It was not even a zero-sum game for the army at the end of the nine-day-long operation that began at 6.00 pm on December 31 in the forests of Mendhar near the International Border.
The army called it a day last night, saying the Jaish-e-Mohammad militants had given a slip and taken the rifle of a slain Junior Commissioned Officer.
History has somehow repeated itself in Mendhar. In May 1995, about 90 militants, led by Hizbul Mujahideen leader Mast gul, managed to escape from Charar-e-Sharief at the end of a two-month-long siege.
Later, Mast Gul appeared in Peshawar in Pakistan, brandishing his Kalashnikov and riding on the shoulders of his euphoric supporters.
There was a repeat in September 2003 when militants from across the International Border disappeared from Ghati in Kathua district of the Jammu region. “It is clear that the army have not learnt the lesson,” observed a senior police official, who did not want to be identified. He said the army’s unilateral approach, overruling others and discarding inputs put off other agencies.
This time in the forested terrain of Bhatti Dhara in Mendhar, it was a 192-hour-long gun-battle resulting in the loss of two of soldiers and one policeman and a pledge relayed through television channels that the militants would be killed.
Instead, the militants escaped, leaving a series of questions to be answered by the army brass. The army did not even have the bodies of the four militants that it claimed to have killed in the initial phase of the gun-battle.
The army blamed the terrain and the weather, but its wait-and-tire-out strategy — which had been successful in the Hazratbal crisis of October-November 1993 — is being questioned.
Experts are pointing out that the strategy was not applicable in a vast mountainous terrain.
Second, the scare caused by the loss of two of its soldiers and the army’s reluctance to go in for action gave militants enough time to give a slip.
Third, it’s still not clear when the militants escaped. It could have been two or three days before the call-off, as the firing had stopped from their side.
And the fourth and most important question is whether the army knew about the militants’ escape and was just feigning a cordon to give the impression of being in control.