16 December 1971 — a day to remember

Published: December 16, 2018
The writer is a member of faculty of contemporary studies at NDU Islamabad and can be reached at muhammadaliehsan1@hotmail.com

The writer is a member of faculty of contemporary studies at NDU Islamabad and can be reached at muhammadaliehsan1@hotmail.com

Forty-seven years ago on this day (16 Dec 1971), the instrument of surrender was signed in Dhaka which ended up making East Pakistan as a new nation called Bangladesh. Since then a question has been repeatedly asked: Was it ‘an arranged capitulation or a military defeat?’ The US former National Security Adviser HR General McMaster propagated his famous ‘4 Rs ‘to re-shape the Afghanistan security environment — ‘rest, relief, replacement and reinforcement’ and recommended them as the ‘go-for’ review in the new Afghan policy before his retirement. Reading about them, one is reminded of how 47 years ago the Pakistani military was equally deprived of these ‘4 Rs’ due to the great geographical disconnect that could never be overcome but only circumvented with great difficulty.

East Pakistan had 500 miles of sea coast and its three mighty rivers and a topography that formed a small stream or a river tributary every four to six miles. Pakistan had a very limited naval power –just four naval boats (according to some accounts) to defend and protect the entire coastal front and the enlarged and expanded water bodies. Considering the nature of war being fought — insurgency that required dispersion of forces and the Indian assault that required forces concentration — the military commander (Commander Eastern Command) was faced with the most glaring military disadvantage of how to juggle with the great military principle of war ‘concentrating massive force at the decision point’. Adherence to this principle had achieved for military commanders some of the most brilliant military successes and the neglect of the same had terminated into great military reverses. Under-resourced and disconnected from the West, our military was trapped and forced to do what is any military commander’s nightmare — fight the insurgency and guard against the Indian military assault too.

Just to compare the geo-politics of how two other wars were also fought and lost by the USA and France, one can draw a comparison of the enormity of difficulties faced by the Pakistani military when compared with these two military campaigns. Algeria was only 400 miles away from France and had a population of only 10 million as against 50 million in France. There were one million French settlers in Algeria who were very loyal and diehard French. French forces had also completely cut off and surrounded Algeria. The Russians and the Chinese that supported the Algerians were far away. Yet French forces didn’t succeed in their military campaign and Algeria earned its independence.

In the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese had a population of 15 million but only 2 million were fighting against the American military might that had peaked as high as one million during the war. The North Vietnam and South Vietnam border was only 100 miles long. Although Vietnam was over 1,000 miles away from mainland America, the logistic support was not an issue with the Americans that showcased a mighty air and naval power. Yet the Americans lost the war.

The enormity of geographical disconnects between East and West Pakistan was huge — 3,000 miles. So was the length of the border between East Pakistan and India — 2,582 miles (the fifth-longest border in the world). There was an Indian naval blockade and the only functional airfield in Dhaka was destroyed on December 6, 1971.

The war’s outer appearance in East Pakistan was hard to miss. It was exposed to ‘insurmountable challenges’. The inner nature of the war never changed and the men knowing little about what was happening in another operational area continued to perform heroic deeds and despite all military odds many unsung heroes fought bravely and laid down their lives in the line of duty. What we should never forget is that nothing happens out of context. (Military) Actors must always act in given circumstances which are mostly presented by the (political) situations that they find themselves in. If we understand and define context as ‘something out there’ and define it in ‘concentric circles’ that surrounded that something, then that something was East Pakistan and those concentric circles were many prevailing ‘contextual conditions’ that existed prior, during and beyond the control of a cut-off military garrison thousands of miles away that fought a futile war that it had no resources to fight.

In the theory of war, context as an operative concept is considered permanent. No action or actor can exist outside a given context. The most important question to be asked is not who won and lost the 1971 war and why. The most significant question that remains is that despite the wars and the resultant deaths and destruction, the context and the ‘contextual conditions’ between India and Pakistan are still there where they were left 47 years ago. If war is an act of politics and India is more political and showcases the largest democracy in the world then why politics still looks not at itself but military as the most viable instrument of power to resolve India-Pakistan conflict? Why has politics only seemed poised and not actually mattered to make both India and Pakistan despite their differences over ideology and territory, ‘responsible stakeholders’ in an integrated regional order based on interdependence, interaction and cooperation.

Wars were fought between many nations and the reasons why they were fought and who won and lost has since faded into insignificance. The Japanese were made to surrender unconditionally and their navy and air force, including 58 military divisions, surrendered. Does that surrender make Japan a lesser country? France turned back from Algeria defeated and unable to achieve its military goals — so does in France the politics confront military? The USA had a black eye in Vietnam but did that bring down the honour and status of the military men who fought for their country? In fact, it is considered as a great distinction to be a Vietnam veteran while occupying public office. The current ‘foreign policy somersaults ‘and the many resignations coming up in the very first year of Donald Trump’s presidency are being attributed by many as his inability to acquire that ‘foxhole-mate’ mentality of ‘thinking beyond self’ and being part and member of a great team.

Lastly, it is said that here are three permanent components of any conflict — action, actors and incompatibility. The 1971 war and many other wars that have been fought tell us a great deal about actions and actors and how soldiers won or lost on battlefields. What they don’t tell is the inability of the politicians to remove those incompatibilities that resulted in the war.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2018.

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