The 1971 War
An examination of the strategic concept of war

Maj (Retd) AGHA HUMAYUN AMIN from WASHINGTON DC makes an excellent dissection of strategy concerned for 1971.

The strategic concept of Pakistan’s defence i.e. ‘Defence of East Pakistan lies in the West’ was formulated by Ayub Khan in late fifties and became the foundation of Pakistan’s defence policy. The concept envisaged having bulk of the army in the northern half of the West Wing and was based on the assumption that this arrangement would force India to keep bulk of its army/strategic reserves on its western front. We will analyse the various aspects of this concept as following:-

a.         The interconnection between the internal and external fronts. The basis of defence and stability of a country is absolute harmony and in consonance with the internal and external fronts. The internal front means ‘morale of the civilian population’ ‘their belief in the legitimacy and moral credibility of the political government’ ‘belief in national aims and ideology of the country’ ‘identification with the Armed Forces of the country as defenders of the country’s integrity’ etc etc. External front includes the country’s Armed Forces, and its foreign policy. A country’s defence is based on both and any weakness in one will weaken the other. This inter-relationship was ignored by Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership during the period 1947-71. The Muslim League was initially dominated by a partnership of refugees from Muslim minority provinces and later by a combination of Punjabi Muslims and civil-military bureaucrats. The Bengalis were alienated first because of the National language issue and later because of the constitutional representation issue. The Bengalis were initially patriotic and only demanded linguistic equality and had even agreed to political parity in 1956. This arrangement was seriously disturbed once Ayub usurped political power in 1958. Immediately after independence the founder of the nation Mr Jinnah made an attempt to broaden the army’s recruitment base by ordering the raising of the East Bengal Regiment in 1948. This was a purely political decision taken by Mr Jinnah and implemented by a British C in C. By December 1948 two battalions of this unit composed of Bengali Muslims had been raised. This process was, however, discontinued once Ayub Khan an intellectually naive and tactically timid man became the Pakistan Army’s C in C in 1951. Ayub was biased against having Bengalis in the army. During his tenure an unwritten policy of not raising any more Bengali infantry battalions was followed. Ayub also retired the most promising Bengali officer Major General Majeed soon after taking over. The East Bengal Regiment was limited to two units and the expanded Pakistan Army remained a largely Punjabi dominated army. The irony of the whole affair was the fact that during this entire period all the army chiefs were non-Punjabi! In any case this was the first serious negation of the concept of having a national army. The Army was on the other hand firstly viewed as a Punjabi Army in the East Wing. Secondly and far more worse; it was viewed as an organisation designed primarily for the defence of the West Wing. The 1965 war further convinced the Bengalis that the army was not a national army but one designed to defend the West Wing. Thus from 1965 the rift between the internal and external fronts became much wider and the army was increasingly viewed as a foreign entity in the East Wing. The seeds of the events of 1971 were laid during the Ayub era. The Bengali populace viewed the federal government as a neo colonial government with its political base in the West Wing. The Army was increasingly viewed as a coercive instrument which was aimed at perpetuating the West Wing’s political and economic exploitation of the East Wing. By 1971 Pakistan’s ‘Internal Front’ was seriously eroded and this in turn greatly weakened its external front.

b.         The Military Capability to implement the strategic concept. Till 1962 the military balance between Pakistan and India was equal. The Sino-Indian conflict led to a major change in Indian defence policy and the Indians initiated a major programme of military expansion. In 1965 when the second Indo-Pak War took place; the relative Indo-Pak military capabilities were not as significant; and Pakistan was better placed at least in terms of strategic reserves. Stoppage of US military aid in 1965 brought a major change in the military sphere. Pakistan concluded an alternate defence arrangement with China but this was not sufficient to redress the imbalance. India on the other hand more rapidly expanded her Armed Forces and the gap between India and Pakistan in terms of infantry formations became far more wider than in 1965. Thus India’s overall military superiority over Pakistan increased from 1965 when it was about 20 to 35 in Infantry1 to 15 to 32 in 1971. The situation became far more worse in terms of strategic reserves since Pakistan’s armour potential was severely reduced because of stoppage of US aid. The Indians on the other hand almost completely replaced their ancient tank fleet of 1965 with brand new Vijayanta-Vickers or Russian supplied T-54/55 Tanks. In brief Pakistan did not possess the military capability to implement the strategic concept.

