By S M Hali
“It is a remarkable story of a remarkable man.”
During my various visits to Colonel Mehdi, I found him not only eloquent and courteous, but the nonagenarian, despite his frail health, would get up to greet me and ensure that he would stroll till the gate to see me off; reminisces of rapidly receding values. Here I reproduce some extracts from the interview:
SMH (myself); When did you first find out about Operation Gibraltar?
Col. Mehdi (CM): In late May 1965, I was directed by the Vice Chief of General Staff, (late Major General Abid Bilgrami) to go to Murree and see GOC 12 Division, Akhtar Hussain Malik. I made an appointment for 10 AM and reached on time but the GOC was half an hour late. I listened to his briefing, which in a nutshell involved my SSG boys training a group of “Mujahedeen”, comprising regular army troops and volunteers, infiltrating them into IHK, creating a general uprising and bring India to the conference table without provoking general war. I asked him whether the Army was on board. He responded that it was his plan. I then asked him, when he expected to launch the “Mujahedeen”? When he said July, the same year, I nearly choked. I had initially assumed the plan to materialize in a year or two. I told him “you will never get away with it.”
The GOC's briefing of the outline plan of Gibraltar operation left me stunned. The plan was so childish, so bizarre as to be unacceptable to logical, competent, professionally sound military persons anywhere in the world. I frankly told General Akhtar Malik that the Operation was a non starter and that I would render the same advice to the Chief and Vice Chief of General Staff. He insisted that I depute some of my (SSG) officers for immediate training of his “Mujahedeen”. I had taken three of my officers with me for the briefing; I decided to leave them behind with General Akhtar and tasked them to do their best in the remaining four to six weeks.
SMH: Did you brief the VCGS?
CM: I rushed to the GHQ, the same day and briefed the CGS and VCGS, who listened to me patiently. The result of my presentation however was barren of the result. Major General Malik Sher Bahadur (The CGS) posed only one question. You (Mehdi) say that operation Gibraltar as planned stands no chance of succeeding, but Akhtar Malik (GOC 12 Division) feels confident of its success. My reply to the Chief of the General Staff was that, the conflicting view point of Mehdi and Akhtar Malik notwithstanding, as Chief of General Staff of Pakistan Army, he should also have an opinion on this important matter as we were not playing a peace time war game, but with the destiny of Pakistan itself. SMH: What was his reaction?
CM: To this date I remember the reaction of the CGS. He went red right up to his ears, and after a painful pause got up, extended his hand to shake and brought the interview to an end with the remarks that “it is always interesting to listen to you!”
SMH: What steps did you take after the meeting?
CM: I was not going to let the matters rest there as it involved precious human lives. My commitment to my boys was more than just being their CO. After taking over from my predecessor Mitha Khan, I had changed the entire concept of their training, given them the motto of “Man Janbazam” and moulded them into a cohesive and professional unit. They had a role to play in the defence of Pakistan but not to be led to the slaughter chambers on a foolhardy scheme.
Undaunted by the rebuff at Murree and later at the GHQ, I decided to reduce my arguments in writing, as to the reasons why Gibraltar shall fail. However before doing that, I individually called upon my SSG officers, I had left behind to train for Operation Gibraltar and asked if in their opinion, the operation had any chance of success. The response of all three was in the negative. Hence I asked them to put their opinion in writing, to which they complied. I then proceeded to write to GHQ. My observations in brief, were:
1. No ground had been prepared before launching of the operation, in concert with people of the valley.
2. The raids were to be launched in total logistical vacuum relying exclusively of what the troops would carry in their packs or living off the countryside. Without any covert support across the Ceasefire Line, this living off the land proved fatal to the security of the guerrillas. (Most of them were betrayed.)
3. GHQ had mixed up classic Guerrilla operations with Commandos raids.
4. All SSG and other officers, responsible for training and later leading groups across the ceasefire line were critical of the soundness of the plan, unsure of the means and uncertain of the end.
SMH: What did you mean: “unsure of the means and uncertain of the end”?
CM: As I mentioned earlier, there was no planning for providing them with logistic support, replenishment of arms, ammunition and food supply; providing them with shelter, shielding them from the Indian military and ultimately achieving their task.
SMH: What was the response of GHQ?
