The Indian Army has been taking considerable number of casualties in the Rajouri-Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir recently.
The most recent attack on the army that happened in the Balfiaz forest in the Surankote region resulted in the death of five army soldiers this last week. In November this year, the army had lost five soldiers in an operation near the Kalakote forest of Rajouri district.
In all, more than 19 security personnel have been killed in this region in the last eight months.
The unusually high number of casualties point to a shift in the focus of terrorists from the Kashmir valley to the Jammu region.
According to reports, security forces are dealing with multiple groups of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists hiding in the thickly-forested region of Poonch-Rajouri districts of Jammu.
However, the fact that these terrorists have been able to operate in this area for more than two years (since 2021), without being flushed out, is a cause for concern. The area has also seen grave provocation from the terrorists: seven unarmed Hindu civilians were shot dead in Dhangri village of Rajouri earlier this year.
The success of the terrorists so far also owes much to the local terrain. This forested region is the perfect for guerrilla-style operations conducted by a small group of five to six highly trained terrorists.
The mountain ridges in this sector are between 5,000 to 7,500 feet high and are very close to the line of control (LoC).
If terrorists using the various routes through nullahs (small streams) can get past the first line of defence at the LoC, they only have to travel 15 km in some places to reach these thickly forested ridges. The ridges have a large number of natural caves and vegetation, which help them hide from the surveillance of the security forces.
As the passes, known as 'Gali' in local parlance, are the only way to cross these ridges, a group of five to six terrorists can wait for the security forces, and ambush them at the time and place of their own choosing.
After the ambush, they can simply withdraw and wait in the natural hideouts in the forest. They can also cross the 12,000-13,000 feet Pir Panjal range to reach the Kashmir valley and mix with the local population.
The security forces, on the other hand, have to sanitise more than 2,500 sq km of thickly-wooded ridgelines (where some places may not have seen the light of day), small nullahs, and natural caves.
By the time the security forces reach their hideouts, the terrorists have already vacated and shifted to a different hideout far away from the encounter site.
Helicopters and drones also cannot provide forces with all-pervasive surveillance due to the vast and forested nature of the terrain. Drone cameras with the ability to spot human movements under thick vegetation are yet to be developed and deployed in the region.
Moreover, the density of troops has also been reduced since some were sent along the line of actual control to strengthen the security posture against China.
The army has in the past dealt with terrorism in the same region in 2003-04, under Operation Sarp Vinash, where 65 terrorists were killed in the Hill Kaka of Poonch-Rajouri heights.
An operation akin to Operation Sarp Vinash, but with careful planning and prior intelligence, following the induction of adequate troops in the area could be one way to deal with these terrorists.
Editorial Associate at Swarajya. Writes on Indian Military and Defence.
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