Security agencies admit that they have adopted a `wait and watch’ policy in view of the heavy losses they have taken (Image: AP Photo/Channi Anand)
While 17-day wars are well documented events in history, a 17-day terrorist encounter was--until now--unknown, even by the troubled standards of Jammu and Kashmir.
The search operations, in the forests between Dera Ki Gali and Bhimber Gali in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch district, to flush out a group of militants who have killed nine security personnel since October 11, entered the seventeeth day on October 27.
The operation, which began on October 11, is into the seventh consecutive day with fresh firing erupting between the heavily armed terrorists and security forces. And the battle continues, with no end in sight.
"It is a cause of big concern. If we are unable to ferret out terrorists after 17 days with all the drones and other sophisticated technical surveillance we have at our command, then we have a serious problem, which needs to be addressed as top priority. There are obviously some shortfalls and they need to be met squarely,” says Prakash Singh, former DG BSF.
Previously the nine-day Bhatti Dhar operation of December 2008-January 2009 was the longest encounter in Jammu and Kashmir, which ended with the terrorists fleeing.
Security agencies admit that they have adopted a `wait and watch’ policy in view of the heavy losses they have taken. Nine army personnel, including two JCOs, have been killed since the operations began. This week, two police personnel and an army jawan were injured, while one jailed terrorist, who had been taken to identify the hideout, had been killed in the firing.
The terrorist, identified as Zia Mustafa, had been in jail for the last 14 years. Security forces say they have liquidated four terrorists in nine days.
Operation so far
The operation began on October 11 when the first contact between hiding terrorists and security forces, during cordon-and-search operations in the Dera ki Gali area of Surankote tehsil in Poonch district, triggered a fierce encounter.
In the first encounter, five soldiers, including a JCO lost their lives. On October 14, as the security forces continued with their operations, in another round of intense exchange of gunfire, two more soldiers lost their lives.
The army has deployed drones and helicopters and a special unit of para commandos for the combing operation, without much success so far.
Author and former RAW chief AS Dulat, an old Kashmir hand, says that North Kashmir – close to but not exactly the current location – has traditionally been the scene of fierce militant attacks, even though most of the problems have been centred in south Kashmir.
``Why such an encounter should go on for as long as 17 days, is something that only the army can answer, but it is very clear that there is change of tactics in Kashmir. Till now, innocents were not being targeted; now they are. It is also significant that not a single arrest has been made for the recent killing of civilians in the Kashmir Valley,” he told Moneycontrol.
In his view, arresting and charging people for raising the Pakistani flag in the event of a cricket World Cup loss is going to aggravate matters, particularly in Muslim-majority areas like Surankote, the site of the current encounter.
The point to ask is this: could this be a bigger build up – a minor Kargil, perhaps – where the true extent of the terrorist infiltration is not exactly known for the moment?
'Patience is key'
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), former Commander of the Srinagar Corps, an operations veteran in this area, puts his point across. ``Hurry in such operations, where you seek positive outcome by contacting and battling 6-8 or more, well trained, highly motivated foreign terrorists in thick jungle terrain spread 70-80 km and as much in depth, is the bane of it all. Patience is a virtue,” he counsels.
``Search will firstly have to be very slow and painstaking, using technology of any kind including airborne listening and surveillance devices. Secondly, they will be extremely vulnerable and need frequent turnover. Crude IEDs have been placed in the way of search parties by the terrorists; these require detectors which naturally slows activity,” says Hasnain.
In his view, the forest is so thick that even helicopters and drones cannot penetrate the cover for effective observation; ideal hiding ground and a training area to train locally recruited terrorists so that they do not have to exfiltrate to PoK for training or shelter.
In every way, it looks like a long and uncertain road ahead.