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1965 War: A Different Legacy

Posted on September 6, 2007
Filed Under >Athar Osama, History
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Athar Osama

Today, over a hundred and fifty million Pakistanis celebrate the 42nd Defense of Pakistan Day. It was 6th of September 1965 when Pakistan’s armed forces faced off against India’s in the first full-scale war between the two countries. Much to the credit of the brave men (and women) in uniform that day–and for next 2-3 weeks following that–the enemy attack on the City of Lahore was repulsed and the General J. N. Chaudhary‘s dream of having his drink at Lahore Gymkhana on the evening of September the 6th was squashed.


Tomorrow, the country celebrates the Airforce Day to pay tribute to the defenders of the country’s air space. PAF’s performance during the 1965 War was truly remarkable given the comparative state of balance between the two airforces. It managed to shoot down 110 of India’s aircrafts while itself incurring the loss of only 18 of its own. Not only did PAF establish itself as a qualitatively superior airforce in the 1965 War but also established its credentials as one of the best airforces of the world.

While much has been written, by official and unofficial quarters, on the history of the 1965 War and a lot more continues to be written every year, there are several gross misconceptions about this event in Pakistan’s history that need to be tackled with and addressed. In Pakistan, ever since (or soon after) its creation in 1947, the writing of history has been an almost exclusive domain of the establishment whereby an official “doctrine” or “mythology” is often disseminated to ensure a homogeneity of thought and conformity of actions.

Noted historian, K. K. Aziz, in his “Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan” (1998) notes that:

“In Pakistani schools and colleges what is being taught as history is really national mythology, and the subjects of Social Studies and Pakistan Studies are nothing but vehicles of political indoctrination. Our children don’t learn history. They are ordered to read a carefully selected collection of falsehoods, fairy tales and plain lies.”

The myth and mystery around the 1965 War is no exception. One would not be surprised that a normal–perhaps even average college educated–Pakistani believes–or is led to believe–that on Sept 6th 1965, India invaded Pakistan (specifically Lahore) and that once thrust into this battle, Pakistan came out to be victorious over its archrival. Both of these facts, on close examination, are quite far from reality. True, India did attack Lahore on September 6th 1965, but it was not the one to force a war on Pakistan in the first place. It was Pakistan’s provocation in the form of Operation Gibralter that led India towards opening the Western front in Pakistan.

It is also true that by the end of the 3rd week of war, both countries had found themselves in a virtual military stalemate. While Pakistan’s armed forces had successfully defended Lahore–thanks, primarily to men like Raja Aziz Bhatti who, despite the failure of leadership at the top-most levels, gave up their lives but not inch of the country’s territory, but also due to the strategic position of the BRB Canal that formed a natural defense for Lahore–all of Pakistan’s offensive maneuvers had come to a naught.

The Operation Gibralter that began in May-June of 1965 to take Indian territory in Kashmir and create an insurgency and popular uprising in the region was frustrated. This launched Operation Grand Slam that was aimed at cutting the Jammu-Rajouri road at Akhnur and to ultimately capture the latter. This operation was unnecessary delayed because of a change in top-military commander–a change widely perceived as unwarranted at that time. Despite these delays, however, as Pakistani troops gained some territory, India launched a full-scale offensive aimed at Lahore (0530 hrs on the 6th) and Sialkot (night between 7th and 8th). The rest as they say is history.

In the ground war itself, there was a military stalemate on virtually all, northern (Kashmir), central ( Lahore), and southern, axes. At the time of the ceasefire, India held 450 square miles of Pakistan’s territory and Pakistan held 1600 square miles of Indian territory. General K. M. Arif, in his book Khaki Shadows, though, highlights that the Indian land gains were mainly in the fertile Sialkot and Kashmir sectors while Pakistani land gains were primarily in deserts opposite Sindh. While Pakistan came out with better numbers in terms of casualties (dead, injured, and missing) and equipment losses, it hardly was victorious as is often claimed by the establishment. Unless you define victory as being able to defend oneself during an offensive operation — hardly a definition indeed.

