1965: How Pakistan won the war of propaganda

The myth of ‘victory’ was created after the war had ended, in order to counter Indian claims of victory on the one hand and to shield the Ayub regime and the army from criticism on the other

For the past five decades, Pakistan has officially celebrated September 6 as ‘Defence Day’ in remembrance of its historic ‘victory’ against India in the 1965 War. This year we celebrated the golden jubilee of that ‘victory’. Air force planes dominated the capital’s skies for a whole week as pilots rehearsed for the Defence Day fly-past, setting off car alarms. Wartime songs ruled the airwaves. Electronic and social media was abuzz with stories of the heroic sacrifices rendered by the members of the armed forces for the defense of the country and how the Indians were taught a befitting lesson for their aggression upon the motherland. Vows were made to rekindle the ‘spirit of 1965’, as the country faces old and new internal and external threats.

At the center of this euphoria and celebration lay the official narrative of the war. This narrative, which provides the raison d’etre for celebrating the Defence Day, goes as follows: On the fateful night of September 6, 1965, arch enemy India unilaterally and treacherously imposed a war on Pakistan without a formal declaration, as the Indian army crossed the international border and launched an attack on the Lahore front. The armed forces of Pakistan, despite being initially taken by surprise, put up a valiant defense of the motherland and forced the enemy to halt its advance by inflicting heavy losses. India, despite its numerical superiority, not only failed in its nefarious design to capture the important border cities of Lahore and Sialkot but also lost territory to Pakistan in Rajasthan. Pakistan’s successful defense of its territory and the capture of Indian territory marked a decisive victory for Pakistan and a humiliating defeat for India. Pakistan’s victory in the face of heavy odds, ensured and marked by the exemplary courage, professionalism and sacrifice of its armed forces and the unity of its people, is commemorated and remembered every year by celebrating the Defence Day.

Over the past half a century, this narrative has been consistently churned out in official documents, publications, speeches and broadcasts and memorized by millions of schoolchildren across the country who’ve studied the official curricula, so much so that it has become a part and parcel of popular imagination and ‘national folklore’. For most Pakistanis, it is difficult to imagine anything different transpiring between India and Pakistan in the fateful year of 1965. In fact, any alternate narrative is taken as an attempt to undermine Pakistan’s ‘justified claim’ to victory, and worse, as an attempt to endorse enemy India’s narrative which attributes victory to India. Over the period of time, a certain degree of ‘sanctity’ has been attached to this narrative in the name of distorted conceptions of nationalism and patriotism which has insulated it from fair and objective critique and analysis at public fora.

Most Pakistanis haven’t even heard of the army’s failed attempt to ‘liberate’ Kashmir through ‘Operation Gibraltar’ which was launched a month before the Indians launched their attack on the Lahore front, or ‘Operation Grand Slam’ which was launched in order to relieve pressure from the Line of Control (then called the Ceasefire Line) as the Indian army captured the strategic Kargil heights and the Haji Pir Pass. This ignorance is for obvious reasons; for these events find no mention in the official narrative, even to date, despite the fact that we live in the much touted Information Age. On the eve of the golden jubilee celebrations, the head of the army’s public relations directorate, an experienced two star general, tweeted a link to the soft copy of the latest edition of a book titled ‘Indo-Pakistan War 1965: A Flashback’. Throughout the 116-page book, which was first published in 1966, there is not even a single mention of the words ‘Operation Gibraltar’ and ‘Operation Grand Slam’. The book begins by narrating the undeclared onslaught of the enemy on the night of September 6.

With more than four fifth of Pakistan’s population being less than fifty years of age, most of today’s Pakistanis weren’t even born in 1965. Their knowledge of the war is almost entirely based on the distorted history taught in the official school curriculum or the propaganda narrative churned out by the military every year on the Defence Day. The fact of the matter is that official narratives on both sides of the border are skewed and one sided; both sides have attempted to highlight their respective successes and omitted their blunders and setbacks. The Indian narrative, which became the basis of similar celebrations on the Indian side this year, highlights the successes of the Indian army in countering Pakistan’s attempt to ‘liberate’ Kashmir in the summer of 1965 and downplays its failures on the Lahore and Sialkot fronts.