c.            Pakistan’s Internal Situation. The military regime of Yahya made an honest attempt to bring democracy in Pakistan and successfully held Pakistan’s first ever general elections based on Universal Suffrage since 1946. The country was already polarised because of the political legacy of the Ayub era and the East Wing was on the verge of secession. This situation was not of Yahya’s making but inherited by him. The situation demanded extraordinary political vision which was sadly missing in the country’s political as well as military leadership. Yahya although sincere at heart believed in the power of bayonet and thought that the East Wing could be kept within the federation through military action. The consequences of the surgical and brief military action were not fully grasped by Yahya and most of the West Wing’s politicians. In 1971 the country was divided and in no position to simultaneously deal with a civil war as well as an external war. This adverse internal situation nullified the whole concept.

d.         Lack of clarity in the Pakistani Military Higher Command about the ‘Modus Operandi’ of executing the Strategic Concept. It may be noted that at least till 1968-69 the Pakistani GHQ was not clear about ‘what action should be taken in West Pakistan if an Indian attack was mounted against East Pakistan’2. In brief the Pakistani military leadership was confused and vague about the method of execution of the strategic concept; i.e. ‘Defence of East Pakistan lies in West Pakistan’ as late as 1968-69 at the time when defence plans were revised under General Yaqub Khan’s tenure as CGS. The concept was based on the assumption that Indian pressure/threat against East Pakistan could be dealt with by launching a major counter offensive taking the war inside Indian territory on the Western Front. This was a very generalized assumption and was interpreted by different officers in a different manner. General Gul Hasan who took over as CGS had more clear ideas about the implementation of this concept; but Gul’s views were not shared by the higher military leadership. One school of thought led by the CGS General Gul Hassan felt that this could be best done by ‘simultaneous launching of preliminary operations and the counter offensive’ or ‘that the reaction to any Indian invasion of East Pakistan should be an all out offensive by Pakistan’s Strike Corps i.e. the I Corps’3. Yahya and his Chief of Staff General Hameed felt otherwise. They were of the view that ‘preliminary (local level tactical attacks) operations by the holding formations should be launched first and when the preliminary objectives had been secured and the enemy’s attention had been diverted, the main counter offensive should be set in motion.4 Yahya and Hameed failed to realise that the only chance of salvation in 1971 when Pakistan was facing serious odds was in resorting to the boldest measures. Gul’s views were not accepted and Yahya and Hameed decided on a vague plan of ‘first launch preliminary operations followed by counter offensive’. The final strategic plan was vague and confusing on two counts; i.e. firstly it did not take into account the fact that the Indians enjoyed overwhelming superiority in the Eastern Theatre and possessed the potential of overrunning East Pakistan; secondly no time frame was fixed for launching the counter offensive of 1 Corps. It may be noted that Pakistan possessed relatively superior strategic reserves on in the Western Theatre and its 1 Corps two strike divisions i.e. 6 Armoured Division and 17 Division had no offensive role. In brief once Pakistan embarked on war its strategic plans were confused and vague and its strike formation was not clear about when it was to be launched. This conceptual confusion doomed Pakistan’s strategic plans from the onset.

The Validity of the Chinese Card

The Chinese card on which so much hope was based had limited and seasonal validity! The Himalayan snow fall blocked the passes through which China could militarily influence the war! This seasonal factor was never incorporated as an important factor in the Pakistani strategic plan. If China was to be involved or Chinese friendship tested the ideal time to launch a pre-emptive attack on India was mid-June or mid-July or even September. Manekshaw the Indian Chief realised this and forced Indira to wait till December when the Himalayan snowfall had completely nullified chances of Chinese overland intervention and had freed India’s Mountain Divisions facing China for the attack on East Pakistan.

