Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
US Joint Publication 1 (JP1) defines military strategy as using military resources such as people, equipment and information against opponent’s resources to gain supremacy or reduce the opponent’s will to fight. It further describes three levels of military strategy – strategic, operational and tactical. There are no finite limits or boundaries between these levels.
Division and Corps Commanders fight battles generally operating at the tactical and operational levels. Army chiefs conduct wars and have to master employment of military assets at the strategic level, which involves national guidance and resources to achieve national level objectives. This article will attempt to study, analyse, gauge and grade past Pakistani army chiefs under whose command wars or major military campaigns were waged on their understanding and execution of military strategy at the strategic level.
Field Marshal Ayub Khan
General Ayub Khan was the first Pakistani army chief, who assumed command in 1951. In 1958, he declared Martial Law and took over as the President of the country, and in January 1965 elevated himself to the rank of Field Marshal. In May the same year, he was presented with an offensive military plan codenamed Grand Slam by his hawkish Generals, fully endorsed by the young and ambitious Foreign Minister (FM) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The plan’s objective was the capture of the vital Akhnoor Bridge in Indian Held Jammu and Kashmir (IHJK). Akhnoor was the only lifeline of the entire Indian infantry division in IHJK. The loss of Akhnoor would isolate the Indian division and threaten the city of Jammu. Ayub Khan hoped it would force India to revisit the Kashmir dispute and agree to resolve it in accordance with UN Resolution 47, which called for a general plebiscite in Kashmir for its people to decide whether they want to be a part of India or Pakistan. He was confident the Kashmiris would overwhelmingly vote in favour of Pakistan, thus completing the unfinished agenda of the 1947 Kashmir War.
The offensive plan looked solid but Ayub Khan was worried. Would India accept the loss of Kashmir without escalating the conflict across the international borders, he wondered. During the seven years of his rule, the country’s economy had become the envy of the developing states of South and East Asia. A full-scale war with an enemy more than three times larger in size, resources and military strength was something he desperately wanted to avoid. It is widely believed his FM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reportedly allayed his fears by stating that the Americans had assured him the war will remain confined to the disputed border and will not spill over. In essence, the Americans were not averse to the Kashmir offensive. Ayub Khan relented and gave his go ahead.
Operation Grand Slam was launched on September 1, 1965, made good progress and the Akhnoor Bridge was within the grasp of the offensive elements. Contrary to any assurance the Americans might have given to the FM, India launched a two-pronged offensive across the Sialkot and Lahore international borders. While the Pakistani defence forces successfully repulsed both offensive prongs, Operation Grand Slam came to a grinding halt as its elements had to be withdrawn to support the defensive efforts elsewhere. When a ceasefire was declared and the status quo restored, Akhnoor Bridge remained with India and the unfinished agenda of 1947 remained unfinished.
The 1965 War adversely affected the Pakistan economy and the total US arms embargo that followed as the conflict was raging was a double whammy. Without replenishment of the US manufactured weapons and critical spare parts consumed or destroyed during the war, both the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the Pakistan Army were running out of especially those critical spare parts needed for the US-supplied tanks, artillery and combat aircraft. This was one of the factors that forced Ayub Khan to accept a Soviet-sponsored ceasefire, despite having successfully blunted the Indian offensive.
Post-war, the complete cessation of US military assistance hurt the readiness of the armed forces. Pakistan, which was heavily dependent on the free supply of key US weaponry, now had to purchase the military hardware from the open market. The entire financial burden of key defence purchases that was earlier borne by the US now shifted to Pakistan, further denting the economy.
Ayub’s concern that Operation Grand Slam would result in an all-out war that the country could ill afford was genuine. With his military background, he should have had no doubt the war would escalate well beyond the disputed territory. Furthermore, the military hardware provided by the US to Pakistan gratis was meant exclusively to be employed to defend against the spread of communism. Using US military hardware to attack India, a non-aligned country, would be seriously frowned upon by the donors. An arms embargo that could cripple his defence forces was a distinct possibility. A firm no to the proposed plan therefore, was the only sensible answer, which Ayub Khan regretfully failed to deliver.
For Ayub Khan to have accepted the verbal guarantee of an ambitious, inexperienced, with an axe-to-grind FM about the US’s assurance reeks of extreme strategic naivety. He deserves no better than a D minus as a strategic thinker.