The reality of the 1965 War is, in fact, quite different from what the originators and propagators of the official narrative and the self-proclaimed egotistical ‘patriots’, who have uncritically consumed these narratives as absolute truths and prefer reveling in the thought of victory, would want us to believe. No history of the 1965 War is complete, and consequently no conclusion with respect to the overall outcome of the war can be made, without discussing Operations Gibraltar and Grand Slam. Fortunately, a significant amount of literature is available which not only presents the complete picture but also debunks both sides’ distorted official narratives and convincingly establishes that the war ended in a clear victory for neither side. Before the conspiracy theorists indulge in their favorite pastime of attributing these contrary narratives to some grand conspiracy of ‘enemy agents’ and ‘traitors’, let me clarify that these narratives have originated from none other than the highest levels of the Pakistan army itself.

Perhaps the most comprehensive account, accompanied by detailed figures and maps, is available in the study carried out over a number of years by the staff and the students of the Command and Staff College at Quetta. This study, which can be taken as the army’s own indictment of its performance in the war, was compiled by Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed (now retired), a central figure of the 1999 coup who also served as the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (1999-2000), in the form of a book modestly named as ‘History of Indo-Pakistan Was of 1965’ (it was originally named as ‘Illusion of Victory’ but changed, reportedly, under pressure). This narrative is based on the war diaries of the battalions which participated in the war, interviews and briefings of the men who fought, and also contains a comparative analysis of the Indian official narrative and other versions.

Then we have General Muhammad Musa Khan’s account, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army during the 1965 War, compiled in the form of a book titled ‘My Version’, and Maj. Gen. Shaukat Riza’s book ‘The Pakistan Army: War 1965’, which was written during the Zia-ul-Haq regime (Gen. Zia-ul-Haq wrote the foreword to this book). Then there are several other first-hand accounts authored by officers who participated in the war. Last, but not the least, are the well-researched and authoritative accounts from seasoned non-military authors like Shuja Nawaz whose ‘Crossed Swords’ is worth reading. These books adorn the official station and formation libraries in cantonments across the country and a cumulative reading of these narratives presents the facts as follows:

After the UN’s intervention in 1948, a ceasefire was implemented in the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. As per the resolutions of the Security Council, a plebiscite was to be held to allow the Kashmiris to exercise their right to self-determination. However, by the mid-1960s the Kashmir issue had made no significant headway towards a peaceful resolution. Talks had continued to fail and India was accused of tightening its grip on the state, which had led to frustration in the military and political circles of Pakistan. There was an increasing inclination towards a military solution based on Pakistan’s enhanced capabilities as a result of the extensive US military aid during the past decade. India’s defeat in the Sino- Indian War of 1962 and setbacks in the Rann of Kutch Conflict of 1965 had further emboldened Pakistan’s military leadership.

Consequently, during the first week of August 1965, Pakistan army launched an operation codenamed ‘Gibraltar’, whereby thousands of irregular ‘mujahideen’, who had been hurriedly trained, were sent into the Indian-held Kashmir under the command of regular army officers. According to Gen. Muhammad Musa, the plan envisaged, on a short-term basis, sabotage of military targets, disruption of communications etc., and as a long term measure, distribution of arms to the local population in order to start an uprising in the valley which would lead to a guerilla movement for the liberation of Kashmir from India. This ill-conceived plan envisaged the deployment of elite SSG commandos in a guerilla role despite strong protests by the founding commander of the force.