CM: Initially I was pressurized to withdraw my observations and go along with the plan, when I did not budge; I was relieved of my command on 30th July and told to destroy all copies of my correspondence with GHQ on the subject. I intentionally left behind a copy in the documents at SSG Headquarters for the sake of posterity and lessons for my successors. SSG records at Cherat shall substantiate the points made above. I was approached by one of the commanders at an annual get together of SSG officers, which President Musharraf had hosted, much later after my retirement. The officer commented on my note and confirmed that it still was in the records.
SMH: What was the background of Gen Akhtar’s obsession with the Operation Gibraltar and how did he get involved?
CM: To the best of my knowledge, a number of bureaucrats from Rawalpindi used to go to Murree for the weekend, where they would relax, play cards and chill out. Gen Akhtar, as GOC 12 Div, would at times attend these sessions. Once he was dared by the bureaucrats that Pakistan Army had done nothing for Pakistan’s creation or the liberation of Kashmir. At this Gen Akhtar spoke up that he had a plan and disclosed the rationale for Operation Gibraltar. The bureaucrats were reportedly quite taken in and the Foreign Secretary Aziz Ahmad went and reported it to the Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The mercurial ZAB apparently met Gen Akhtar and then brought the matter to the ears of President Ayub, who asked for a detailed briefing after he was purportedly convinced by Bhutto that the operation would resolve the Kashmir issue, bringing India to the dialogue table and it would not risk the danger of an all out war. The briefing did take place at Murree amply illustrated by sand models and maps, with both President Ayub and the Army C-in-C Gen. Musa present. Gen Ayub gave his nod but asked “why not Akhnur? Go for the jugular.” General Akhtar responded: “That too but I would need more troops and funds”. The same was promised.
SMH: You have not explained the reason for Gen Akhtar’s obsession with Operation Gibraltar.
CM: It has been said that Gen. Akhtar was a Qadiani and was heard to have been of the opinion that after its liberation, Kashmir will become the first independent Qadiani state. Major General Nawabzada Sher Ali Khan, younger brother of Nawab of Pataudi, gave an interview to an Urdu magazine, in which he disclosed the same. According to the interview, Gen Akhtar claimed that he was ordained to carry out this task in a dream. It was never refuted by any Qadiani. Hence I assume it to be true.
SMH: Various Ahmadiyya/Qadiani websites e.g. http://www.thepersecution.org/50years/general.html proclaim his being a Qadiani.
CM: That is right but Gen Akhtar was a brilliant soldier and strategist who became obsessed with prematurely launching the operation, which resulted in disaster.
SMH: When was it launched and what was the chain of events? How come no one besides you opposed it?
CM; Neither the C-in-C Army nor General Staff had the guts to stand up to the President, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and tell him that his advisers in the ministry of Foreign Affairs supported by GOC 12 Division, Akhtar Malik were taking him on a long ride commencing with Gibraltar, leading to his downfall via Tashkent, as it eventually proved! The loser in the final analysis was Pakistan, described so feelingly by General K.M. Arif in an analysis carried by daily Dawn, 6th September 1990. ‘How and why Pakistan blundered into war’[i] … “At that time, the policy making in the country was highly personalized. The institutions were weak and by-passed. Pakistan's Foreign Office with Mr. Aziz Ahmed as the Foreign Secretary and Mr. Z.A. Bhutto as the Foreign Minister called the martial tunes. It had miscalculated that despite operation Gibraltar, the fighting was likely to remain confined inside the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Foreign Office is on record to have assessed that India was not in a position to risk a general war with Pakistan……for inexplicable reasons the General Headquarters based its operational plan in Kashmir on a wishful logic. The misplaced ego, the high ambition and the naive approach of a selected few plunged the country into an armed conflict. The outcome of the war, or the lack of it, eclipsed Ayub's position.”
SMH: Sherbaz Mazari, commenting on Bhutto’s role, which was instrumental in shaping the plans for the Operation is evident from his biography “A Journey to Disillusionment” writes: “The [Kashmir] Cell was greatly influenced by the views of Aziz Ahmed and his Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto had also taken to lobby the Army directly by visiting senior officers at their residences and seeking to impress upon them with the indispensability of launching raids across the Cease-Fire Line. These visits led General Musa to complain to Ayub Khan that Bhutto was brainwashing his officers.” [ii]
SMH: What happened with the launch of the operation?