General Yahya Khan
General Yahya Khan, who was appointed the army chief in 1966, took over as the country’s President while retaining his army chief’s slot after Ayub Khan’s forced resignation in 1969. His strategic mettle was tested during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Under his supervision general elections were held in 1970, which are considered the only free and fair elections held in the country to date. Awami League (AL) secured a comfortable majority and won the right to form the government in the Centre. This was denied by Yahya on one pretext or the other, which led to unrest and public disorder by the AL supporters in East Pakistan. While the military option to quell the uprising was being considered, senior PAF and Pakistan Navy (PN) officers stationed in East Pakistan warned against it, as did the People’s Republic of China, advising a political resolution of the crisis. Influenced and goaded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the ex-FM of Ayub Khan and the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which had won a majority of the seats in West Pakistan, Yahya unleashed the military to put down the protests and rioting on March 25, 1971. The rest is history. The resultant Bengali rebellion aided by the Indian Army led to the 1971 Indo-Pak war and the break-up of Pakistan.
For ignoring the will of the people as represented in the result of the general elections, for dismissing the advice of his friends and allies who had warned him against the use of military force to resolve a political crisis and for his actions that led to the dismemberment of the country, General Yahya Khan deserves an E in the art of military strategy.
General Ziaul Haq
When General Ziaul Haq ousted Bhutto and took over as the President and Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan, he retained the powerful post of the army chief. The illegal takeover had made him an international pariah. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 changed his fortunes. Without the participation of Pakistan, providing arms and finances to the Afghan Mujahideen who were actively waging guerilla warfare against the Soviet invaders was practically impossible. Zia seized the opportunity and convinced the US to actively support the Mujahideen struggle. A coalition of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was formed, where the US provided modern weaponry, the Saudis the finances and Pakistan training camps for local and Afghan volunteers for the Afghan Jihad and the necessary liaison for the transfer of men and material to the Afghan Mujahideen. Overnight Pakistan’s status was transformed from a hostile nation to an ally of the US, and Zia from an outcast to a dear friend.
On the question of whether Pakistan should have actively assisted the US-led coalition against the Soviet invasion or remained neutral, the jury is still out. On the question of the strategy employed by Zia after joining the US coalition, there is no ambiguity – it was disastrous.
Neighbouring Iran had also played host to a sizeable number of Afghan refugees who had fled the war-torn country. Iran kept them confined to restricted areas and closely monitored their movements. When the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended, almost all the refugees were repatriated.
Zia on the other hand gave the Afghan refugees free rein to move around the length and breadth of the country with impunity. Many put down permanent roots in the main urban centres, bringing with them the culture of drugs, guns and violence. Over a million and a quarter Afghan refugees still reside illegally in Pakistan, despite the end of the Soviet occupation. Worse still, Zia used the religious seminaries to recruit fighters for the Afghan Jihad, while allowing Saudi Arabia to set up and finance madrassas all over the country that aggressively preached and promoted their very strict Salafi version of Islam. The two decisions working in tandem resulted in the radicalisation of a fairly open and tolerant Pakistani society. The havoc wreaked by Zia’s misguided Afghan policies reverberates even four decades on.
Zia was no fool. Many would classify him as crafty, even devious. The manner in which he used the state’s power and resources to promote his self-interest and impose his personal beliefs on the rest of the nation would justify the two sobriquets. The only action that the majority of his countrymen overwhelmingly approved was taking advantage of the window of opportunity the Afghan War provided, his relentless pursuit of the nuclear weapons programme, which he brought to fruition before his demise in an air accident. That said, for following the flawed policy of allowing Saudi Arabia to open and fund seminaries preaching the ultra-conservative Salafi version of Islam and for allowing the Afghan refugees the freedom to roam and conduct business all over the country spreading the culture of guns, drugs and violence, he too deserves no better than a D minus as a strategic thinker.
General Pervez Musharraf
Pervez Musharraf was appointed the army chief in 1998, leapfrogging two senior Generals. He was suave, intelligent, broadminded, well-read and approachable. The Kargil campaign was masterminded by him and executed under his command. Its tactical brilliance in planning and execution notwithstanding, it proved to be his Waterloo as a strategic thinker.