The Fate of Pakistan Army’s Strategic Plan in Actual Execution

Foch defined two broad essentials of strategy i.e. ‘Economy of Force’ and ‘Preservation of Freedom of Manoeuvre’. The Pakistani GHQ did well in case of the first and created a strong strategic reserve by new raisings and by economising sectors which were relatively less vulnerable. Its response to the East Pakistan insurgency in the first phase in March 1971 was praised even by Indian military writers as ‘a remarkable performance on Pakistan’s part’5. China aided Pakistan immensely and two new infantry divisions were raised to replace the 9 and 16 Divisions which were Pakistan’s strategic reserve till March 1971. In addition Pakistan raised 18 and 23 Division in June July 1971 and the 33 and 37 Division on the eve of the war. It may be noted that apart from this Pakistan had also raised two independent armoured brigades in 1970 by withdrawing the integral armoured regiments of some of its existing infantry divisions.6 All these measures gave the Pakistani commanders a significant strategic reserve to implement the official strategy of launching a counter offensive on the Western Front aimed at ensuring that the Indians could not concentrate their entire strength and over run East Pakistan. However, the Pakistani GHQ failed in the actual execution of this strategic plan.

It was in preservation of ‘Freedom of action’ that the Pakistani GHQ failed. This freedom of action could be preserved and denied on the other hand to the Indians only if Pakistan launched its counter offensive immediately after the war started. If this had been done it was possible that the Indians could have been forced to pull out some of their formations from the Eastern Theatre; thereby reducing the pressure on Pakistan’s Eastern Command. Since no such counter offensive was launched; India was allowed to invade and conquer East Pakistan at leisure. In the meantime two Pakistani armoured divisions; one independent armoured brigade (3 Armoured Brigade-Lahore) and three infantry divisions (17, 7 and 37) remained uncommitted during the entire war.

Once the war started the Indians were extremely cautious. Once they realised that Pakistan was irresolute; they became more audacious and stepped up their offensive operation. In Shakargarh for example the Indian 1 Corps Commander had initially earmarked five of his nine infantry brigades for a holding role. Once he realised by 7th September that Pakistan was not launching any major attack in his area of operations he switched three of his holding infantry brigades into an offensive role. This increased pressure, forced the Pakistani GHQ to pull out one armoured regiment from its 23 Division attack in Chamb and to commit half of its 33 Division (a part of the strategic reserve) to defence of Shakargarh. In addition the other half of 33 Division was committed to the defence of the Southern Sector once the 18 Division attack towards Loganewala failed. As a result of this increased pressure the Indians were unable to impose their will on the Pakistani GHQ in strategic terms.

This was despite the fact that Pakistan had a relatively better offensive potential in the Western Theatre.

Yahya Khan based the entire Pakistani plan on the wishful thought that the Indians would never invade East Pakistan. Once the Indians did so he became indecisive and kept on delaying the decision of launching Pakistan’s strategic reserve in order to reduce Indian pressure on the Eastern Command. He only decided to launch the counter offensive on 16 December when the Eastern Command had surrendered. Thus the strategic concept i.e. defence of East Pakistan lies in West Pakistan; whatever it was worth in words of General K.M Arif was never tried or implemented.

Chances of Success of Pakistani I Corps Offensive

We will examine in brief the chances of success of the Pakistani 2 Corps offensive; in case it had been launched in brief. The Strike Force consisted of one armoured division (T-59/T-54/55 Tanks) and two infantry divisions (7 and 37 Division) which were based in area Arifwala-Pirowal-Burewala-Bahawalnagar. This strike corps was to launch the main attack inside Indian territory from general area Sadiq Ganj-Amruka-Minchinabad and thrust towards Bhatinda; thereafter, swinging north towards Ludhiana. The Indians were relatively well placed in this area and had their 1st Armoured Division in Muktsar area consisting of four armoured regiments (Vijayantas) and three mechanised infantry battalions. Apart from this they had two covering troop forces i.e. the ‘Mike Force’ (T-54 and T-55) comprising one tank regiment and one tank regiment minus, one squadron in area in Ganganagar area. This force was tasked to threaten the flanks of Pakistani 1st Armoured Division in case it attacked India while the 1st Indian Armoured Division manouvred into action. In addition the ‘Foxtrot Force’ (T-54/55) consisting of one tank regiment and another tank regiment less one squadron was already under command 67 Independent Brigade tasked with defence of Fazilka.

The above mentioned dispositions meant that force wise the Indians were well poised to defend the area where Pakistan’s main counteroffensive was to be launched. The result would surely have been a fierce clash of armour which may have led to a draw or one side inflicting relatively greater losses on the other without making much headway in the final reckoning.

