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Monday, March 26, 2012

Anatomy of military image: Dhaka debacle


The Mughal emperor Babar wept after the loss of Samarkand. My eyes were painfully dry and gritty, hurting like sand grains as I blinked. Thus fifty-four percent of the country was gone

“Countries which worship armies tend to use them” (anon). The strong belief in the ‘invincibility’ of the Pakistani soldier and ‘unfailing divine help’, the sheet anchor of the nation and the military underlined all along the triumphant image of the Pakistani mujahid (warrior) against Hindu India.

Five days after the fall of Jessore, the last bastion of defence against the advancing Indian army regulars and guerrillas of the Mukhti Bahini, the redoubtable Z A Suleri, in his column Men and Matters titled Jessore: The Stalingrad of Pakistan wrote: “Our soldier is a wholly different species from others, specially his Indian (Hindu — parenthesis mine) counterpart. He is armed in weapons, but he is also armed in iman” (The Pakistan Times, Rawalpindi, December 10, 1971). On that very day, it had been my painful duty to announce that it was all over with East Pakistan.

The Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Gul Hassan Khan summoned me peremptorily to his office to tell me that, “So you must do your usual PR stuff to prepare the nation to accept the shock...” Prepare the nation to accept the loss of East Pakistan. Good heavens! As simple as that. “Exactly how...?” I mumbled. “Well you may use your PR verbiage to lessen the impact.” I stood thunderstruck staring into the eyes of the General. He stared back in turn before reassuring, “Something like, though we were outnumbered and outgunned, we were not outclassed — you know what I mean.” “Is that all...?” I said. “That’s all. Go back to your office and hammer out something for your next press briefing.”

The Mughal emperor Babar wept after the loss of Samarkand. My eyes were painfully dry and gritty, hurting like sand grains as I blinked.

Thus fifty-four percent of the country was gone.

Chained to the traditional military image of invincibility and his own as an unyielding ghazi (warrior), Lieutenant-Gen Amir Abdullah Khan (‘Tiger’) Niazi, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command was still saying in press reports that the Indians dared not enter Dhaka. “They would have had to drive a tank over his body” before daring to enter Dhaka.

Niazi’s empty boast was worse than defeat itself. It might have been like the shattering of the military image beyond repair, never to be the same again as an integrated whole, reflecting a force astride East and West Pakistan. Worse still was the grave damage his hollow braggadocio did to the word of a professional general to lay down his life before letting the enemy into his turf.

Far away at the GHQ, the nerve centre of the military, emerged yet another sorry spectacle: The disgraceful image of the supreme commander, General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, showed even on one of his rare visits to GHQ for a map briefing of the war. As he got off his four-star staff car he looked bloated in the face. He was in uniform, a warm Angola shirt and serge trousers. His sideburns protruded from the sides of his service cap. Such was the atmosphere at the GHQ on the morrow of the war. It was one of emptiness rather than one of intense activity as would be expected at the armed forces headquarters of a country at war.

Thereafter, there was little to report except to say: “Our defensive positions are being improved and that some minor indentations had been made across the various sectors in Punjab....’ (East Pakistan: The Endgame, P-204).

On December 16, Tiger Niazi surrendered at 1600 Hrs, according to the BBC. Back in West Pakistan, nothing was known about the modalities of the surrender. There was some useless effort to delay (or kill) the news. The poisoned chalice had to be drunk to the dregs somehow. Some of the finest civil-military heads were put together to produce a 26-word announcement as follows:

“Following an arrangement between the commanders of India and Pakistan, fighting has ceased in the Eastern theatre and the Indian troops have entered Dhaka (EOM).”

Thus the sad tale that began and ran through the length of our turbulent history, beginning soon after the emergence of Pakistan, ended on December 16, 1971.

And the strong belief in the ‘invincibility’ of the Pakistani soldier and ‘unfailing divine help’ shattered, never to be put together again, in a united bizonal Pakistan. The fall of Dhaka also debunked the doctrine — a brainchild of General Ayub — of situating the defence of the East (Pakistan) in the west. The doctrine, theoretically sound, would turn into a pipedream, as it did indeed, without the will and the resource available.

Niazi’s operational plan had been based on the archaic concept of defending every inch of the sacred soil. He broke up his forces into 300 outposts, all along the border, to create a vacuum inside the cities/villages and to lose the chance of a determined last-ditch stand by all integrated and highly motivated forces from a pre-selected vantage point.

The Dhaka bowl, an ideal ground for that, hardly figured in Niazi’s main operational plan. I met him last on September 30, 1971, at his headquarters in Dhaka. He boasted that there was nothing to stop him from ‘making Calcutta’. “Shera (Tiger),” he said, thumping his thighs, “War is not for intellectuals the likes of you and Jacob (Lieutenant-General Sahibzada Yakub) to wage. It’s for the like of us. Just wait and see....”

Niazi, did live up to his word and ‘made Calcutta’, but only as a POW lodged in Fort William. After a week or so of regular fighting, he broke his formations — divisions and brigades — to retire into many fortresses. He planned to lure the enemy into his trap, expecting him to come and engage his ‘impregnable’ fortresses and give him hell.

The enemy never obliged. The Indian General Jagjit Aurora gave his advancing formations two simple lines: “Leave the highways. Follow the byways.” They leapfrogged by, passing Niazi’s strong fortresses, entering Dhaka without any resistance. A triumph of strategy: ‘Victory without bloodying your swords.’

Back at the centre in West Pakistan, there was an explosion of sound and fury against the military, not so much at the public level as through the officially controlled print and electronic media. The new President and Chief Martial Law Administrator Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto needed an army but one with clipped wings.

He raised the Federal Security Force under a police officer, Masud Mahmood, one of Bhutto’s blue eyed boys, almost as a parallel force against the army. How incredibly naïve, as history would tell.

Getting a fledgling sparrow to engage a falcon, that had constantly been one of Bhutto’s grand illusions, an almost suicidal streak in his character, and it got him to walk to the gallows.

As for the military image of the army, navy and air force, with some 95 senior officers in Indian captivity as POWs, what kind of an image building would have been either desirable or possible?

The image on its fateful and fatal clash with brute reality broke into smithereens, never to be put together again, as the attribute of a force astride east and west.

First published in the Daily Times, Pakistan, March 26, 2012

A. R. SIDDIQI is a retired brigadier and can be reached at

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