The gains made through the Army’s ‘Operation All-Out’ that left 212 militants dead in Jammu and Kashmir this year have been offset by the unprecedented local support to militancy, with the youth from the Valley joining its ranks in south Kashmir.Why is it a worry?The disturbing figures of November, from police data, show that at least six more local youths joined militant ranks. This happened despite the soft-approach adopted by both the Army and the police towards the locals. Armed local militants are offered the option of surrendering even while encounters are raging. They are allowed to return to a normal routine without facing any charge in police stations or forced to hand over weapons, as was the case in the past. Yet, over 150 local militants continue to be active in north and south Kashmir. As the count of the dead mounted, the Opposition National Conference (NC) sought an apology from Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti for failing to stop violence against civilians.The NC alleged that over 60 civilians were killed in 2017, including women and schoolchildren. Most of these civilian deaths were reported during counter-insurgency operations, especially when the people converged on the encounter site to help the trapped militants escape. Over 70 local militants were killed in such operations.According to a police assessment, around 117 locals, the highest number in the past decade, joined militancy this year. The ostensibly less militancy-affected districts in north Kashmir also showed an upward trend, with locals picking up arms: four from Kupwara, six from Baramulla and seven from Bandipora joined the ranks of militancy. This comes after the official figure of the number of local boys joining armed groups dipped to 23 in 2011.How can it be tackled?One of the biggest success stories of the security forces this year was the return of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) recruit Majid Khan, 22, in Anantnag, a central district in south Kashmir. Khan, an ace footballer who bears a resemblance to English cricket all-rounder Ben Stokes, was fast emerging as a poster boy for militants. His return and the subsequent efforts of the security agencies to wean away other youths was a welcome trend. It helped that families released emotional videos to recall their sons.Over 60 youths, according to the police, have been pulled away from militancy in 2017. However, after the surrender of Majid, around a dozen cases saw the “silent return” of armed youths back to a normal routine. The rounding up of at least three local injured armed militants from encounter sites also earned the good faith of the locals for the security agencies.Will carrot-and-stick policy work?Besides extending the carrot, the security forces dented the capabilities of the militant groups to strike by regularly zeroing in on their top operational commanders, especially the LeT’s Abu Ismail and Abu Dujana, both foreigners.Several battle-scarred local commanders, including Arif Lelhari, Junaid Mattoo, Bashir Lashkari, Sabzar Bhat, Shahbaz Shafi alias Rayees Kachroo and Aijaz Mir, were killed. One top-prize, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Qayoom Najar, was killed while he was infiltrating through the Line of Control at Uri in Baramulla to revive the militant ranks in north Kashmir.With the capabilities of the LeT and the Hizbul Mujahideen dented this year, the security agencies grapple with a new challenge: resurgence of the dreaded Jaish-e-Mohammad and pro-al-Qaeda ideology group, led by local commander Zakir Rashid Bhatt alias Musa, who left the post of divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen for being “too soft.” As Jammu and Kashmir stares at 2018, the State continues to slip into the hands of more hard-line militant groups in the absence of confidence-building measures to address the larger political question. The appointment of Dineshwar Sharma as the Government of India’s Special Representative has raised hopes over the dialogue process, but will he be able to take everyone along?