CM: I would like to quote from the C-in-C General Musa’s book My Version. On page 6 of his book, he comments, “the sponsors andsupporters of the raids had at last succeeded in persuading the President to take the plunge that led to an all-out armed conflict with India' ……. To the extent that the concept of sending infiltrators in the Indian held Kashmir, code named Gibraltar' was the brain-child of the ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the simple truth and nothing but the truth.” However, General Musa assumed full responsibility for the development of the concept, its planning and coordination of the entire operation. This is graphically stated by him on page 35 of his book: “After the Government finally decided that deep raids should be launched in Indian-held Kashmir, I directed Commander 12 Division, Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik, to prepare a draft plan for the operation, code-named Gibraltar in consultation with GHQ and within the broad concept we had specified. GHQ approved it after making certain changes in it. With the help of sand model, he went over the final plan in Murree before it was put into effect on 7 August, 1965 under our overall control. The Supreme Commander and his Military Secretary were present. He also agreed with it. I was accompanied by the CGS (Major General Sher Bahadur) and the Directors of Military Operations and Intelligence (Brigadiers Gul Hasan and Irshad Ahmed Khan respectively). No civil official attended this briefing. Broadly the plan envisaged, on a short-term basis, sabotage of military targets, disruptions of communications, etc. and, as a long-term measure, distribution of arms to the people of occupied Kashmir and initiation of a guerrilla movement there with a view to starting an uprising in the valley eventually. The push towards Akhnur was not part of it. However, it was considered as one of the likely operations that we might have to undertake, as we felt our activities would have an escalating effect. When Akhtar Malik was pointing out on the sand model the various targets of the raiding parties of Gibraltar, the President did say why don't you go for Akhnur also? Akhtar Malik replied that, too, could be considered, but it was not raided because no Gibraltar force had been organized for that purpose.”
SMH: How did the events of the operation unfold?
CM: The total strength of the “Gibraltar Force” was not more than 5,000 to 7,000 men subdivided into nine forces i.e. (1) “Salahuddin Force” operating in Srinagar Valley, (2) “Ghaznavi Force “ in Mendhar-Rajauri area, (3) “Tariq Force” in Dras-Kargil area, (4) “Babar Force “in Nowshera-Sundarbani area, (5) “Qasim Force” in Bandipura-Sonarwain area, (6) “Khalid Force” in Qazinag-Naugam area, (7) “Nusrat Force” in Tithwal-Tangdhar area, (8) “Sikandar Force” in Gurais area and (9) “Khilji Force” in Kel-Minimarg area.
The mission assigned to the various Gibraltar forces was warfare in the enemy’s rear including harassing enemy communications, destruction of bridges, logistic installations, headquarters with a view to create conditions of an “armed insurrection” in Kashmir finally leading to a national uprising against Indian rule leading to liberation of Kashmir or at least parts of it. As pointed out earlier, with little or no ground work, improper coordination with the local Kashmiris and lack of logistic planning, the operation was doomed to fail. A number of personnel selected for the operation were of Kashmiri origin, however, I would like to point out the case of Major Qayyum, he belonged to Jammu, and in fact his uncle was the Governor of Jammu. He volunteered for participation in the operation; when he reached his uncle, he was asked regarding his mission. On explaining the same and seeking his uncle’s support, he was curtly informed that he should go back with the comment: “The graveyards around the Valley are filled with the bodies of the Hazara and other volunteers who came to liberate Kashmir in 1947.” I am not sure when the Major managed to exfiltrate but others were not so lucky, instead of receiving help from the local Kashmiris, most were handed over to Indian troops and the cat was out of the bag before any part of the mission could be accomplished. Those who were not discovered were in a pathetic state, since rations, ammunition and supplies ran out.
SMH: I believe the PAF carried out daring missions through C-130 aircraft to provide logistic support.
CM: I believe they did and the PAF C-in-C Air Marshal Nur Khan was on board.
SMH: Here I would like to reproduce an extract from article of mine titled: ‘There is no destination beyond my reach’ on the daring PAF mission, carried by the Defence Journal in its September 1998 issue[iii].
