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Lessons from Kokernag: the battle has shifted from half-baked Valley teens to die-hard jihadists from Pakistan

Kashmiri separatist Uzair Basheer was killed in Kokernag encounter with security forces.

The loss of at least four security forces and Police personnel, including three officers, during a joint search operation in the Kokernag forest area of Kashmir’s Anantnag district last week, is not new in the history of armed insurgency and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir in the last over 33 years. Those killed in the deadly attack include Commanding Officer of Rashtriya Rifles 19th battalion, Col Manpreet Singh, Major Ashish Dhonchak and Deputy Superintendent of the Jammu and Kashmir Police in Kokernag, Humayun Muzamil Bhat.

It, however, occurred at a time when the militancy had fallen to its lowest ebb after 2015 and the entire government machinery was celebrating the success of G-20 and many other events and the restoration of peace and normalcy in the Union Territory. A high-profile three-day symposium-cum-exhibition on the manufacturing, technology and procurement of the Defence and security hardware was in progress in Jammu which was, among others, addressed by the Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

Over a thousand militants have been neutralised by the Police and security forces in the last five years. The leadership of all formidable terror outfits has been decimated. Officials claim that the total number of the militants has reduced to around 80 and more than 50 of them are the Pakistani cadres of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

No officer of the rank of Colonel, Major or DSP has died in any encounter or operation in the Kashmir valley since 3 May 2020 when five soldiers, including a Colonel, were killed in a terror attack at Chanjmulla, Handwara.

In the deep background, four key terror icons were killed inside Pakistan, opening the question on whether the Pak ISI, the handler of key Kashmir separatist groups, is mounting riposte inside the valley.

The casualties at Gadol, Kokernag, came in 40 days of an identical terror attack when three soldiers were killed in the Halan Forest area of Kulgam. Earlier this year, on 14 May, a group of militants was trapped at Sagam, Kokernag. Security forces claimed to have busted their well-established hideout, but all the militants made good their escape.


The operation in Kokernag lasted one full week as a massive deployment of the Police and security forces made every possible attempt to trace and neutralise the terrorists involved in the killing of the three officers. In all, seven bodies have been reportedly recovered. According to the Police, a local 28-year-old militant of LeT, Uzair Khan of Nagam, has also died in the encounter along with an unidentified associate.

In hours of the shootout on 13 September, The Resistant Front (TRF), which is believed to be a front for LeT, purportedly claimed that the TRF cadres had done it to avenge the killing of one Muhammad Riyaz alias Abu Qasim of Poonch, who had been shot dead by an unidentified gunman inside a mosque at Rawalakot in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), on 10 September 2023.

Media persons and counterinsurgency experts insist that a local Kashmiri militant has never been able to take down the fulcrum of an operation since 1990. Only some soldiers and non-commissioned officers have died in such encounters.

The 28-year-old Uzair Khan who was killed during the Kokernag operation figured in the ‘B’ category list of the wanted militants. He reportedly disappeared from his village on 25 July 2022. He lived as a militant for only 14 months, with no specialised guerrilla training.

Even the most prominent militant Ashraf Khan alias Maulvi Ashraf of Tengpawa, who carried a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on his head and was appointed as Hizbul Mujahideen’s ‘Operation Chief’, after Riyaz Naikoo’s death in an encounter, on 6 May 2020, was equally untrained. He was killed in an encounter at Batkoot Pahalgam on 6 May 2022.

Muhammad Riyaz’s involvement had been established in several major terror attacks in Poonch and Rajouri. Pakistani jihadist groups have been holding the Indian intelligence agency RAW responsible for elimination of at least four guerrilla operatives, including Riyaz, in PoK and Pakistan this year.

In a series of 5 major strikes from 11 October 2021 to 5 May 2023, terrorists killed 24 Indian Army soldiers, including some officers, in Poonch-Rajouri. They did not suffer any damage other than the death of the two Fidayeen who got killed in a suicide attack on an Army camp at Pargal (Rajouri) on 11 August 2022.

The deadliest ambushes were carried out audaciously in Mendhar (Poonch) and Kesari Forest of Rajouri respectively on 20 April 2023 and 5 May 2023. As many as 10 soldiers, including some officers, were killed in these back to back attacks, leaving behind clear footprints of the battle-hardened foreigners.

Videos of almost all such identical ambushes were released subsequently from Pakistan. Peoples Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), believed to be a front for JeM, publicly invited the Indian troops into the Rajouri forest claiming that it had set up “several slaughterhouses for them”.

The seven deadly ambushes across the Pir Panjal mountain range warrant an altogether new strategy as the battle has shifted from the Valley’s flamboyant, half-baked teens to the professionally trained and well-equipped jihadist cadres with clear material support from Pakistan.

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