This means that the 1 Corps attack even if launched held no guarantee of success in terms of relieving the pressure on East Pakistan or in terms of capturing a strategic objective. There was, however, one guarantee of success for Pakistan’s 2 Corps too! This was in case Pakistan launched a pre-emptive attack on India in early October. This would have been a good option. Pakistan in any case had been condemned for human right violations and genocide and this allegation is levelled even today. Unfortunately its leadership remained obsessed with diplomatic niceties and hairsplitting and tried to play an all correct conduct game. Thus this golden chance was lost.

Other Offensive Options

Pakistan had other offensive options to relieve pressure on East Pakistan. These included employment of its northern strike corps i.e. the 1 Corps (6 Armoured Division and 17 Division) to launch a thrust in the far more vulnerable Indian belly between Pathankot and Chamb; thereby threatening the lifeline of four Indian divisions in Kashmir; forcing the Indians to switch their 1st Armoured Division north of Beas River. This was a far better option since an advance of 15 to 20 miles would have enabled Pakistan to sever the Indian line of communication. In the case of 2 Corps counter offensive the operation involved an advance of more than 60 miles in face of an Indian armoured division. In 1 Corps area the Indians had two armoured brigades as against one Pakistani Armoured Division and one independent armoured brigades. The Pakistani GHQ, however, made no plans for any offensive employment of 1 Corps, offensive employment and this formation was left unutilised throughout the war. Initially two of its armoured regiments were employed in the 23 Division attack in Chamb and after 10 December once, one of its armoured regiments reverted back to it; it was given no other task except to be prepared to launch a counterattack in Zafarwal.

Pakistani Military Leadership’s Dilemma. It became fashionable after the war to heap all the blame on Yahya and his cronies. Yahya, as a matter of fact was a far more capable chief than Musa. He inherited a situation which was of Ayub’s making. Yahya did his best to remedy the serious military imbalances; raised new formations; improved plans where none as a matter of fact had existed. He was faced with a hostile neighbour having full support of USSR; while at the same time facing a civil war created because of ambition of two crafty politicians. The odds with which Yahya was faced were high and demanded the strategic vision of Moltke and the operational talent of a Rommel or Manstein. There were some Rommels like General Eftikhar but no Moltke’s to give higher strategic direction. Yahya was initially dynamic but successively became more timid and cautious at a time when the only salvation was in resorting to the boldest measures. Even the Indians praised Yahya’s initial conduct. One author thus wrote: ‘Nevertheless Yahya showed a good sense in taking decisions and his command decisions were generally well deliberated upon and sound. He had been thrown into a rotten situation, which had come into being the day Pakistan came into being with its two wings. His only hope lay in somehow getting round Mujeeb and getting him to see reason, he tried that... he had perhaps achieved a measure of success too... but the cyclone of 12/13 November destroyed everything... the elections gave the Bengalis an overwhelming majority. The Six Points would have meant a virtual dismemberment of Pakistan. This could not be permitted. So the only course open was to hold military rule and restore the law and order if necessary by force’7. Kissinger in his White House Years has asserted that it was USA’s intervention which saved West Pakistan from being overrun by India. This is a vague statement. It is doubtful whether India was willing to invade West Pakistan in force after the fall of East Pakistan.

The answer to Pakistan’s dilemma was a bold attack and only a bold all out attack could have forced India to drop the idea of invading East Pakistan. Long ago Clausewitz well summed up the solution for states like Pakistan in 1971 when he said ‘Offensive war, that is the taking advantage of the present moment, is always commanded when the future holds out a better prospect not to ourselves but to our adversary’. In this case the future had better prospects for India and Pakistan’s only hope was an all out offensive posture. Clausewitz defined the solution in yet more detail in the following words ‘Let us suppose a small state is involved in a contest with a very superior power, and foresees that with each year its position will become worse: should it not; if war is inevitable, make use of the time when its situation is furthest from worst? Then it must attack, not because the attack in itself ensures any advantages Ñ it will rather increase the disparity of forces-but because this state is under the necessity of either bringing the matter completely to an issue before the worst time arrives or of gaining at least in the meantime some advantages which it may hereafter turn to account’8.