The rebellion never occurred, instead the local Kashmiris alerted the Indian authorities. Based on the information provided by the locals, the Indian army launched a crackdown on the infiltrators and further responded by closing the infiltration routes and attacking their bases in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The Indians managed to turn the tables by capturing the strategic Haji Pir Pass and the Kargil heights from Pakistan between 25th and 30th of August, 1965. To prevent an imminent disaster on the Ceasefire Line   and halt the Indian advance, Pakistan army launched a hurriedly planned counter offensive codenamed ‘Grand Slam’ on 1st of September, 1965, aimed at capturing the strategic town of Akhnur near Jammu. Its success was expected to affect Indian army’s communication lines between the Indian held Kashmir valley and the rest of India because it targeted the vital Jammu-Srinagar Road. Between the 4th and 5th of September, Pakistan army was in a position to capture Akhnur, which was delayed by an untimely change of command on the GHQ’s orders as Ayub Khan’s favorite (the then) Maj. Gen. Yahya Khan was flown in to lead the victorious columns into the captured town despite the fact that the credit for success went to the previous commander.

On the 6th of September, 1965, in an attempt to prevent the fall of Akhnur, the Indians crossed the international border on the Lahore front with the aim to capture the main bridges on the Bambawali-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) Canal intact and advance towards Lahore. A few days later, an Indian armour attack was launched into the Shakargarh salient, with the aim to capture Sialkot. The fact that the Lahore and Sialkot fronts had been left completely defenseless while a conflict was already underway on the nearby Kashmir front with the Pakistan army poised to capture Akhnur, says a lot about the level of strategic planning and foresight of the Pakistani top brass who left their troops to be ‘surprised’ by an Indian attack. In any democratic country functioning on the principle of civilian oversight over the military, the top commanders responsible for this fiasco would have been taken to task after the war had ended. But this is Pakistan, where top military men have never been held accountable be it for their military misadventures and blunders or usurpation of political power.

Following the Indian attacks on the Lahore and Sialkot fronts, Pakistan launched a counter armor attack on the Kasur front led by the elite 1st Armored Division. This counterattack failed miserably; Pakistani tanks never made past Khem Karan and failed to enter deep into Indian territory as was planned. In Lt. Gen. Mahmud’s account, the chapter dedicated to this counterattack has been titled as ‘The Mauled Fist’. This counterattack and its failures find no mention in our textbooks or other official narrations meant for public consumption. What is mentioned, however, is the success of the Desert Force in the Rajasthan area, which was of little strategic value.

Another aspect which is missed out and never mentioned is the blunder of leaving East Pakistan defenseless under the flawed strategy called ‘the war of the East will be fought in the West’, which became an important reason for the Bengalis’ disillusionment. The army continued with this flawed strategy which contributed to the fall of Dhaka six years later during the 1971 war.

To sum it up, the army’s performance in the 1965 war was marked by badly planned misadventures and strategic blunders on part of the high command (which started the war in the first place). This poor performance was fortunately balanced out by the sheer bravery and the ultimate sacrifice of the junior officers and soldiers fighting at the tactical level as well as the exceptional performance of Pakistan Air Force’s spirited fighter pilots who managed to avert an imminent defeat.

On a strategic level, Pakistan failed to achieve the objective of liberating Kashmir for which it had initiated the conflict in the first place and in turn lost crucial territory on the Lahore and Sialkot fronts (which were retrieved through the Tashkent Agreement). The Indians fared no better, for they failed to capture Lahore and Sialkot despite numerical superiority, but succeeded in defending their control in Kashmir. As Pakistan’s final counter attack on the Kasur front failed, the war headed towards a stalemate. In the final analysis neither Pakistan nor India was able to achieve a decisive ‘victory’.

The myth of ‘victory’ was created after the war had ended, in order to counter Indian claims of victory on the one hand and to shield the Ayub regime and the army from criticism on the other. Pakistan’s generals might not have won the war on the battlefield, but they managed to win it in the people’s minds. It was a propaganda victory any army would envy.

It makes sense for rival official propaganda machines on both sides to make tall claims of victory during and right after the war. However, for Pakistan’s security establishment to successfully and convincingly paddle this myth even after five decades points out towards the effectiveness of its propaganda and public relations apparatus which sustains an overall positive image of the military in the polity at any cost. This positive image is then cashed for expanding the military’s political power and shielding itself from legitimate criticism and accountability.

That is why it is important to continue churning and reinforcing the official myth of victory. And that is also the reason why it is important to celebrate this myth every year.

Haider Imtiaz is an Islamabad-based lawyer. Follow him on Twitter