Army vs Militants in J&K’s Poonch: Why the Operation is Taking Long

Poonch Encounter: Here's why Indian Army is engaged in its longest operation against militants since 2003.

6 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>The encounter is believed to be Indian Army's longest operation against militants since 2003.</p></div>

It has been the 12th day of the deadliest encounter that broke out in Rajouri-Poonch district of Jammu region on 10 October.

The encounter is believed to be Indian Army's longest operation against militants since 2003. Over nine soldiers including two Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO) have been killed in the ongoing operation so far.

Sources from the Army told The Quint the search operation to flush out the militants was launched in the month of August. The first contact between the Army and militants came at Dera ki Gali area of Poonch in the intervening night of 10 and 11 October.

"Five soldiers, including a JCO were killed in the first assault," the Army official told The Quint.


Infiltrators & Local Militants Tracked Down Near LoC

Dera Ki Gali (DKG) in Surankote falls in Poonch sector of Jammu region and is close to the Line of Control.

“The search operation continued in the area of Shahdara, near the boundary of Poonch-Rajouri districts for many days but the militants fled to other mountainous range which falls in Rajouri district,” the official told The Quint.

On 14 October, second contact was established with militants and intense exchange of fire took place. Two more soldiers lost their lives. Later, the bodies of a JCO and other soldiers were found at the encounter site.

He said they also deployed a specially trained unit of para-commandos for the combing operation. Drones and modern weapons are being used to track down militants.

Tough Terrain Affecting Army's Efficiency?

A top army official from Jammu told The Quint that the topography of the area is giving a tough challenge to security forces in neutralising the militants.

He said, the mountainous terrain, with steep slopes covered by thick forests, ravines and gorges, all provided a safe haven for militants believed to be 8-10 in numbers.

“The Nar Khas area of Mendhar is filled with natural caves and hilly terrain, which gives tough time to the Army in killing the militants,” he told The Quint. He said there is no contact at all with the militants from the last three days. The search operation continues undeterred.

According to several media reports the soldiers who got killed were ambushed by the militants. However, the official refuted these claims and said that the soldiers had a tip about the presence of militants in the area.

“The soldiers were killed in two different areas,” he said. “After the initial encounter, the militants fled to nearby Panghai forest which falls in the jurisdiction of Rajouri's Thanamandi.” The soldiers engaged the militants in the area resulting in another encounter, he said.


Army Not Planning to Wind Up the Operation Soon

On 18 October amid the ongoing encounter, the Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane visited the forward areas along the Line of Control (LoC). The Army chief reviewed the situation after which the forces were reportedly preparing for the final assault.

Sources from the Army told The Quint that the army chief was apprised about the challenges the soldiers face during the operation.

When asked if their was specific instructions for the troops on the ground he said “I won’t be able to share that but Army is currently sanitising the areas and once the area is fully sanitised, the search of the area will be carried out and it is likely that some leads will be found”.

The army, he added, has no plans to wind-up the operation so far. "The area will be cleared, searched and sanitised completely".

Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) Rajouri-Poonch range Vivek Gupta told reporters that the operation is being conducted with a certain strategy and "in previous operations, too, in these belts, they took a certain span of time but we were successful in eliminating terrorists", he said.

Rajouri and Poonch: Hot Bed for Militancy

Rajouri and Poonch in the Jammu region have witnessed a rise in infiltration attempts since June this year. According to reports, nine militants have been killed in separate encounters. The area has a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims.

Javid Ahmed Makhdoomi, a senior retired police officer who was posted in the Doda district of the Chenab valley told The Quint that the area has been a hotbed for militancy since 1990’s because of the topography which gave militants safe passage.

“It is very difficult to pin-point the militants in the forest. The militants knew the terrain very well, as a result they inflicted significant casualties on the forces,” Makhdoomi told The Quint. He further said one should not expect the operation to end in a few days. “It will take time because of the nature of the area.”

He also shared that any area that is not accessible to security forces is a disadvantage to them.

Makhdoomi said that these kinds of operations need strong human intelligence which may not be available there because there is very less civilian population.


Intelligence Failure Due to Political Upheaval

According to a report, the security establishment was “miffed over” the failure of intelligence agencies in Poonch that led to the killing of nine soldiers.

“Nothing substantive was shared by intelligence agencies before five of our men were downed on Monday in Chamrer. Now, if these terrorists have been there since August, it clearly shows the failure of intelligence agencies and at the same time local support to them cannot be denied,” the report quoted an unnamed official.

Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst and senior journalist from Jammu argues that it is the "complete failure" of human intelligence due to the ongoing political situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

He maintains that the topography theory is not new. The security forces have fought in J&K since decades and have been successful, he told The Quint.

"It is the 12th day of the encounter and the forces don't even know in which area the militants are. This is a pure breakdown of the human intelligence network and it happened because of the absence of political institutions in the erstwhile state," Choudhary told The Quint.

He believes that the network of intelligence is provided by a political process. "You can’t win a kinetic war in a complete vacuum where you have militants on one side and forces on the other side and no one in between. It is because you don’t have those networks of intelligence. You don’t have the reality and trust between security forces of the local population," Choudhary added.

Security Forces Need Local Support to Combat Foreign Infiltrators

In most of the areas civilian population live in-front of the Line of Control (Loc) posts in Kashmir and sometimes help the security agencies about the infiltration.

"Intelligence is not such a thing that you employ people from other states and depute need to rely on the local population," he added.

Former Director General of J&K police, S P Vaid agrees that it is important to be in touch with the local population to carry out any operation in the border areas.

He said the army successfully cleared the Hilkaka village in 2003 from the militants with the help of locals. The area falls under the same district where the encounter is going on presently.

It may be noted the scores of Pakistani militants had infiltrated across the Line of Control (LoC) in Poonch and dug in for the long haul at Hilkaka, a Bakerwal village in Surankote tehsil, about 10-12 km inside the LoC. According to reports, thousands of troops were involved in the operation that lasted about two weeks.


How the Agencies Are Keeping Civilians Safe

On the 9th day of the anti-militancy operation, the security forces urged locals to stay indoors for their safety.

Locals told The Quint that the traffic between Mendhar and Thanamandi along the Jammu-Rajouri highway remained suspended in the wake of the ongoing operation.

People were alerted through the public address systems in local mosques in Bhata Dhurian and adjoining areas as the security forces prepared for a final assault against militants, reports said.

“The presence of terrorists in the forest area connecting Poonch and Rajouri was observed two-and-a-half months ago and accordingly tactical operations were launched to track them down,” DIG Vivek Gupta told reporters.

The Police have so far detained eight persons including a mother-son duo on suspicion of providing logistical support to the militants.

The new militant group calling itself the PAFF (People’s Anti Fascists Front) has claimed responsibility for the attack in which 9 soldiers lost their lives in the encounter.

The group released an eight-minute video about the ongoing encounter in Poonch. However, the army termed the videos as “fake and propaganda”.

(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets @AuqibJaveed.)

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