The hypothesis about the Indian reaction to the Kargil offensive bore a stark resemblance to the postulation of Ayub Khan about how India would react to Operation Grand Slam. Ayub was convinced India would not escalate the conflict beyond the disputed territory. Musharraf and his key military planners it appears also came to a similar conclusion about the Indian response to the Kargil incursion. They postulated the conflict would remain confined to the Kargil sector on the assumption India would not dare escalate to an all-out war because of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence. Musharraf and his military planners ignored one of the golden principles of nuclear deterrence: nuclear deterrence may be effective only in defence, and will not deter the adversary from a retaliatory response if military actions harm his core interest. They also failed to appreciate that the nuclear factor gave the Indians a much simpler option. Should the Indian military attempts to vacate the heights in Kargil fail, merely threatening to escalate the conflict could also achieve the desired result.
When the Kargil campaign was launched, it met with immediate success and the campaign mission of capturing the Kargil heights in IHJK was quickly achieved. By dominating the Kargil heights, the Pakistan military was able to bring lethal firepower onto the only land access to the Indian forces in the portions of the Siachen Glacier it had illegally occupied since 1984. The inability to clear the heights would have isolated the Indian troops in the Siachen Glacier from their sole land supply line, forcing their withdrawal. The loss of the Siachen Glacier to Pakistan would deal a fatal blow to the BJP-led government.
When attempts to recapture the heights by the Indian forces failed to make much progress, India openly threatened to expand the war across the international border, an act that raised the nuclear flashpoint between the two nuclear weapons-capable adversaries to a dangerous level. It would force the world powers to directly intervene and defuse the situation to avoid a nuclear holocaust. Pressure to de-escalate would then be exerted on the aggressor, in this case Pakistan. And the strategy worked.
According to US intelligence, Pakistan had started to mate the nuclear warheads with their delivery missiles, which suggested it was prepared for a nuclear war should events cross its perceived nuclear threshold. The US, with the full support of the international bodies, moved in quickly and brought unbearable pressure on the Pakistani Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif, forcing him to order a unilateral troop withdrawal from the occupied heights.
When the Indian Air Force (IAF) had started to mercilessly pound the Pakistani unit holding the heights, the PAF was asked by GHQ to intervene and challenge the IAF strike formations. The PAF briefed the government that while it was capable and ready to engage the IAF, in its assessment any hostile air action across the IHJK would lead to a full-fledged war. The civilian government under PM Nawaz Sharif ordered the PAF to act only if the IAF violated the Line of Control (LoC). While the PAF maintained a vigil on its side of the LoC, the IAF, left unchallenged, operated with impunity on its side of the LoC, causing substantial damage to the heights occupiers.
The postmortem of the Kargil War revealed GHQ had planned the Kargil offensive in complete secrecy involving a handful of Generals. The PAF and PN were kept in the dark. Even most of the Corps Commanders had no knowledge about the campaign. The Kargil offensive was bound to attract a strong reaction from the Indian military, where the use of the powerful IAF, which only the PAF had the ability to counter, was almost a certainty. Not taking the PAF on board during the planning stages amounted to sheer madness. For Musharraf, who had taught operational strategy in the then National Defence College, to have come to such an erroneous decision was sad and tragic. Only hubris or momentary madness can explain such a lapse.
The only explanation that would make any sense could be the original ingress plan in the Kargil sector was limited to the capture of a few hills as a tit-for-tat response to the recent Indian aggressions across the LoC. Deeper ingress and occupying key heights that would threaten the only supply route to the Indian troops stationed at Siachen Glacier was not envisaged. The limited logistics and manpower provided for the purpose seem to support this theory. The rapid progress made by the advancing troops, where the critical heights were captured with relative ease, must have come as a pleasant surprise to the planners. Elated by the unexpected success, the scope and range of the mission were subsequently enhanced, with no additional resources. Even if this surmise is true, changing the goalpost without providing supplementary logistics and manpower support was clearly wrong. Perhaps some of Kargil’s architects who are still around can throw light on this theory.
If only the lessons of the 1965 War had been drawn and corrective actions taken, the Kargil misadventure would have been avoided.