“In early August, a large number of Mujahedeen had been infiltrated across the UN cease fire line (CFL) to help liberate the Indian occupied Kashmir. Before long, the Mujahedeen ran into problems as they faced a shortage of arms, ammunition, supplies and provisions. Once again it was the air transport wing of PAF that came to the rescue. The stakes this time were very high. Flying 75-ton aircraft under normal conditions down to within a couple of hundred feet of dropping zones surrounded by mountains towering up to more than 8,000 meters is hazardous enough, what with weather, turbulence and terrain avoidance problems. With the added complications of enemy air and ground defences against these lumbering unarmed transports, if supplies were to be dropped across the CFL, the task clearly became out of the question by day time – and to attempt such operations at night among some of the highest peaks in the world appeared equally impossible.
‘Impossible’ does not exist in the vocabulary of PAF’s resolute transport aircrew. Under the command of their Officer Commanding No. 35 Flying Wing, Wing Commander Zahid Butt, Co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Asif and Navigator Flight Lieutenant Rizwan, the undaunted crew got airborne on a starry night on 23 August, 1965 to drop 28,000 lbs of guns, rations, ammunition and other supplies. A second C-130 commanded by Flight Lieutenant Nazir A Khan with copilot Flight Lieutenant Javed Hayat Malik and Navigator Flight Lieutenant SKH Wasti followed. So dangerous was the mission that the then PAF Commander-in-Chief, Air Vice Marshal Nur Khan decided to accompany them. Such an example of leadership from the cockpit on a mission into enemy territory has few parallels in air warfare. The daring mission was successfully achieved despite a raging blizzard and a pitch black night intermittently lit by flashes of lightning. It was later confirmed by reliable intelligence sources that an accuracy of about half-a-kilometer had been achieved, which was remarkable for a blind drop.”
CM: Yes it was a daring mission but it could not be continued once the enemy found out about them and then the “Mujahedeen” suffered immensely.
SMH: What was the haste for launching the operation? If I may quote from Air Chief Marshal Shamim’s book Cutting Edge, he mentions the case of dropping of guerrillas in enemy area in South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam advised his Army Commander General Vo Nguyen Giap to launch guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam. The general replied that he required ten years to plan and place guerrilla force in occupied territory. He said first there was a need to prepare safe places for them so they were absorbed in local population and could get the necessary arms and ammunition for their tasks. Otherwise, he said, they would be like fish out of water and would be caught and butchered.[iv]
CM: Perhaps political expediency, one is not sure of the agendas of different people.
SMH: Brigadier Shaukat Qadir, in his article, ‘Operation Gibraltar: Battle that never was’ provides a possible rationale: “For some obscure reason, Pakistan undertook Operation Gibraltar, without preparing the grounds for it, or seeking guarantees of local support, or even attempting to assess the mood of the Kashmiri people. They only relied on the assessment offered by some adventurous element of Kashmiris from Azad Kashmir without verifying this assessment. One cannot but wonder why? What was the reason for such haste, even if such an adventure was to be undertaken? I am afraid that I can only speculate an answer to that question.
1965 witnessed a number of events. First, two of Ayub's sons kidnapped the daughter of the IG Police. This was more than even the ever loyal Nawab of Kalabagh could bear and, when Ayub prevented him from taking any action, he resigned.
1965 was also the year that Ayub contested the elections against Fatima Jinnah. Personally speaking, her election to office would have been disastrous and, in my opinion, Ayub would have won anyway.
Nonetheless, not only did two of his sons open fire on demonstrators in Karachi killing 30-odd people and wounding many more, but it was commonly accepted that the elections had been rigged. There were also a number of other incidents that began to come to light in this period, relating to Ayub's nepotism.
As a consequence of all these events, Ayub had lost a lot of political ground. Perhaps he felt that by becoming the liberator of Kashmir he would redeem himself in the eyes of the people, or that through such a venture he hoped to unite the people, for there is little doubt that there has never been greater unity in the country than in the period of the war and immediately after.
Whatever his reasons, Pakistan went into Operation Gibraltar without any preliminary preparations and undertook a guerrilla operation inside Indian held Kashmir with a large number of regular soldiers, some SSG elements and a smattering of irregulars, expecting to be welcomed by the local population and raise them up in arms against the Indian government.
They were destined to be rudely disillusioned.