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O Untimely Death:

The Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, 1996-98


By Chris Oakley

Part 3


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



Summary: In the first two episodes of this series we reviewed the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, the first engagements of the war itself, the early effects of the war on China’s relationship to the combatant nations, and the bold Indian gambit to hasten the war’s end by capturing Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. In this segment we’ll remember the brutal street fighting that marked the struggle for Islamabad and the anxieties that nagged the White House in the months between the beginning of Operation Amritsar and the November U.S. presidential elections.


City fighting is a tricky business to begin with; it gets even trickier when the city in question is a nation’s capital. If anyone in the ranks of the Indian army had forgotten this lesson when they began the assault on Islamabad proper, the Pakistanis were only too willing to give them a memory refresher. On August 5th, 1996 Pakistani armor and infantry assaulted the center of the Indian battle lines outside Islamabad in a determined effort to stop Operation Amritsar from achieving its objective of bringing the Pakistani capital under Indian control.

And it wasn’t just Pakistani regular soldiers that were attacking the Indian ground forces; civilian volunteers motivated by religious fervor or national devotion, often both, organized guerrilla units to harass the Pakistani army’s flanks. There were even commando platoons operating under the supervision of the ISI, making tactical assaults  behind the Indian lines. The idea of Pakistan’s capital falling under Indian occupation in this war after having been defended successfully in three previous wars was absolutely repugnant to the Pakistanis.

The ferocity of the battles on the ground was matched-- and in a few cases exceeded --by the viciousness of the air battles between Pakistani and Indian fighter squadrons in the skies over Islamabad. The air phase of Operation Amritsar is deemed by many modern military historians to be the most hard-fought such engagement within an Asian theater of combat since the US Rolling Thunder bombing offensive in the Vietnam War. At the height of the battle, according to estimates later compiled by the CIA1, an Indian pilot was killed in action once every 17.6 seconds and a Pakistani pilot went down every 12.4 seconds. Even now, visitors to Pakistan can occasionally find some fragments of wreckage from jets shot down during Operation Amritsar.

The Indian general staff was amazed-- and more than a little concerned --at the way Islamabad’s defenders continued to hold out in spite of the ferocious pounding they’d taken. With each day that the Pakistani capital fended off the Indian ground forces, the chances of getting hold of the surviving papers regarding Pakistan’s nuclear program diminished and the prospect of Pakistani nuclear weapons being used against India grew.

On August 12th, with Islamabad still not captured, the Indian general staff met in special session to confront a question that until then it had been putting on the back burner: whether to activate the Indian army’s reserves. While the Indian ground forces still had the numerical edge over their Pakistani counterparts, even a nation as populous as India couldn’t indefinitely afford the high casualty rates it was sustaining in the fight to gain control of Pakistan’s capital. The only other option was to deploy tactical nuclear warheads against the Pakistani front lines-- and that constituted a can of worms even the most militant members of the Indian government were reluctant to open just yet.

What tipped the scales in favor of the reserve activation option was a communiqué received 90 minutes into the session from an infantry battalion commander on the Indian lines outside Islamabad. In hurried sentences suggestive of great emotional agitation, the commander said he’d lost nearly half his men and urgently needed reinforcements if he were to be able to continue holding his assigned sector of the front. Five minutes after the communiqué’s arrival, the cabinet approved the activation of the reserve forces and adjourned. By 3:00 PM Mumbai time that afternoon, the first reserve units had received their deployment orders and were preparing to ship out to the Islamabad battlefront...


....where the Pakistani army units defending the capital city, despite being perilously low on everything from ammunition to cooking oil,2 were continuing to hold the line with a tenacity that for many Western journalists invoked the Battle of Stalingrad more than half a century earlier. For those soldiers who had no bullets or grenades to use against the Indians, bayonets and knives would do; one could also hurl rocks or fragments of rubble at the enemy if one so chose. There are even verified cases of Pakistani troops killing Indian soldiers with their bare hands during the fight for Islamabad.

The Indian army had just as many shortages to cope with as the Pakistanis, sometimes more. The Kargil insurgency was still active in spite of Delhi’s best efforts to tame it, and often as not supplies and troops had to be diverted from the Islamabad front in order to support Indian counterinsurgency operations in the Kargil region. More than once Indian supply lines in northern Pakistan came under attack from ISI commandos or pro-Kargil volunteer militias acting in aid of the Kargil uprising; this had a predictably detrimental effect on the Indian army’s ability to conduct Operation Amritsar.

It also took something of a toll on the Indian army’s overall morale; by the time the Indian cabinet made the decision to activate the army’s reserve units there had already been three court-martials for attempted mutiny and at least a half-dozen junior officers had been relieved of their commands for questionable decisions under fire. Senior officers weren’t immune to such troubles either, as was driven home by the case of a battalion chief who had to be replaced when the strain of trying to penetrate the Pakistani defenses around Islamabad proved too much for him.3

On August 22nd one Indian army tank corps finally succeeded in breaching the Pakistani defensive perimeter around Islamabad. Their reward for their troubles: a fierce barrage of Pakistani anti-tank rockets that killed half the men in the corps in a mater of minutes. The remainder of the corps beat a hasty retreat back to the Indian side of the battle lines lest they too be wiped out. Morale among the Indian soldiers dropped considerably, while that of their Pakistani adversaries soared.

