The finest summarising of the incalculable qualitative harm inflicted on the Pakistan Army, by the self-promoted Field Marshal of peace, by a contemporary, was done by Major General Fazal I Muqeem, when he described the state of affairs of the Pakistan Army during the period 1958-71; in the following words: "We had been declining according to the degree of our involvement in making and unmaking of regimes. Gradually the officer corps, intensely proud of its professionalism was eroded at its apex into third class politicians and administrators. Due to the absence of a properly constituted political government, the selection and promotion of officers to the higher rank depended on one man’s will. Gradually, the welfare of institutions was sacrificed to the welfare of personalities. To take the example of the army, the higher command had been slowly weakened by retiring experienced officers at a disturbingly fine rate. Between 1955 and November 1971, in about 17 years 40 Generals had been retired, of whom only four had reached their superannuating age. Similar was the case with other senior ranks. Those in the higher ranks who showed some independence of outlook were invariably removed from service. Some left in sheer disgust in this atmosphere of insecurity and lack of the right of criticism, the two most important privileges of an Armed Forces officer. The extraordinary wastage of senior officers particularly of the army denied the services, of the experience and training vital to their efficiency and welfare. Some officers were placed in positions that they did not deserve or had no training for" 1.
The advent of Yahya Khan and Yahya’s Personality
Immediately after the 1965 war Major General Yahya Khan who had commanded the 7 Division in the Grand Slam Operation was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, appointed Deputy Army C in C and C in C designate in March 1966 2. Yahya was a Qizilbash3 commissioned from Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun on 15 July 1939. An infantry officer from the 4/10 Baluch Regiment, Yahya saw action during WW II in North Africa where he was captured by the Axis Forces in June 1942 and interned in a prisoner of war camp in Italy from where he escaped in the third attempt4. In 1947 he was instrumental in not letting the Indian officers shift books 5 from the famous library of the British Indian Staff College at Quetta,where Yahya was posted as the only Muslim instructor at the time of partition of India.Yahya was from a reasonably well to do family, had a much better schooling than Musa Khan and was directly commissioned as an officer. Yahya unlike Musa was respected in the officer corps for professional competence. Yahya became a brigadier at the age of 34 and commanded the 106 Infantry Brigade, which was deployed on the ceasefire line in Kashmir in 1951-52. Later Yahya as Deputy Chief of General Staff was selected to head the army’s planning board set up by Ayub to modernise the Pakistan Army in 1954-57. Yahya also performed the duties of Chief of General Staff from 1958 to 1962 from where he went on to command an infantry division from 1962 to 1965.
Yahya was a hard drinking soldier approaching the scale of Mustafa Kemal of Turkey and had a reputation of not liking teetotallers. Yahya liked courtesans but his passion had more to do with listening to them sing or watching them dance. Thus he did not have anything of Ataturk’s practical womanising traits. Historically speaking many great military commanders like Khalid Bin Waleed, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Eftikhar Khan and Grant were accused of debauchery and womanising. These personal habits still did not reduce their personal efficiency and all of them are remembered in military history as great military commanders! The yardstick is that as long as a military commander performs his job as a military leader well, debauchery drink etc is not important. Abraham Lincoln a man of great integrity and character when told by the typical military gossip type commanders, found in all armies of the world and in particular plenty in the Indo-Pak armies, about Grants addiction to alcohol dismissed their criticism by stating "I cannot spare this man. He fights"! Indeed while the US Civil War was being fought a remark about Grant was attributed to Lincoln and frequently repeated as a joke in army messes. The story thus went that Lincoln was told about Grant’s drinking habits, and was asked to remove Grant from command. Lincoln dismissed this suggestion replying "send every general in the field a barrel of it"! Once Lincoln heard this joke he said that he wished very much that he had said it! 6 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, praised by his enemies, i.e. the British, in the British Official History of WW One, as one of the greatest military commanders in world’s history was a great consumer of alcohol and chronic womaniser! It has been alleged that Kemal was a homosexual (a typically Turkish pastime) too and frequently suffered the ravages of venereal disease! The same was true for Petain one of the greatest military commanders of the French Army in WW One!