Apart from the unfortunate myth about who actually started the war itself, another factor that has received much less attention, and for obvious reasons, is why it was started in the first place. At the time of the 1965 War, Pakistan did not really have a full-time Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. General Ayub Khan was, at best, a part-time military commander, as he was too engaged in political affairs of the country. He had chosen General Musa Khan as his full-time Chief of Army Staff but only on the basis of his loyalty to the former rather than merit, competency or professionalism. This lack of leadership and competency at the highest levels of Pakistan’s military during the 1965 became legendary and is well-documented.

This was also something that was consequently taken advantage of by none other that Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was, at the time of the 1965 war, at the peak of his power as Ayub’s foreign minister and a foreign policy hawk, par excellence. He single handedly molded the opinion of the foreign office and his friends at the GHQ to plan operation Gibralter. Ayub was informed about the plans but only to an extent.

Most importantly, Bhutto and his colleagues at the GHQ were able to dupe everyone who mattered into believing that capturing Kashmir was in sight, that an insurgency would immediately create an uprising, and that India would never declare full-scale war on Pakistan. Ayub’s indifference to this whole affair can be estimated from the fact that the Supreme Commander was vacationing in Swat during the last week of August 1965 when Pakistani troops were dying in Kashmir.

Each one of the above assumptions was grossly incorrect and both Ayub and Pakistan paid a heavy price for it. For his part, Bhutto was able to walk away from his created mess and managed to turn the tide against Ayub and actually benefit from the situation. The 1965 War was the turning point of Ayub’s career at the helm. Bhutto rode this wave of dissatisfaction with the war as well as the Tashkent Agreement to power in 1970.

Setting the record straight on what the 1965 War was all about, who started it, and why did it get started is not only a important constitutional right of Pakistani citizens but also is critical to learning from our own mistakes. Unfortunately, that is something that Pakistan has never been good at. General K. M. Arif in Khaki Shadows writes that in the immediate aftermath of the 1965 War “Pakistan suffered a loss of a different kind…Soon after the War the GHQ ordered all the formations and units of the Pakistan Army to destroy their respective war diaries and submit completed reports to this effect by a given date. This was done?Their [the war diaries'] destruction, a self-inflicted injury and an irreparable national loss, was intellectual suicide.”

Clearly, the political-military nexus had an interest in ensuring that nobody should find out what actually happened during the 1965 War — the former because of its incompetence and lack of leadership and the latter because of its culpability in taking Pakistan to war. While considerable second-hand material has become available since then, first hand information and accounts of the war remain a national secret whose disseminator could be charged under the Official Secrets Act. The organizational and legal paraphernalia to ensure that nobody ever learns from this tragic event in Pakistan’s history is complete and foolproof.

What could have happened differently if Pakistanis had actually learnt from what happened before, during, and after the 1965 War?

One, Mr. Bhutto would probably have found it difficult to ride the wave of anti-Ayub discontent as easily as he did for he was equally, if not more, culpable for what was solely blamed on Ayub Khan.

Two, Mr. Bhutto would not have found it as easy to continue to befriend army generals and exercise the kind of influence at GHQ that he did during the 1971 debacle. Perhaps Pakistan would have been intact.

Three, the army leadership would have received its fair share of blame for its professional incompetence, and preoccupation with civilian and political affairs at the expense of their military duty.

Four, Perhaps Pakistan would have learnt its lessons and Kargil-II (1965 War was, in fact, Operation Kargil-I) would not have happened. Consequently, Sharif government would not have been toppled and Musharraf would have been living a retired existence for the last 5 years.

The chain of causalities run fairly deep and dense in Pakistan’s history. Our inability and unwillingness to learn from our own mistakes merely reinforces these events and brings us closer to a new–and more challenging–disaster every time. The 1965 War should be remembered as a day of courage and sacrifice of Pakistani people–most notably our men and women in uniform–who were wronged by their civilian and military leaders, but more importantly it should be remembered as a missed opportunity to learn and improve our lot. That is the test we continue to fail each year.

About the Author: Dr. Athar Osama is a public policy analyst and an amateur historian of Pakistan’s political and constitutional history. He also the Founder of the Understanding Pakistan Project.

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