Every nation has its myths, and military mythology is particularly hard to dislodge. As far as the Pakistan army is concerned, the 1965 war with India is the one to be commemorated, its fighters venerated. As for the other wars Pakistan has been involved in (all with India), the ’47-48 war (also) over Kashmir) was inconclusive; ’71 a disaster, never cited except as enduring proof of India’s bad intentions.
The ’65 war was one in which Pakistan had its military moments and some genuine war heroes which has enabled the army to claim victory. In broad terms, it is a familiar story of a smaller but brave army holding off a much larger force. The myth is broadly:
- In ’65, the people of Indian Kashmir, tired of living under Indian occupation, rose up against them; Pakistan had no option but to offer moral and limited military support to its Kashmiri brethren but it was always a local uprising;
- India, unable to control the Kashmiri uprising, decided on September 6 to launch a full-scale invasion, its immediate objective being to capture Lahore;
- The Pakistan army not only fought off the Indian attack on the Lahore front but carried the fight into Indian territory;
- Pakistan was abandoned during the war by its supposed ally, the United States, which prevented Pakistan from fighting on while India continued to receive full support from the USSR;
- The two superpowers therefore combined to prevent Pakistan from continuing the war and persuaded it to accept a ceasefire despite Pakistan holding the strategic advantage.
As with all myths, there are small elements of truth. If you ask the common man on a Lahore or Karachi street about ’65, their reply would be very likely along those six points. The fact that this is so partly demonstrates the success of Pakistan’s superior PR machine at the time. But the main reason for the enduring power of myths is that people want to believe them; they are reassuring and uplifting. Hard inconvenient facts are depressing and borderline unpatriotic.
Amongst a small but growing number of Pakistanis, however, there is increasing recognition that the war achieved precisely nothing and came close to a disaster. The Pakistani economy (which had been performing well since independence) never really recovered. Its foreign relations, particularly with the US, also did not recover till the ’80s. The physical military losses (particularly in armour) meant that six years later after this war, India scored a crushing victory which led to the creation of Bangladesh.
But this isn’t what those celebrating September 6 remember. They celebrate this day as the defence against what they view as an unjustified attack by India. The cause of the war itself is relatively straightforward—over the future of the state of Kashmir. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the degree to which Kashmir dominated the Pakistani establishment’s view not only of India but all its external relations, and in hindsight, it was predictable that if Pakistan ever felt confident enough, it would attempt a military solution to Kashmir.
In fact, it was in ’65 that Pakistan was feeling that sense of confidence; its economy had done well for the last few years and it had had a relatively stable government since General Ayub Khan’s ’58 coup. India was facing economic problems, and Nehru, one of the giants of the independence movement, had recently died. Pakistan felt confident that, thanks to a decade of US military and economic aid, they could succeed against India in a short local war in Kashmir. Following India’s defeat by China in ’62, they had begun a major rearmament programme which would have meant that by ’70 the military gap between India and Pakistan would have been hugely in India’s favour. Hawks in the Pakistani establishment argued that if no war was fought soon, any military solution would become impossible. Pakistani foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was a leading advocate of early military action and a hugely influential figure in Ayub’s cabinet.
’65 unleashed patriotic fervour. Even the regime’s political enemies swung behind it, Noor Jehan sang her best songs.
A limited series of skirmishes on the border between Sindh and Indian Gujarat in the Rann of Kutch began in early ’65. India was fighting at a logistical disadvantage as its supply lines ran through a large desert and supplying a large number of troops on the ground was near impossible. Pakistan had troops near the border and was able to mobilise quickly. Its army established a military advantage in the skirmishes and after international pressure, both sides agreed to stop fighting and agree to binding arbitration. The main conclusion Pakistan drew from the conflict was that once it had a military advantage vis-a-vis India, the international community, especially the US and UK, would persuade both sides to stop fighting and agree to some form of final arbitration.
In early August, Pakistan sent into Indian Kashmir thousands of soldiers and paramilitaries in a plan codenamed Operation Gibraltar. It managed to take India by surprise for a few days, but as time went on, the guerrillas were outgunned and did not receive the cooperation they needed from local Kashmiris.
To support the flagging operation, the Pakistan army sent regular armour and artillery into Indian Kashmir towards Akhnoor on September 1. Pakistan should have been prepared for the Indian decision to relieve the military pressure in Kashmir by an assault on Lahore across the international border on September 6. Instead Pakistan was caught off guard. Pakistan officially demanded on September 6 that the US honour its promises to defend Pakistan in the event of Indian aggression. The Pakistan government was aware that US military aid to Pakistan was to defend against Communist aggression and, at its most generous, if India launched a completely unprovoked attack on Pakistan, the US could have been asked to assist.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, what the US saw was Pakistan using American weapons against a non-Communist country and, worse, using the Chinese threat to force India to the negotiating table. This infuriated President (Lyndon) Johnson and rather than provide Pakistan any aid, he ordered an arms embargo on both India and Pakistan on September 8. This was a move far more damaging to Pakistan, given its almost complete reliance on US weapons and spare parts.
Just as damagingly for Pakistan, Johnson decided the US would not take any political initiative and left it to the UN. This was a huge blow to Pakistan as India was sure to get support from the USSR, the other Security Council biggie. Bhutto and Ayub expressed great indignation but then they knew the terms of US aid and should not have expected anything else.
After a series of blunted offensives by both sides in the next two weeks or so, the war had by September 20 reached a military stalemate. Pakistan wasn’t able to replace its military equipment and India seemed unable to press home its advantages. On September 22, both sides honoured a UN resolution for ceasefire.
Within West Pakistan, the period from September 6-22 unleashed a fervour of patriotism. Neighbourhood committees sprung up to watch out for enemy spies and to ensure blackouts were strictly observed. Even the regime’s political enemies swung behind the war, the press was unanimously supportive and Noor Jehan sang some of her best songs. Pakistanis looking back remember fondly the sense of unity and purpose the war created. So it was with a sense of bewilderment they greeted news of the ceasefire as this was a war Pakistan was meant to be winning. Ayub and Bhutto said they had agreed to the ceasefire with promise of meaningful negotiations over Kashmir; the truth was no one had made any such promise.
Both India and Pakistan agreed to the Soviet offer for peace talks in Tashkent in January ’66. With trepidation, Ayub and Bhutto went to Tashkent, hoping India would make concessions on Kashmir. Of course none were made, the Tashkent agreement simply agreed for both sides to move back to their respective positions prior to the war. Bhutto, under heavy criticism for miscalculating the international mood, reinvented himself as someone who opposed the ceasefire and the Tashkent declaration. This portrayed Ayub as the sole culprit of the miscalculations and reluctance to fight on.
Given the inconclusive outcome, both sides claimed victory. The fog which so often descends once a country is at war has still not fully lifted on the subcontinent. All countries like to rewrite or selectively remember their history. Pakistan is no exception; what it remembers above all is that it fought a fierce war with India and did not lose. That’s a victory of sorts but not why it went to war.
(Farooq Bajwa is the author of several books on Pakistan, including From Kutch to Tashkent, on the ’65 war.)