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Hizbul commander Sabzar Bhat killed: Eliminate militant leaders, army's new way to regain ground

The killing of militant 'commander’ Sabzar Bhat has changed the situation in Kashmir in several ways, although it is by no means the sort of game-changer that the killing of Burhan Wani was last July. That sort of quantum change may still be a few weeks away.

At one level, the army is bucked up after this outstanding success. "We are going after the leaders," said Major General BS Raju, who heads the army's Victor Force, which is in charge of south Kashmir.

 Hizbul commander Sabzar Bhat killed: Eliminate militant leaders, armys new way to regain ground

Sabzar Bhat. Image courtesy CNN-News18

That was the strategy of then BSF IG Ashok Patel, who handled militancy at its worst, between 1990 and 1993. Patel targeted commanders based on specific intelligence. He laid cordons at specific locations on the basis of that information.

The strategy worked well. The heads of major militant organisations, including Muslim Janbaz Force, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Students Liberation Front, Al Umar and Hizbullah were all rounded up (arrested) by April 1992.

That only left the largely rural-based Hizb in the field. It was in December 1992 that Pakistan allowed the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Afghan-based Harkat-ul Mujahideen to Kashmir. They dominated from then until that round of militancy ended around a decade ago. The new militancy emerged over the past five years.

Though it is very encouraged by the Sabzar killing, the army is not resting on its laurels, though. Raju held that the end of June and the first week of July would be critical.

Leadership vacuum

Stones were pelted at various places across the Kashmir Valley when news of Sabzar’s death spread, and forces fired at least pellets and tear gas shells at several places. Some observers expected vigorous protests over the next couple of days.

The most obvious effect of Sabzar’s killing is that it opens a vacuum at the top in Hizb - at least in the pulsating battlefields of south Kashmir. Until just a couple of weeks ago, there were two top 'commanders' in place of Burhan. Now, Sabzar has been killed very soon after Zakir Musa was eased out after making an announcement that he stood for an essentially pan-Islamic agenda.

Lashkar coordination

This makes Abu Dujana, the Lashkar-e-Toiba chief in the Valley, even more central to the militancy than he already was. Since late last year, this Pakistani 'commander’ had emerged as the leading light of the post-Burhan militancy.

One of the consequences of Burhan’s death was even closer coordination between Hizb, Laskhar and other groups than there already had been. Former Laskhar 'commander’ Abu Qasim, who was killed by security forces in November 2015, had played a seminal role in bringing this coordination into play over a previous couple of years in the south Kashmir region.

Dujana is already a more iconic figure than either Musa or Sabzar. Although he is a Pakistani, Dujana commands great affection and respect among teenagers in south Kashmir - more than any other since Burhan.

In fact, so many young people rallied to combat the forces with stones during a cordon in the Pulwama region last week that Dujana was able to escape. The cordon had been set in order to get Dujana.

Fortunes reversed

The army is confident that the successful operation at Tral has reversed its fortunes. It has been a great morale booster.

The army has been on the backfoot over the past few months, at least since the ambush of a convoy in February. Several soldiers, including two officers, were killed. The vehicles were returning from an operation which had been mobilised on the basis of false information.

More recently, a massive cordon and search operation by more than 3,000 soldiers in the Shopian region failed to catch any militants. Instead, a convoy of army vehicles was ambushed on their return.

Just last week, an operation to nab Abu Dujana, the most outstanding militant of this post-Burhan phase, also did not succeed. Dujana, a Pakistani, leads the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Since the strategy now is to kill top militants, Dujana is likely to remain in the army’s sights.

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Updated Date: May 27, 2017 21:04:58 IST