Four days later the Indian general staff called a halt to Operation Amritsar. It was abundantly clear to both sides that the Indians’ first attempt to seize Islamabad had been a failure and the war would not be over before the spring of 1997-- at the earliest. With that, both combatants pulled back their ground forces from the Islamabad front to regroup and to ponder their next move.


One bitter lesson the Indian armed forces learned from Operation Amritsar was that they could not hope to subdue Islamabad as long as the Kargil insurgency was still active. As a result, during September of 1996 their main priority shifted toward crushing the insurgents and capturing or killing the insurgent forces’ field commanders. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the Clinton Administration was having major anxieties of its own at the prospect that the Indo-Pakistani conflict might yet still escalate into nuclear war.

And even if it didn’t, the hostilities were taking a noticeable toll on the worldwide economy. The New York Stock Exchange had been almost constantly fluctuating since the Indo-Pakistani war started; those fluctuations were adversely affecting everything from the value of the US dollar to the price of the day’s catch at fish markets in Thailand. At least one prominent British financial analyst fretted that if the hostilities between New Delhi and Islamabad got too far out of hand, a second Great Depression was a distinct possibility.4

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan didn’t care much for the global economic repercussions of the hostilities between Pakistan and India; they did care, however, about the possibility of the fighting spilling over the Afghan-Pakistani border and onto Afghan soil. The ruling clique in Kabul knew that if the Indian army made another major push to take Islamabad and sent Pakistani troops into retreat, there was a genuine risk some of those retreating troops might stray over the Afghan frontier along with the Indian army units pursuing them.

President Clinton was at his wits’ end trying to resolve the hostilities between Islamabad and New Delhi. Not only was the Indo-Pakistani war interfering with his diplomatic and economic efforts to help create a stable post-Cold War world, it was also posing a great danger to US efforts to halt global nuclear proliferation. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to help his anti-terrorism agenda. In fact, just after the Indian army called off Operation Amristar, the US embassy in New Delhi was subjected to a grenade attack that left five people dead and thirteen others injured.

Bob Dole, sensing that Clinton was vulnerable on the Indo-Pakistani war issue, kept up the media blitz on the incumbent commander-in-chief as the days and weeks until the U.S. general elections dwindled. One attack ad that particularly took Clinton to task on his management-- or mismanagement in the eyes of his GOP critics --of U.S. policy on the war was a 30-second spot that featured excerpts from an interview with a family of Kashmiri refugees who’d fled the region just after the war started. Titled "Escape", the ad featured two embittered comments from the family patriarch essentially accusing the Clinton administration of giving the belligerent nations a free pass to shed copious amounts of innocent blood on both sides.

Clinton struck back with his own attack ad, one that asserted the Republican Party-- or at least the more conservative elements of it --had intentionally tried to sabotage his diplomatic agenda for their own selfish ends. First Lady Hillary Clinton unleashed a full-tilt media blitz in her husband’s defense, making the rounds of the talk show circuit to challenge those who held the president at least partly responsible for the bloodshed engulfing India and Pakistan; she also made a number of trips abroad plugging the president’s efforts to bring about a cease-fire along the Indo-Pakistani border.5

In London, British prime minister John Major, who was himself engaged in a fierce electoral battle against challenger and highly popular Labor Party leader Tony Blair, worried that the fighting in the Indo-Pakistani border region might endanger British efforts to achieve a smooth transition back to Chinese rule for Hong Kong when the British lease there expired in 1997. Ministry of Defence analysts had warned him that there was a genuine danger the conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate into a wider regional land war in Asia, and such escalation could seriously complicate Anglo-Chinese relations if Britain got drawn into the conflict.

In early November of 1996, three days before the U.S. presidential elections, the Indian army commenced Operation Shiva, a combined air-ground campaign intended to smoke out the Kargil insurgency’s senior field leaders and destroy their main supply base in the region. At the same time Indian counterintelligence officials, seeking to sever ties between the insurgency and its ISI sponsors, authorized a "black ops" hit squad to go into Pakistan and assassinate the ISI director...


To Be Continued


[1] The estimates were conducted by the CIA in September of 1996 at the request of the National Security Council.

[2] Among the units involved in the defense of Islamabad during Operation Amritsar were two field kitchen units which had been hastily re-designated as infantry units.

[3] “Infantry Commander Put On Psychiatric Leave”, Times of India, August 10th, 1996.

[4] From the September 12, 1996 issue of The Economist.

[5] One of those trips, a visit to Calcutta two weeks before the U.S. general elections, almost cost the first lady her life; as she was disembarking from her plane, a sniper opened fire on her, missing the First Lady herself but seriously wounding one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect her.


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