Blunders of the 1971 war

Dec 03 2009


ON March 25, 1971, Gen Yahya Khan ordered the army to restore the writ of the state in East Pakistan. On Dec 16, 1971, East Pakistan was no more.

That afternoon in Dhaka, the Pakistan Army lost its honour on the battlefield when Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi (Tiger) and his Eastern Command surrendered to the Indian Eastern Command — honour that can be regained only on the battlefield. Until then, the ignominious defeat will continue to haunt the armed forces and succeeding generations in Pakistan.

After he chose to solve a political problem by military means, Yahya Khan should have foreseen that at some point in the foreseeable future, India would intervene to achieve its longstanding aim — the breakup of Pakistan. Consequently, he should have prepared for war by focusing on defending Dhaka at all cost, and on invoking the concept of defending the east from the west. He did neither.

On the other hand, the Indian Army, in line with their aim, had chosen to adopt a strategic defensive posture in the west, and a strategic offensive posture in the east. They had correctly identified Dhaka as their objective and subordinated all other considerations to the accomplishment of this single aim. But the aim could not be accomplished quickly if Dhaka, the terrain around which favoured the defender, was defended in strength. Therefore, something had to be done to induce the Pakistanis to uncover Dhaka. Thus started the Indian psychological operations to delude the Pakistanis into thinking that the Indian military aim was limited to the capture of a small chunk of Pakistani territory adjacent to the international border, from which an independent state of Bangladesh would be proclaimed.

To reinforce this impression, on Nov 20, they launched small-scale offensive operations all along the border, aimed at drawing the Pakistani forces outwards and imposing on them an exaggerated forward defensive posture. Niazi obliged them by ordering his forces to deploy along the 1,700-mile long border — as a consequence, he diluted his forces in space and uncovered Dhaka. East Pakistan, as it stood on Dec 3, 1971, was ready to fall like a ripe plum. And fall it did when on Dec 14, the Indian troops marched into Dhaka unopposed as there were no Pakistani regulars available to defend it.

The Pakistani concept of defending the east from the west was fashioned by geographic compulsions. It was a sound concept as the armed forces, like their adversary, were not strong enough to fight a war on two fronts 1,000 miles apart, for any attempt to do so would have denuded them of strategic offensive capability on both fronts.

“In war, opportunities come but once, the great art is to seize them,” said Napoleon. The first opportunity to implement this concept came in September 1971 when the Indian defences in the west had not yet been fully energised. At this point, a strategic offensive in the Ravi-Chenab corridor, centred on armoured forces, could have severed Indian Kashmir from the mainland by securing line Samba-Madhopur Headworks, then exploiting towards Jammu. From the geo-strategic, operational and logistics standpoint, this was the most suitable corridor for an offensive that could not only salvage the forces in the east, but also recompense for the probable loss of East Pakistan, given that the people there had risen in rebellion against the Pakistani state.

In mid-October, while the strike formation of India's 1 Corps, under Lt Gen K.K. Singh, was being inducted into the Ravi-Chenab corridor, Singh commented, “Our weakest hour is now; another four days and Yahya would have missed the opportunity.” On Dec 5, his corps started its tactical offensive in the eastern half of the corridor between Degh Nadi in the west and Ravi in the east.

The second opportunity came a week later when this corps was fully committed and struggling to make headway. At this point, the western half of the corridor, which was lightly held, presented an opening which went unnoticed by Yahya and his war directing team. A counter-offensive through this opening could have turned the western flank of the corps and created a critical situation for them.

On Dec 3, Yahya Khan opened the western front and frittered away three infantry divisions and an armoured brigade on operations that had no strategic significance. In what was essentially a defensive offensive, an infantry division and an armoured brigade were launched against Chhamb. Another infantry division was tasked to capture Jaisalmer, which entailed traversing 60 miles of desert; while moving towards the border the division's vehicles got stuck in the sand, and the only unit that managed to cross the border was a T 59 tank unit, but as the area was outside PAF's fighter range, it was devastated by relentless air attacks.

It was a criminal offence to assign a mission in desert terrain to a foot mobile division — a mission that could only be undertaken by armoured forces with assured air support.

Another infantry division was tasked to capture Poonch in Indian Kashmir. It planned to do this in two phases. In Phase 1 a corridor would be created through which, in Phase 2, the remaining force would pass to secure their objectives. Phase 1 failed, yet Phase 2 was launched, which also failed — in the process, 100 officers and men lost their lives.

In yet another tragic operation, an armoured brigade was ordered to eliminate a foothold Singh's corps had gained across the defensive minefield in the area of Jarpal. It was said to hold a tank squadron (14 tanks) and an infantry battalion. On Dec 16, as the first unit moved forward it was devastated by tank fire. The second unit then attacked from another direction and met the same fate. It later transpired that there were four tank squadrons (60 tanks) and an infantry brigade in the foothold. Moreover, although 16 artillery batteries were available, only three were used to support the piecemeal attack.

In the most tragic of all operations, an infantry battalion was ordered to capture Jarpal which, 24 hours earlier had decimated an armoured brigade. When its request to delay the attack by 24 hours was denied, at 530 am on Dec 17, the battalion attacked — without artillery fire support. It was mown down.

The commanders and their staff at army, corps, division and brigade headquarters were guilty of crass incompetence. As for the soldiers who fought and died bravely, 'theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die'!

The writer is a retired brigadier.