troops, “You have got your teeth into him. Bite deeper and deeper until he is destroyed.” However, Akhnur was to remain a town too far for the Pakistan army.

On September 6, the Indian army launched a three-pronged attack on Lahore. This came as a rude shock to Ayub, since Bhutto had convinced him that India was not in a position to risk a war of unlimited duration against Pakistan. Bhutto had argued that Pakistan had relative military superiority against India, and while the latter might wage a general war of limited duration, it would not be along the Punjab Frontier.

Pakistani army units successfully fought off the Indian attack by blowing up 70 bridges along the BRB canal. As the front stabilized, Pakistan launched a counter-offensive on September 10 in Khem Karan with its mailed fist, the 1st Armored Division. Unfortunately, the sophisticated American-supplied M-47 and M-48 Patton tanks of the 1st Armored raced ahead of their supporting infantry units. Soon they found themselves bogged down in sugar cane fields near the village of Asal Uttar, where the Indians had breached a canal that did not exist on Pakistani maps. Indian hunter-killer teams armed with jeep-mounted recoilless rifles took out 40 Pakistani Patton tanks in one day. On September 11, Pakistan’s vaunted 4 Cavalry ceased to exist, effectively dashing Islamabad’s hopes of winning the war.

Next, India opened up another front around Sialkot. Pakistan’s 6th Armoured Division, which was deployed in this area, fought tenaciously and with tactical skill, blunted the Indian offensive. However, it was running out of fuel and its 155 mm howitzers were put on a daily ration of five rounds per gun. The soldier in Ayub knew the game was over and he began to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

The people of Pakistan, who had been expecting an imminent victory over India, listened in disbelief as a ceasefire was announced over Radio Pakistan on September 23. Ayub visited the US in December and was told by President Lyndon B. Johnson that the special relationship between the two countries was over. In January Ayub signed the Tashkent Agreement, which restored the pre-war boundaries and provided no new mechanism for resolving the Kashmir dispute.

Pakistani soldiers fought with gallantry and distinction in 1965, even though they deserved better generals. The Pakistani Navy kept the sea-lanes open against a much bigger enemy. But it was the PAF that excelled in all respects. On one day it shot down 11 IAF fighters. In a single encounter, Squadron Leader M. M. Alam shot down five IAF Hunters in less than two minutes over Sargodha. It is no wonder that John Fricker chose to entitle his history of the air war the “Battle for Pakistan,” no doubt inspired by the Battle for Britain waged by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and designed to evoke Winston Churchill’s effusive comment, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.” This war resulted in a military stalemate for Pakistan and became a political liability for Ayub. Under the advice of his Foreign Minister, he had raised very high expectations among the people of Pakistan about the superiority - if not invincibility - of its armed forces. Ayub and Bhutto presumed that Kashmir was ripe for an uprising, and that Indian forces in the state - which numbered five infantry divisions - would be unable to hold out against a single Pakistani division. Worse, they presumed that India would not launch a counter attack along the international border. Their erroneous presumptions resulted in some 25,000 men being killed or wounded on both sides, with no military or political gain being realized by Pakistan.

When these objectives were not realized in the form of an outright victory in the battlefield with India, the backlash effectively debilitated Ayub’s leadership in Pakistan. It triggered a popular uprising that Bhutto, who had fallen out of favor with Ayub after the fiasco with India, used to hound him out of office in less than four years, while he and his coterie were busy celebrating a “decade of development.”

In the late sixties, one of Ayub’s former cabinet ministers, G. W. Choudhury, asked him whether the usual military procedure for debating both sides of the issue had not been followed with respect to the crucial decision to launch the war in Kashmir. Ayub answered: “Please do not rub in my weakest and fatal point.” Ayub died in 1974, a sad and broken man.

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