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O Untimely Death:

The Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, 1996-98


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



inspired by the story "Hell’s Door Opened" by David Atwell



Summary: In Part 1 of this series we reviewed the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War and the opening shots of the war itself. In this segment we’ll remember the first Indian air strikes on Islamabad and examine how the war affected the relationship of the combatant nations to China.


As if the shock of losing Kasur to the Indian army wasn’t enough of a trauma for the Pakistani people, the Indian air force was about to inflict further ordeals on them; scarcely 24 hours after the border city fell and five short days after the Indian invasion of Pakistan, Indian fighter jets bombed Islamabad in the war’s first major air raid on the Pakistani capital. The air strike’s main targets were command/ control facilities and the headquarters of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service; there were also air attacks on Islamabad’s main electrical plant. A British-born CNN reporter who’d been on the ground during the first US air strikes on Baghdad at the start of the Gulf War told his colleagues at the network’s studios back in Atlanta that the scene in Islamabad during the Indian air raid greatly resembled the chaos that had overtaken Baghdad when the first US bombs of Desert Storm fell...


....and he wasn’t exaggerating by much. The images beamed by CNN to TV viewers around the world of the destruction being inflicted on Islamabad were indeed eerily reminiscent of the scenes which had been transmitted from Baghdad five years earlier when a multinational US- sponsored coalition had sought to eject Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait. In fact, one American late night TV host joked that CNN was recycling old news footage from the Gulf War because the summer rerun season was in full swing.

While one contingent of Indian fighter jets was bombing designated targets inside Islamabad, another group was keeping the Pakistani air defenses busy. This was a situation where the Indian air force’s 5 to 1 numerical edge in combat planes definitely came in handy; although a substantial part of the Indian attack force fell victim to Pakistani surface-to-air missiles and fighter-interceptors, the Indian air force could tolerate heavy casualties better than its Pakistani counterpart. And for every one of their own jets the Indians lost, they shot down four Pakistani aircraft.

The Indian bombing raid inflicted massive damage on military and government facilities in the Pakistani capital. ISI1 headquarters was leveled in a matter of minutes; the offices of the Pakistani defense ministry and the army general staff sustained so much damage that they  nearly collapsed. Half a dozen bombs blasted the Pakistani president’s office, killing three of his advisors in the process. Having completed  their lethal task, the surviving Indian jets bolted home to the safety of their home airfields back in India, leaving Pakistani authorities to count the dead and tend to the injuries of the survivors-- and vow retaliation for the air strike on Islamabad.


Making good on that vow was easier than it looked at first blush; the Indian air force’s 5 to 1 edge in combat aircraft shrank to 2 to 1 when one subtracted the transport planes and helicopters in that air forces’s inventory. The Pakistani air force’s tactical strike aircraft contingent, while not quite as large as its Indian counterpart, was sizable enough to do some serious damage to military, industrial, and government targets inside India.

Just 24 hours after the first Indian bombing raid on Islamabad, the Pakistani air force retaliated by hitting New Delhi. Construction workers at the Indian parliament building, who were busy repairing the damage caused by the June suicide bombing, were compelled to abandon their work when they heard the roar of the first Pakistani jets coming from the horizon. An American vacationer who’d been visiting New Delhi when the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War broke out and had the good fortune to have a camcorder with him on the day of the Pakistani bombing raid on the Indian capital filmed the strike jets’ descent on downtown New Delhi and kept the tape rolling until it ran out thirty minutes later. That video, when it was aired on CNN the next day, offered the outside world its clearest glimpse yet of just how long and ferocious the new Indo-Pakistani conflict would be.

Thousands of miles from the battlefield, the government of the People’s Republic of China watched the hostilities between India and Pakistan with great concern. China had for years maintained a close friendship with Pakistan; much of the Pakistani nuclear program had been set up with Chinese technical and financial assistance, and the two countries also had trade and defense pacts between them. Yet at the same time Beijing had in recent years been making an intensive effort to improve relations with India, seeking to avoid a repeat of the costly Sino-Indian border war of 1962. Jiang Zemin, the Chinese Communist Party boss at the time, was reluctant to take sides in the Indo-Pakistani conflict for fear of alienating one of the warring nations by appearing too closely linked with the other. His senior foreign affairs advisors concurred that a policy of neutrality in the conflict was the safest course of action under the circumstances, and further recommended that China employ its considerable political and economic influence to broker a cease-fire between Islamabad and New Delhi.