Gul Hassan Khan who served with Yahya in the General Headquarters in the early 1960s described Yahya as "professionally competent" and as a man of few words whom always approached the point at issue without ceremony.7 Muqeem described Yahya as "authoritarian by nature" and "reserved by temperament".8 Major General Sher Ali under whom Yahya served assessed Yahya as an officer of the "highest calibre". Shaukat Riza writing as recently as 1986 described Yahya as a good soldier, as a commander distinguished for his decision making and generous nature and one who gave his total trust to a man whom he accepted as part of his team or a colleague.9
Contrary to Gauhar’s judgement Yahya, at least in 1966-69, was definitely viewed as a professional in the army. His shortcomings in functioning as the Supreme Commander that became evident in the 1971 war were not known to anyone in 1966. No evidence exists, but it appears that Yahya’s sect and ethnicity may have played a part in Ayub’s decision to select Yahya as C in C. Musa writes in his memoirs that Yahya was not his first choice as Army C in C but was selected by Ayub overruling Musa’s reservations about Yahya’s character 10. This further proves that Ayub selected Yahya as the army chief for reasons other than merit. I am not implying that Yahya was incompetent, but merely the fact that Ayub was motivated by ulterior reasons to select Yahya. These reasons had something to do with Yahya’s political reliability by virtue of belonging to a minority! Yahya was not a Punjabi or a Pathan but belonged to a minority ethnic group as well as a minority ethnic group, just like Musa.This was no mere coincidence but a deliberately planned manoeuvre to have as army chief a man who was not from the two ethnic groups which dominated the officer corps, the Punjabis being more than 60 % of the officer corps and the Pathans being the second largest group after the Punjabis!11 Altaf Gauhar Ayub’s close confidant inadvertently proves this fact once he quite uncharitably, and for reasons, other than dispassionate objective historical considerations, described Yahya as one " selected…in preference to some other generals, because Yahya, who had come to hit the bottle hard, had no time for politics and was considered a harmless and loyal person".12
Selection of Army C in C
Foreign readers may note that almost all army chiefs of Pakistan Army were selected primarily because they were perceived as reliable as well as pliable! In Addition ethnic factors Vis a Vis prevalent political considerations played a part in their selection. Thus Liaquat the first premier selected a non Punjabi as the army’s first C in C since in 1950 Liaquat was involved in a political confrontation with Punjabi politicians of the Muslim League and had established a Hindustani-Pathan-Bengali alliance to sideline the Punjabi Muslims. Thus the most obvious nominee for the appointment of C in C i.e. Major General Raza, a Punjabi Muslim was not selected. Instead Ayub an ethnic Pathan, and one who already had been superseded and sidelined, and with a poor war record was selected as the first Pakistani Muslim army C in C. Similarly Ayub selected Musa simply because Musa was perceived as loyal despite not being competent! Yahya as Gauhar Ayub’s closest adviser and confidant admits, as earlier mentioned, was selected because he had hit the bottle hard; i.e. was harmless, and was loyal, and thus no danger to Ayub! In other words Gauhar advances a theory that Ayub selected Yahya (Gauhar’s subjective judgement) simply because it was politically expedient for Ayub to have this particular type of man as army chief! Gauhar judgement of Yahya has little value since it was highly subjective but Ayub’s reasons for selecting his army chief, as Gauhar describes it speaks volumes for the character of Ayub and I would say the orientation of all Pakistani politicians, both civilian and military! In third world countries every army chief is a military politician! The process was carried on and continues to date but this chapter deals with only 1965-1971, so more of this later!
The same was true for extensions given to the army chiefs. Ayub got three extensions since Iskandar Mirza perceived him as a reliable tool. He booted out Mirza, his benefactor, after the last extension in 1958! Ayub gave Musa an extension of four years in 1962 since he perceived Musa as reliable and politically docile, and thus no threat to Ayub’s authoritarian government. Since 1962 when Musa got his extension of service by one additional term of four years, which prolonged his service from 1962 to 196613, no Pakistani army chief was given an extension beyond his three or four year term. The situation however was still worse since Yahya took over power in 1969 and thus automatically extended his term as C in C till December 1971. Zia usurped power in 1977 and thus gave himself a nine year extension as Army Chief till he was removed to the army and the country’s great relief in August 1988 by Divine Design! Beg attempted to get an extension by floating the idea of being appointed as Supreme Commander of Armed Forces14 but was outmanoeuvred by his own army corps commanders, who gave a lukewarm response to the idea and by Ghulam Ishaq who was a powerful president and had a deep understanding of the military mind by virtue of having loyally and successfully served three military dictators.
Yahya Khan as Army Chief-1966-1971
Yahya energetically started reorganising the Pakistan Army in 1965. Today this has been forgotten while Yahya is repeatedly condemned for only his negative qualities (a subjective word which has little relevance to generalship as proved in military history)! The post 1965 situation saw major organisational as well as technical changes in the Pakistan Army. Till 1965 it was thought that divisions could function effectively while getting orders directly from the army’s GHQ. This idea failed miserably in the 1965 war and the need to have intermediate corps headquarters in between the GHQ and the fighting combat divisions was recognised as a foremost operational necessity after the 1965 war. In 1965 war the Pakistan Army had only one corps headquarter i.e the 1 Corps Headquarters. Soon after the war had started the US had imposed an embargo on military aid on both India and Pakistan. This embargo did not affect the Indian Army but produced major changes in the Pakistan Army’s technical composition. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk well summed it up when he said, "Well if you are going to fight, go ahead and fight, but we’re not going to pay for it"!15 Pakistan now turned to China and for military aid and Chinese tank T-59 started replacing the US M-47/48 tanks as the Pakistan Army’s MBT (Main Battle Tank) from 1966. 80 tanks, the first batch of T-59s, a low-grade version of the Russian T-54/55 series were delivered to Pakistan in 1965-66. The first batch was displayed in the Joint Services Day Parade on 23 March 196616. The 1965 War had proved that Pakistan Army’s tank infantry ratio was lopsided and more infantry was required. Three more infantry divisions (9, 16 and 17 Divisions) largely equipped with Chinese equipment and popularly referred to by the rank and file as "The China Divisions" were raised by the beginning of 196817. Two more corps headquarters i.e. 2 Corps Headquarters (Jhelum-Ravi Corridor) and 4 Corps Headquarters (Ravi-Sutlej Corridor) were raised.
In the 1965 War India had not attacked East Pakistan which was defended by a weak two-infantry brigade division (14 Division) without any tank support. Yahya correctly appreciated that geographical, as well as operational situation demanded an entirely independent command set up in East Pakistan. 14 Division’s infantry strength was increased and a new tank regiment was raised and stationed in East Pakistan. A new Corps Headquarters was raised in East Pakistan and was designated as Headquarters Eastern Command.18 It was realised by the Pakistani GHQ that the next war would be different and East Pakistan badly required a new command set up.