The Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, 1996-98
By Chris Oakley
inspired by the story "Hell’s Door Opened" by David Atwell
Summary: In the first four 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, the bold Indian gambit to hasten the war’s end by capturing the Pakistani capital Islamabad, the Indian armed forces’ post-Operation Amritsar efforts to crush the Kargil insurgency, and the 4th Indo-Pakistani War’s impact on the 1996 US presidential elections. In this chapter we’ll review the Pakistani army’s August 1997 Punjab offensive and the demonstrations provoked by the offensive’s failure.
By May of 1997 the Pakistani army, with assistance from a newly emboldened Kargil insurgency, was beginning to steadily chip away at the Indian occupation forces’ hold on the Kargil region. Any talk of chasing Pakistani troops to the Afghan border had long since died down as India was on the defensive in its struggle to keep control of the Kargil area. The farther Pakistani ground units were able to penetrate the Indian occupation zone, the weaker the Indians’ foothold in that zone became-- and if the pressure could be kept up long enough, said conventional wisdom among the Islamabad general staff, eventually it might be possible to break said foothold completely and start to think seriously about making a push southward toward Delhi.
The Pakistani air force was trying to do its part as well, but it was still operating at something of a disadvantage as a result of the blows it had sustained from the Indians at the beginning of the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War. Pakistani fighter squadrons couldn’t fly as many sorties as they used to, and when they did take off on ops there was at least a fifty-fifty chance they might be shot down either by a SAM or by Indian air defense squadrons who guarded the skies with the jealous passion of a miser hoarding gold coins. Recon missions were a bit of a challenge too: not only were PAF reconnaissance planes being relentlessly harassed whenever they showed themselves, but the Indian army had gotten increasingly skilled at camouflaging their outposts and strategic bases from prying eyes. Even Pakistani spy satellites were hard-pressed to locate enemy bases along the battlefront-- a fact the Pakistani general staff in Islamabad found most disquieting.
What disquieted them even more was that Indian spy satellites seemed to find Pakistani outposts as easily as if those outposts were marked by neon signs. India’s space program was more advanced than its Pakistani counterpart, particularly where military applications were concerned; some leading Western defense experts had argued before the war began that India’s satellite edge would be the deciding factor in any future armed conflict between the two countries. The events which had transpired so far since the war started weren’t doing very much to disprove that thesis.
Indeed, in early June of 1997 the Pakistani army’s official newspaper published an editorial which made stern if veiled criticism of the Islamabad government’s failure to make a greater effort to close the satellite technology gap between Pakistan and India. The editorial drew murmurs of agreement from readers in all sectors of the Pakistani armed forces, particularly within the ranks of the Pakistani air force high command. For years the PAF’s senior commanders had been trying with little success to persuade the Islamabad government to do more to improve Pakistani satellite surveillance capabilities; now the world was seeing the bitter fruits of Islambad’s haphazard approach to the development and use of spy satellites.
One of those bitter fruits was that the Pakistani army general staff’s assessment of Indian ground force strength in the Punjab area was seriously if not fatally flawed. That flawed assessment would, in turn, lay the foundations for one of the worst military defeats in Pakistan’s history and set off a political crisis in Islamabad which would push the country to the brink of civil war....
Throughout July and early August of 1997 residents of India’s Punjab region were on edge wondering when the proverbial other shoe would drop as the Pakistani army fought to reach the Indian border. In spite of the Indian armed forces’ repeated numerous successes to date against their Pakistani foes, few Punjabi believed the Indian government’s official proclamation that there was little danger of a Pakistani invasion of Punjab. Some of them even took it for granted that such an invasion was just around the corner-- which meant many of Punjab’s already sluggish highways were slowed to a nearly glacial pace by convoys of refugees trying to get to safety by any way they could.
Pakistani covert operatives did plenty to encourage such panic. In some cases, the agents hardly needed to do very much; an overactive imagination on the part of some Punjabis was as often as not enough to do the Pakistani agents’ job for them. But just to be sure that they had all their bases covered, the ISI outfitted its deep cover agents in the Punjabi region with all kinds of sabotage gear and light but deadly weapons for the quick, efficient, and silent assassination of anyone ISI headquarters saw fit to eliminate for the goal of spreading terror and chaos in Punjab.
