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The war Pakistan lost and India didn’t win

All wars begin with miscalculation and the 1965 war was purely Pakistan's error. It was a strategic defeat for Pakistan but a military stalemate.

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Even halfway decent – and honest – military historians will tell you that the 1965 war was the last one that Pakistan had a chance of winning against India. It had better equipment, more advanced technologies, better and more focused NATO-standard training, a clearer doctrine and strategic objectives. It seems difficult to believe now, but even internally and politically, Pakistan then looked more cohesive than did India, which faced Naga insurgency, Dravida separatism and an unstable Kashmir.

Most importantly, the initiative was fully with Pakistan. It had chosen its timing, place and method of launching that war. Its purpose was to wrest the Kashmir Valley. Its leadership had concluded, quite correctly, that India’s military modernisation was very well under way after the 1962 debacle against China. Another couple of years of expansion, re-equipment and consolidation would have made it decisively stronger militarily.

They were not wrong. Consider these technological and hardware advantages Pakistan had in 1965, giving it a clear military edge on the ground, in the air and over the seas:

Pakistan’s American-made Patton was by far the best in the subcontinent. You could argue that India’s British-made Centurion was its equal, but there were two problems. One, India had too few of these heavy tanks (about a half of Pakistan’s Pattons). As a result, the Indian army had to allocate these very carefully. The rest of India’s tanks were Second World War Shermans, and light French AMXs. In fact, India’s defensive brigade which fought the main Pakistani thrust in Chhamb had only two squadrons of AMXs. Two, no Indian tank was night-capable whereas the Patton was. The only Indian superiority was in having a larger number of infantry divisions. But, as Lt General Harbaksh Singh notes in his “War Despatches”, many of these were fresh, post-1962 raisings and not yet settled or fully battle-ready.

Pakistan had decidedly superior artillery and a much larger number of higher caliber US-made guns. These often tilted the balance when used in a massed profile, particularly in the open tank-infantry battles in the Sialkot sector, a fact documented well by Lt General Harbakhsh. In fact, he says that both Pakistani equipment and doctrine of artillery use were superior. More than 75 per cent of Indian casualties were caused by artillery. Pakistan also had a headstart in special/commando forces, as the Special Services Group (SSG) was already formed.

In the air, sidewinder missiles on F-86 Sabre as well as F-104 Starfighter gave Pakistan’s Air Force a clear edge. IAF was still in the gun age. The first MiG-21 squadron was still coming up, and had only nine planes with pilots under conversion training. Further, F-104 was fully night-capable, as were some F-86s. India had no night-capable fighter/interceptors. This gave Pakistani bombers safer passage to Indian bases at night whereas Indian night bombers were unescorted and vulnerable to PAF defenders. With C-130 Hercules, Pakistan had a way superior transport fleet, also more capable of paratroop operations, which it tried.

On the naval front, India had a larger fleet. But Pakistan was already in the submarine age with the US-gifted Ghazi. So Pakistan was a clear dimension ahead. The Indian navy had inadequacies in sonar and submarine detection, so it wasn’t entirely capable of fighting in that dimension. India’s lone carrier INS Vikrant was then in dry dock, but even if it had been active, it would have had limited impact.

Also read: Pakistan fighting war in India’s hinterland without weapons. That’s sixth-generation warfare


It was with all these factors in mind that Ayub and Bhutto finally embarked on this war. Their presumptions of decisive superiority were confirmed in their minds by the poor performance of the Indian defensive brigade in the Kutch sector earlier that year. Even the IAF had avoided combat there, and Pakistanis misread that as a disinclination to fight. Coming as it did soon after 1962, Pakistan decided – rightly on paper – that this was their moment.

Why did it not work out that way? There are some reasons on which reputed and fair chroniclers of both sides now agree. These include:

Arrogance on the part of Pakistani commanders. Lack of respect for the opposition and a foolhardy tendency to declare victory too soon. A prime example is how its brilliant armour thrust in Khem Karan, which had once seemed so threatening that General J.N Chaudhuri wanted to withdraw to a new defensive line behind Beas river, thus conceding most of Punjab (to be firmly dissuaded, fortunately, by Harbaksh), became, instead, in its biggest disaster. Destruction of its 1 Armoured Division here pretty much ended Pakistan’s offensive capability in the plains in that war.

India’s better doctrine and leadership of armour at fighting unit level. Better Indian performance in the mountains, particularly in battles at night. India gained territory across the hilly terrain in Kashmir, while losing a chunk in the plains in Chhamb.

Brilliant tactical dash on the part of Pakistan ruined by incompetent execution. Pakistan, for example, stunned India on September 6 with dusk raids on its forward airbases, particularly Pathankot, where 10 frontline aircraft were destroyed on the ground, but didn’t know what to do thereafter. A few losses over Halwara and Adampur, and though it had an upper hand through that war, the PAF desisted from any further daytime raids over IAF bases.

No navy had the size to be able to weigh in on that war. But with the Indian navy definitely not battle-ready, the Pakistani navy wasted the opportunity with a symbolic though humiliating bombardment of Dwarka. It achieved no military purpose though.

Also read: It took Pakistan three defeats to understand the flaw in its war strategy against India


Overall, Indian forces were very resolute and efficient in defensive battles as Khem Karan showed. This was totally contrary to Pakistani mythology that “Hindu” armies wouldn’t be able to resist it, particularly after India’s dismal record in 1962. Strategically, Pakistan miscalculated big-time, and stupidly, by believing any provocations in Kashmir would be met with a response confined there. And once India opened the Punjab front, it had to hurriedly fall back on defence.

All wars begin with miscalculation. The 1965 war was purely Pakistan’s. It was their decision and initiative. It was based on a sound appreciation of relative military strengths that put the aggressor at advantage. Even politically and economically, India was going through multiple crises. But it failed for all the reasons discussed earlier. Only Pakistan had strategic objectives in this war and it failed to achieve any. That, to some extent, answers the question: who won this war and who lost? Since Pakistan failed to achieve any objectives, it definitely lost that war. But while it had the better of the land engagements, India did not win the war militarily. It was a strategic defeat for Pakistan but a military stalemate.

Also read: The truth of Galwan must come out, unlike the 1965 battle with Pakistan in Khemkaran


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