Why did Operation Gibraltar fail?

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By Ahmad Faruqui
On the night of August 5 in 1965, the Pakistan army launched Operation Gibraltar. Named grandiosely after the conquest of Spain by the Moroccan general, Tariq bin Ziad, the Pakistani operation failed spectacularly.
Gibraltar was supposed to finish the mission that had begun in October 1947 to ‘liberate’ Jammu and Kashmir from India. That mission failed because the undisciplined tribesmen, the ‘freedom fighters’, that went into Jammu and Kashmir went berserk and started a campaign of pillage and plunder before they even reached Srinagar.
A UN cease-fire was imposed in January 1949. General Ayub, the commander- in-chief of the army, seized power in October 1958. He was reluctant to initiate hostilities in Kashmir until he saw the Indian army perform poorly in its war with China in 1962. His vitriolic foreign minister, ZA Bhutto (later president and prime minister), convinced him that the time had come to take Kashmir.
Minor skirmishes in the Rann of Kutch area took place in April 1965. Once again, Indian forces fared badly. In A History of the Pakistan Army Brian Cloughley notes, “After the Rann of Kutch the army was cocky, even truculent.”
Ayub directed the military “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.” At other times, he said that one Muslim solider was worth ten Hindu soldiers. It was interesting that in times of war, even a man as secular as Ayub would resort to religion to exert Pakistani superiority over India.
Gibraltar was given the green light. Seven thousand tribesmen, the mujahideen were given six weeks of training in guerrilla warfare and sent into Kashmir with the intention of inciting a people’s uprising and installing a provisional revolutionary government.
Unfortunately, as in 1947, no uprising took place. These mujahideen stood out from the natives since several did not speak the local dialect and others did not know the metric system of weights and measures. Four of them were captured by the India army and appeared on All India Radio where they disclosed their true purpose.
Pakistan’s planners had forgotten German Field Marshal von Moltke’s warning: “No war plan survives the first 24 hours of contact with the enemy.” At that point, Pakistan could have called off the operation. But it decided to raise the stakes through Operation Grand Slam. The objective was to seize the town of Akhnur, which Ayub had said was a dagger pointed at the road that connected Kashmir to India. Once taken, it would cause the Indian troops in Kashmir to surrender or withdraw to India proper.
Grand Slam began in earnest. Infantry units of the army backed by 90 Patton tanks over-ran the Indian outpost in the hamlet of Chamb, crossed the Munawar Tawi River, and were headed toward Akhnur. India sent in ancient vampire fighters to defend its positions but they were easily taken out by the PAF’s sabre fighter jets.
It was in the midst of the operation that General Muhammad Musa, the commander-in-chief, decided to switch division commanders. That delay gave Indian forces the breathing room to regroup their forces and Akhnur was not even attacked. An Indian general observed, “Akhnur was a ripe plumb ready to be plucked, but Providence came to our rescue.” Another said that it was not Indian generalship that carried the day but Pakistani “ham-handedness in crossing the Munawar Tawi river and changing horses in midstream.”
The new commander of the 7th Infantry Division was Maj-Gen Yahya (later army chief and president). He would claim later that he was not tasked with taking Akhnur. Was that not Ayub’s objective?
Feeling the pressure in Kashmir, India attacked Lahore on the 6th of September and a full-scale war broke out which concluded with a cease-fire on the 22nd of September. Peace between the two countries was negotiated under Soviet auspices in Tashkent on January 10th, 1966. The cease-fire line in Kashmir had barely moved.
Gibraltar was based on Pakistan’s mistaken presumptions about India capabilities and an exaggerated opinion of its own capabilities. Nehru had warned Pakistan in the early 1950s that an attack on Kashmir would result in a general war. Nehru’s successor, the diminutive Lal Bahadur Shastri, had repeated that warning after the Pakistani attack in the Rann of Kutch.
But Pakistan had gone tone deaf. It was listening only to itself. Ayub Khan had written off Shastri as a political weakling. Pakistan’s war-making strategy was flawed. None of its strategic objectives were achieved. And were it not for the tactical brilliance of its battalion commanders, and the bravery of its front line troops which rank with the world’s finest, disaster would have struck.
As Shuja Nawaz notes in his comprehensive history, Crossed Swords, in its external wars, Pakistan’s senior leaders have failed their lower level commanders and ordinary soldiers with poorly conceived military adventures time and time again.
(The writer has authored, Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan. He can be reached at AhmadFaruqui@gmail.com)