"The buck stops with the Chief Minister," Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced after his visit to Maoist-hit Lalgarh in West Bengal on Monday. Less than 24 hours on, some are beginning to point fingers in his direction.

Instead of looking for dramatic results, New Delhi needs to focus on the slow, unspectacular task of building counter-insurgency capacity.

The annihilation of almost the entire Alpha Company of the Central Reserve Police Force's 62 Battalion, which lost 75 of its 80 personnel in an ambush at Chintalnar, is the largest single loss Indian counter-insurgency forces have ever suffered.

Many in India's police and paramilitary services say that the annihilation of Alpha Company — like the many similar disasters which have scarred New Delhi's ongoing anti-Maoist offensive — are inexorable consequences of an ill-planned, tactically unsound counter-insurgency mission.

Like most of the estimated 57 battalions of Central police forces pumped into India's Maoist heartlands over the last year, the 62 Battalion had a simple mandate. It was to clear the Chintalnar area of insurgent groups, hold the territory to ensure Maoists were unable to re-enter, and, finally, prepare the ground for developmental projects by civilian agencies.

In practice, none of the elements of the United States-inspired “clear, hold and build” doctrine ran according to plan. Much of the Battalion's energies were spent on securing the single, ramshackle road that linked their outposts in the southern fringes of Dantewada, bordering Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, to the CRPF's logistics chain. More personnel were tied down to guarding their camps against attack.

For the first several months of its tour of duty in Dantewada, the 62 Battalion was unable to execute meaningful offensive operations. That was supposed to have been the task of the CRPF's elite COBRA force, an elite jungle warfare formation recently renamed the Special Action Force. SAF operations, though, were scaled back in response to allegations of human rights violations. For all practical purposes, the 62 Battalion was doing little other than guarding itself.

Pressured by their headquarters, the 62 Battalion ramped up offensive operations. But, untrained in specialist jungle warfare skills and operating in company-sized formations, its personnel had limited success. Notably, the Battalion was unable to prevent the large-scale laying of mines and the massing of the hundreds of guerillas who were eventually to destroy it.

Late last week, Alpha Company was sent out on another search-and-destroy mission into the forests. When insurgents opened fire on its personnel, they responded in textbook fashion, taking shelter behind rock formations, trees and in ditches. Each of the likely positions had, however, already been fitted with pressure-triggered improvised explosive devices. An armoured vehicle sent in to evacuate casualties was destroyed. Alpha Company was, quite literally, blown apart.

Bar its scale, there was nothing new in the Maoist ambush. Police fighting in regions as diverse as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh had often suffered losses in tactically-similar ambushes. Back in 2003, Maoists almost succeeded in assassinating Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu in a multiple-IED ambush.

The losses, experts say, illustrate that large-scale force deployments can end up creating targets for attack rather than deterring insurgents. Instead of attempting to dominate ground, they say, strategists ought be focussing on creating elite jungle warfare units such as the Andhra Pradesh Greyhounds, who execute intelligence-led precision strikes before retreating to safe bases.

“There's a simple reason why this effort to saturate the ground with forces will not succeed,” says Ajai Sahni, Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, “its called arithmetic.” The battalions pumped by New Delhi into the six worst-affected States, Dr. Sahni notes, each have some 400 operational personal available on ground. That means less than 23,000 men are expected to protect 446 million citizens, living on 1.6 million square kilometres.

“It's just plain silly,” he says.

Failure to learn

Little imagination is needed to see the core irony: anaemic State police forces unable to fight the Maoists have been bolstered by ill-trained Central forces. In part, this was because the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Central Reserve Police Force refused to draw on the rich expertise available to them.

Inspector-General of Police Durga Prasad, one of the key figures in shaping Andhra Pradesh's successful counter-Maoist campaign, was given charge of raising COBRA. Prasad had insisted that the force ought be headquartered in Hyderabad, which would have allowed it to work closely with the Greyhounds. However, New Delhi eventually decided that COBRA's headquarters would be in New Delhi — a decision that led Mr. Prasad to return, disgusted, to Andhra Pradesh.

Little effort was made for the CRPF to have an independent intelligence capability, either. The former Andhra Pradesh intelligence chief, Shiv Shankar, was among a number of officers considered for the formation of a unit — but the plan went nowhere.

Ever since Central forces began to be pushed into the Maoist heartland, these structural weaknesses have manifested themselves in escalating casualties. Instead of looking for dramatic results, New Delhi needs to focus on the slow, unspectacular task of building counter-insurgency capacity.

“We must accept that we're not going to defeat the Maoists in weeks or even months,” says a senior police officer, “and unless we start working to a long-term strategy, we may never defeat them at all.”