It was the night of the full moon. Invoking a dictum of Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s – the defense of the East lies in the West – General Yahya Khan ordered the Pakistan Air Force to attack Indian Air Force bases along India’s western border.
The war in the East had not been going well. A civil war had been raging there since March 1971. It had been triggered by Yahya Khan’s decision to annul the results of the prior year’s general election. The war had resulted in an exodus of East Pakistanis into East Bengal. Indian forces had surrounded East Pakistan and an invasion was imminent.
Yahya Khan had annulled the election to prevent power from being transferred to a political party based in the East. Ironically, not that long ago he had referred to Sheikh Mujib, who headed the victorious Awami League, as the future prime minister.
In the army, Yahya Khan had been Ayub Khan’s trusted confidante for years. Soon after the 1965 war, Ayub Khan had appointed him as the army chief. Public sentiment turned against Ayub Khan in 1967-1968. This was triggered by his failure to win the 1965 war and by the economic meltdown that ensued. At that point, Ayub Khan asked Yahya Khan to declare martial law.
Yahya Khan felt that his mentor had become too big for his boots. On March 25, 1969, he forced Ayub Khan to resign. The following year, anxious to create a good place for himself in history, Yahya Khan conducted the fairest elections in the country since 1947. History would have been kind to him if he had honored the results of the election.
Instead, he called off the first session of the National Assembly. As if calling off the session was not bad enough, Yahya Khan escalated tensions by launching Operation Searchlight against the leadership of the Awami League on March 25, 1971. He declared the League as traitors and miscreants.
The inevitable happened. East Pakistan was plunged into a horrific civil war that ravaged it for months on end. In late November, overcome by the influx of refugees from East Pakistan, Indian artillery began to pound Pakistani army positions in the East. The Pakistani army was scattered around the long border with India, deployed in “penny packets,” outnumbered and demoralized. An Indian invasion seemed imminent.
Despite the fact that the majority lived in the East, Pakistan had only deployed one army division and one air force squadron there. Sometime after the civil war began in the East, it rushed three army divisions to the East but they came without their normal complement of armor and artillery. The troops knew neither the terrain nor the culture of the East. Their failure was preordained.
China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, refused to intervene. The USSR had signed a defense pact with India in August. USSR had also moved several army divisions to the border with China in Manchuria. The Chinese deftly told the Pakistanis, “Russia is not afraid of China,” implying that China is afraid of Russia.
The US, which had long regarded Pakistan as its “most allied ally,” moved the aircraft carrier USS Enterprises to the Bay of Bengal but made it very clear that it would not intervene in the conflict. Henry Kissinger told President Nixon there was no way to save East Pakistan.
Pakistan’s attack against Indian air bases on December 3, 1971 was modeled after the attack that the Israeli Air Force had carried out at the start of the Six Day war in 1967. The Israeli attack was launched with exceptional vigor and daring. Out of a total strength of 230 combat aircraft, all but 12 fighter planes destroyed Egyptian air power at its source. Israeli fighters flew extremely low to avoid the radar. Coming in over the sea or directly across the Sinai, they attacked 10 airfields in the Canal Zone and the Sinai. Further waves followed at ten-minute intervals. In two hours and 50 minutes, the Israeli Air Force attacked 19 airfields using techniques that were meticulously planned and rehearsed. General Rabin wrote, “In all, 400 enemy planes were destroyed on the first day of fighting; and that in essence decided the fate of the war.”
By contrast, the Indians anticipated Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) attack. Moreover, the PAF launched the attack with an anemic force of six F-104s and ten F-86s. This contingent was smaller than the one used by Pakistan in the early stages of the 1965 war, when much less was at stake. In that attack, almost 60 PAF aircraft hit more than eight Indian air bases in a series of coordinated attacks.
Unsurprisingly, the PAF offensive failed to create a dent in India’s war making capabilities. Worse, it turned into a strategic liability, giving India the long-awaited pretext for invading East Pakistan.
In the war that followed on the western front, there was no coordination among the three branches of service in Pakistan. The Pakistani Chief of Naval Staff learned of this air strike from a Pakistani radio broadcast, while driving to work the next morning. On the eastern front, General Niazi, the military commander of East Pakistan, learned about the air strike while listening to the BBC World Service.
Further evidence of the lack of co-ordination between the army and air force is evident in the ill-fated attack launched by the 18th Division on Ramgarh, 45 miles west of Jaisalmer. Neither Ramgarh nor Jaisalmer held any strategic significance. As in 1965, the cream of Pakistan’s armor was destroyed as it raced headlong into a U-shaped ambush laid out by the Indians, in a thrust completely uncoordinated with artillery, infantry, or the PAF.
The PAF did its best to preserve its capabilities in the West, perhaps knowing that the loss of the East was just a matter of time. It allowed the Indian Air Force free rein over the skies over the West. Karachi was pounded at will in the daytime, so unlike the situation in 1965.
The Indian Air Force also pounded away at the Karachi-Lahore-Islamabad railway so mercilessly that no large-scale military movement could take place on it. Accordingly, the PAF preserved its bevy of shining Mirages, and lost half of the country.
The outcome of the war in the East did not surprise anyone since the Pakistani forces there were outnumbered by Indian forces, demoralized by months of fighting a Civil War, and cut off from their source of supplies in the West.
What surprised most observers was that the Pakistani military did not do well in the West either, where the ratio of forces between India and Pakistan was quite balanced.