But simply getting India and Pakistan to the bargaining table would prove a highly daunting challenger for Beijing; there were decades if not generations of bad blood between the two neighboring states, and after the suicide bomb attack on India’s parliament New Delhi was hardly much inclined to cut a peace deal with Islamabad. To the contrary, one prominent Indian lawmaker was openly declaring that the Indian army should chase the Pakistanis "right to the Afghanistan border"2. As one might expect such comments did not sit well with the Pakistanis-- or with the Taliban regime that had then just come into power in Afghanistan. The Taliban hinted that if Indian troops got too close to the Afghan border, it would consider this "an unfriendly act" and respond accordingly.3

However, then-Indian prime minister H.D. Devi Gowda was at that stage of his tenure more interested in defeating Pakistan than in any confrontation with the Afghan theocracy. As far as Gowda was concerned the Taliban could wait; the number one priority for his government was to pull the nuclear trump card out of Islamabad’s hand before it could be played.

Accordingly, in mid-July of 1996 he authorized the Indian army to mount a multi-front offensive aimed at capturing Pakistan’s capital city. The objective of this campaign-- codenamed Operation Amritsar -- was twofold: A)to isolate the city from the rest of Pakistan and in effect decapitate the Pakistani government and B)to seize the data on Pakistani nuclear capabilities stored in the archives of the Pakistani defense ministry. Once the data was secured, the logic went, Indian forces could use it to locate and then capture or destroy Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

While some of said data had been destroyed in the first Indian air strike on Islamabad, a great deal of it had survived by virtue of being stored in underground bunkers out of reach of Indian bombs. The Indian air force lacked the kind of bunker-buster bombs which had been available to the United States since Desert Storm; consequently, files which might otherwise have perished in the initial air raid on the Pakistani capital had survived the attack. The Indian army’s general staff was itching to get their hands on those surviving papers before the Pakistani defense ministry thought to shred or burn them.


The Pakistani army, naturally, intended to oppose any Indian push on Islamabad to the last man. Although it didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle where Operation Amritsar was concerned, the Pakistani general staff had known from day one that the Indian army would eventually attempt to capture Pakistan’s capital and had been assiduously preparing to meet such an attempt head-on. They’d studied their battle maps and lined up their best armored units along what they considered the most likely axes of attack for a possible Indian thrust at Islamabad; they also had missiles armed with high explosive warheads poised to hit the Indians full-blast the moment Indian ground forces showed the slightest sign of making a move for the city.

In areas of Pakistan less vulnerable to attack by Indian planes, the Pakistani air force drilled its pilots in the tactics that would be needed to interdict Indian armored units from breaching Pakistani ground defenses around Islamabad. On the battlefront proper, PAF jets and attack copters strafed Indian army staging areas in the hope of slowing down or perhaps even halting altogether Indian progress into Pakistani territory.

The moment of truth came on July 22nd, 1996 when Indian armor and infantry units kicked off Operation Amritsar with a four-pronged attack on Pakistani defensive positions northeast of Islamabad. The Pakistani forces in the area immediately launched a counterattack, and much to their dismay Indian field commanders soon found their push on Islamabad stymied by the determined resistance of the Pakistanis. For the next five days the entire world watched as the two countries’ respective ground and air arsenals slugged it out in a confrontation on which both sides believed the fate of Pakistan’s capital-- maybe even Pakistan itself --hinged.

Late on the afternoon of July 27th, the numerical advantage of the Indian forces over their Pakistani counterparts began to tell as the Pakistani army was forced to begin pulling its troops back from their originally assigned defensive positions to checkpoints which were closer to Islamabad. The withdrawal was relentlessly harassed by Indian fighter jets and missiles; there were also at least two cases of Pakistani troops being lost to accident when the transport planes evacuating them from their original positions collided with each other and exploded, killing all on board.

By August 2nd Indian advance units were close enough to Islamabad to see its skyline without the aid of binoculars; the air of tension which hung over the Pakistani capital was almost choking. And for that matter, things were hardly much calmer in the rest of Pakistan...


To Be Continued


[1] Inter-Service Intelligence, Pakistan’s premier spy agency; it was an umbrella organization encompassing the intelligence branches of the Pakistani armed forces.

[2] Quoted from the July 13th, 1996 Times of India.

[3] “Taliban Leaders Say They Are Ready To Fight If India Breaches Afghan Frontier”, from the July 14th, 1996 edition of the Manchester Guardian.

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