The ISI was less successful in its attempts to undermine Indian Punjabis’ loyalties to Delhi using radio and TV propaganda broadcasts. The conventional wisdom at ISI headquarters had been that since many Punjabi families had been separated from their relatives when the region was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947, it might be possible to use such propaganda to foster popular sentiment among residents of the Indian sections of the Punjab in favor of seceding from the rest of India to reunite with the Pakistani half of the region. The only thing the propaganda blitz succeed in accomplishing, however, was increasing Indian Punjabis’ paranoia about the prospect of a Pakistani invasion.
Those fears weren’t entirely unjustified. The Pakistani general staff had in fact been contemplating a thrust into Punjab almost from the minute the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War started; some Pakistani army senior officers had even written memos to the defense minister in the final days of the pre-war era calling for a pre-emptive attack on the Indian Punjab in order to give Pakistan the advantage in future wars with India.
The other shoe finally dropped on August 18th, 1997 when the Pakistani army launched Operation Gold Crescent, a blitzkrieg-style offensive aimed at establishing a Pakistani foothold in India proper for the first time in the war. Launching their attack from staging areas south of Lahore, Pakistani infantry and armor units backed by flights of attack helicopters struck the Indian border along a three- column front; they quickly managed to penetrate eleven miles into the Indian Punjab and soon had Indian forces on the defensive.
If only the second phase of the assault had gone so well for the Pakistanis....
...but as it had plenty of other times since the war began, the Pakistani armed forces’ luck quickly soured. The Indians recovered quickly from the initial shock of the invasion and struck back with a vengeance; on August 22nd, just four short days after Operation Gold Crescent began, they launched their own blitzkrieg attack, assaulting the center of the Pakistani lines. Backed up by heavy shelling from Indian army artillery corps 155-mm, 105-mm, and 130-mm cannons and by bombing runs from Indian air force fighter wings, armor and infantry units stopped the invaders cold. By August 24th, the Pakistanis were in retreat back to their own border, racking up staggeringly high body counts every inch of the way.
News of the failure of Operation Gold Crescent hit the Pakistani masses like a tsunami when it finally slipped through the cracks in the wall of official state media censorship; as often happens in the Middle East, their shock quickly turned into violent anger toward the government. That anger would reach critical mass on August 27th, 1997 when thousands of demonstrators gathered in Karachi, Islamabad, and other major Pakistani cities to hold rallies demanding that the army high command fire the generals deemed responsible for the defeat. For hours people stood waving banners and chanting slogans that called on the Pakistani defense ministry to go back on the offensive immediately and smash the Indians once and for all.
The powers that be in Islamabad wasted little time responding to the calls for a shake-up in the Pakistani army; in early September of 1997 scores of generals-- including three highly decorated division commanders and the third-most senior deputy to the Pakistani army’s chief of staff --were summarily dismissed from the ranks and a number of others were forced to accept humiliating demotions. Those who were fortunate enough to retain their jobs were given a succinct and blunt directive from their political masters: stop the Indian army’s advance toward the border at all costs.
The Pakistani military high command hastened to fulfill that edict, and in doing so triggered a sequence of events that would have tragic consequences for both combatants in the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War....
On September 15th, 1997 Pakistani airborne troops found a gap in the Indian left flank and exploited it to seriously disrupt the Indian army’s push towards the Pakistan border; close on the heels of this assault came a two-pronged lightning thrust by regular infantry units and AFV battalions. Within a matter of days, the Pakistani army had regained much of the ground it had lost after the failure of Operation Gold Crescent and the Indian general staff was once again confronted with the grim possibility of a Pakistani attack on Delhi.
Desperate to stop the disintegration of its armies’ battlefront before it was too late, the Indian government finally decided to play the nuclear card. On September 23rd, India’s defense minister directed the Indian army’s top missile commander to begin initiating nuclear weapons release procedures; simultaneously Indian air force bombers received the green light to begin taking off from their home bases to deliver nuclear payloads against designated targets inside Pakistan. Within a few days of those directives, three of Pakistan’s largest cities would perish in the fire of atomic explosions and Asia would be teetering on the brink of World War III....
To Be Continued
 The official code name for the Indian armed forces’ first attempt to take Islamabad (see Parts 2 and 3).