After the Kargil capitulation the blame game as to who was responsible for the debacle raged on, where Musharraf held the PM guilty of caving in to the US pressure when Pakistani forces were in a winning position, and the PM holding the army chief responsible and accountable for executing the Kargil plan in total isolation. The tug of war between the two eventually led to Musharraf overthrowing the civilian dispensation and taking power through a bloodless military coup. Following the Zia model, he became the country’s Chief Executive (later on the country’s President), while retaining the powerful army chief’s post. And like Zia, for removing a democratic set up, he too was declared persona non grata by the international bodies.
Immediately following the 9/11 attack on US soil, Musharraf received an urgent call from the US Foreign Secretary Colin Powell that spelled out a list of demands Pakistan had to agree on in support of the US Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Failure to comply would lead to serious consequences, Musharraf was duly warned, and he duly complied, accepting all the US conditions. Outright rejection of the US demands was not a viable option for Pakistan as it would have jeopardised national security. Accepting all demands dictated by the US without negotiation even surprised Colin Powell and it amounted to abject surrender. Musharraf should have bargained for a much better deal for allowing the US a military air corridor and air bases for the Afghan offensive and for providing subsequent logistics support for the US forces stationed in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban regime.
Musharraf’s capitulation was well rewarded by President George Bush, and overnight Musharraf became a darling of the US administration. Pakistan too was amply rewarded with military and financial aid for compliance, and it was declared as the most allied ally of the US. Much of the US aid unfortunately was in support of the armed forces. Conventional wisdom suggests the bulk of the US aid could have been better spent to improve the weak infrastructure of the country by updating its inefficient and antiquated power generation and distribution systems and by inducting modern technology in the industrial and commercial sectors.
Musharraf’s counterinsurgency (COIN) operation in South Waziristan codenamed Al Mizan in 2004 on the insistence of the US also displayed a lack of strategic vision. He sent in forces that had no training or experience in fighting an insurgency to quell the Taliban resurgence waging an unconventional war. After considerable cost in terms of life, limb, equipment and reputation, a stalemate was reached. Eventually, the campaign had to be called off, and a dubious ceasefire with the militants was executed. The rise of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that continues to haunt Pakistan to this day can be traced to the botched up 2004 military operation in South Waziristan.
For his myopic Kargil campaign, for his failure to secure better benefits for Pakistan after allying it with the US and for his failed COIN campaign in South Waziristan, Musharraf deserves no better than a C minus in the strategic column.
Generals Ashfaque Pervez Kayani, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Javed Bajwa
Ashfaque Pervez Kayani, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Javed Bajwa succeeded Musharraf in that order. Although no wars were waged during their term, major COIN campaigns codenamed Rah-e-Raast, Rah-e-Nijat (Kayani), Zarb-e-Azb (Raheel) and Raddul Fasad (Bajwa) were conducted under their command. Surprisingly, by the end of their terms, each claimed to have broken the backbone of the insurgency, only for it to resurface with a vengeance shortly after their retirement. The current incumbent army chief General Syed Asim Munir Shah has his hands full fighting the insurgents. He too promises they will be crushed before he retires.
Grading the trio on their strategic competence is not easy but considering none of them successfully wiped out terrorism, despite having vast land and air power resources at their disposal, it does not speak highly of their strategic sense. The details of their vast financial and land holdings in the country and abroad, far in excess of their legal perks and entitlement, have further dented their reputation. Perhaps a C minus is the best that can be awarded.
Almost all the army chiefs of Pakistan under whose tenure wars or major military campaigns were waged have been found wanting in the art of military strategy. Why is that? Is it an indication of a system where, in the promotion to the two-star and above ranks, meritocracy is ignored?
One of the paradoxes in military promotions the world over is the dichotomy where one’s ability to command is judged by one’s ability to obey, and only those displaying command ability get promoted. Where military commanders not only accept but value healthy criticism, meritocracy prevails. The PAF of yore enjoyed such a reputation. And where even honest criticism and differences of opinion are discouraged and violators penalised, only sycophants and yes-men rise and genuinely deserving candidates fall by the wayside.
If the Pakistani armed forces want to produce leaders of the calibre of Khalid bin Walid, Salahuddin Ayubi (famous Muslim commanders), Field Marshals Heinz Guderian, Eric von Manstein (of German fame), an honest critique, even criticism by the junior ranks must not only be respected but appreciated at all levels of the military hierarchy.
The writer is a retired Air Commodore