Indian General Candeth who commanded the Indian Western Command made a very thought-provoking remark in his memoir of 1971 war which proves that Pakistan’s only chance lay in offensive action. Candeth thus wrote:-

‘The most critical period was between 8 and 26 October when 1 Corps and 1 Armoured Division were still outside Western Command. Had Pakistan put in a pre-emptive attack, during that period, the consequences would have been too dreadful to contemplate and all our efforts during the war would have been spent in trying to correct the adverse situation forced on us’.9


Only a Napoleon or a Frederick could have saved Pakistan in 1971 from being divided and humiliated and cut to size! There were potential Napoleons and Fredericks in the Pakistan Army in 1947-48 but these were systematically sidelined or weeded out from 1950 to 1958. A conspiracy against originality and boldness! Ironically the political situation that the Pakistan Army inherited was created once the West Pakistan Civil servants and the then army C in C had ganged up in the period 1951-58 to keep the much despised Bengali in his place! The civilians did well in creating the 1956 Constitution which solved all major political problems of Pakistan. The politicians were, however, never allowed to implement this constitution since its implementation through holding of a general elections in 1959 may have led to a East Bengali victory, thus seriously reducing the civil-military dominance of Pakistani politics. Thus martial law was imposed in 1958 to avoid a general election! Ironically the army finally saw the light of the day a bit too late once a martial law was imposed in 1969 to hold a general election ! The tide of history in these 11 years had become irreversible! Strategic insight could at best have averted total humiliation! But there was no strategic insight since Ayub Khan had ensured from 1950 to 1969 that no strategic insight should be groomed and cultivated!

1In 1965 Pakistan had 20 Infantry Brigades (including 4 AK Brigades) as against 35 Indian Infantry Brigades. It had 756 Tanks as against 608 Indian tanks. In addition its M-47/48 Tanks were relatively new and better than the main Indian tank i.e. Centurion. It had 756 artillery guns as against 608 Indian. (Page-7-War Despatches-Harbaksh Singh-Lancer-New Delhi-1990). In 1971 the Indians had 25 Infantry Divisions (including 10 Mountain) and eight infantry brigades as against fourteen Pakistani Infantry Divisions and one independent infantry brigade. In artillery the situation was even worse since in 1971 India had 2900 Artillery Guns (400 Medium and 2500 Field) as against 1100 (300 Medium and 800 Field) Pakistani Artillery Guns. In armour the situation was more adverse. Numerically in terms of brigades/divisions there was parity; India having one armoured division and four independent armoured brigades as against two Pakistani armoured divisions and two independent brigades. However, both qualitatively and quantitatively the situation was markedly in India’s favour. India having 1650 tanks (200 Centurion, 250 Sherman, 450 T-54/55, 300 Vijayanta, 150 PT-76 and 100 AMX-13) as against Pakistan’s 1050 (200 M-47/48, 150T-54/55 tanks and the Vijayanta Tanks. In addition the Indians had 750 T-54/55/Vijayantas as against 350 Pakistani T-54/55/59 tanks. (Refers-The equipment strength in 1971 is based on figures given in Military Balance-Issue-1971-1972-International Institute of Strategic Studies-London). Number of Formations are based on figures given on pages-271 and 272-Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership-Fazal Muqeem Khan-National Book Foundation-Lahore-1973).

2Page-106-Fazal Muqeem-Op Cit.

3Page-112-Ibid and Page-310-Memoirs Gul Hassan Khan-Oxford University Press-Karachi-1992-The fact that Gul Hassan was a strong advocate of this view is also supported by General Fazal Muqeem (See page-112-Fazal Muqeem Khan-Op Cit).

4Page-308-Gul Hassan Khan-Op Cit.

5Page-426-The Indian Army after Independence-Major K.C Praval-Lancer International-New Delhi-1987

6page-107-Fazal Muqeem-Op Cit.

7Page-44-Dismemberment of Pakistan-Brigadier Jagdev Singh-Lancer International-New Delhi-1988.

8Pages-397 and 398-On War-Edited by Anatol Rapport-Reprinted National Book Foundation-1976.

9Page-28-The Western Front-Lt Gen P.K Candeth-Allied Publishers-New Delhi-1984.