Located along the National Highway from Anantnag to Srinagar, about 11 kms from Srinagar city centre, the historic township of Pampur is famous for its saffron. If you have not seen the flowering of the low saffron plants along the plains around it, you have missed something. The purple flowers appear like a carpet astride the highway.

With a population of about 20,000, Pampore in many ways is an extension of the Srinagar suburbs. The township of Pantha Chowk connects it to the city, making a continuous belt with an industrial area of sorts. To its east lies the Khreuh bowl which is nestled into the valley formed by the curvature and spur lines of the Zabarwan hills on one side and Wasterwan on the other.

This year, Pampore has become notorious for a number of terror incidents involving ambushes on convoys of security forces. We have had two incidents related to the Entrepreneur Development Institute building, one as a follow up to an ambush, one ambush on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy in June and one now on the Army Jammu-Srinagar convoy on December 17. In most incidents the terrorists managed to get away, except in the cases involving the EDI building where they holed up and fought to the end.

Terrain and military reasons

What sets Pampore apart as a potential location for such attacks? There are both terrain and military reasons for this. I served as Colonel General Staff of the Headquarters Victor Force. We had incidents along the highway in 1999-2000 but rarely at Pampore. The township was at that time not so congested as it is today and did not have so many buildings.

The haphazard expansion of the town has led to the built up area moving up to and beyond the Jhelum river which flows to the West. To the East, it merges into many smaller mohallas and qasbas of the Khreuh bowl. This is ideal country for motorcycle-borne strikes because it is easy to get away into the maze of by-lanes. However, that is also true for Bijbehara and some other towns on the same highway – so while this is a contributory factor, it is not the clinching reason.

Applying a military mind and examining the history of militancy in this area suggests that boundaries of military responsibility are a key factor for terrorists in choosing the area to strike. Any military person will tell you that boundaries are the bane of defensive deployment, for that is where everything is infirm – intelligence, operations and perception efforts.

In 1999, Pampore was first operationally controlled from a location near Pulwama. Later, its responsibility was assumed from Badgam which was quite suitable but that too had to be changed due to dilution of resources in South Kashmir. These arrangements ensured proximity and there were less competing prime locations then being controlled from those areas. Today, Pampore is controlled from Anantnag which is located in a different police district. Anantnag has competing concerns all along the highway and is also responsible for the Lidder Valley, an area that is again heating up now.

When there is attention deficit, the most important aspect adversely affected is intelligence. Police, which happens to be the intelligence provider, itself is badly affected by the agitation of 2016. Unlike the days of the past when the Zabarwan and Wasterwan hills in the east were infested with foreign terrorists, the presence today is more in the lower villages and Pampore itself.

Occupation in depth

There is nothing that an energetic joint force of the army and police cannot achieve in terms of sanitisation operations when a township becomes notorious. It needs occupation in depth into the built up area where the CRPF must be provided billets by the local administration. The Rashtriya Rifles must use this deployment as bases to continue intelligence and domination operations in conjunction with Jammu and Kashmir Police. During important convoy movements, the troops must turn out in greater strength and add depth and density to the road so that getaway is not possible. The deployment must itself be a deterrent to terrorist movement.

What should worry the local security authorities is that if Pampore is allowed to remain uncontested as an area of concern, the spread of potential ambushes will expand to the Airport Road along the highway and bypass. Any military professional can appreciate why this danger exists. In June 2013, we had one such major ambush on an army convoy.

Remember, road protection through the Road Opening Party drill is one of the most tedious, repetitive and boring jobs. It is because of the efficacy of these parties that a road remains secure. Enough troops are needed for this onerous responsibility, which is usually treated as a lower priority. These troops need to be trained and mentally conditioned to remain focused in this high octane environment where a single lapse of concentration can mean loss of life – or potentially, many lives.

Equally important, the Army and police must jointly examine how to align boundaries here to overcome the traditional weaknesses of boundary deployment and domination.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain is former GOC of Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group