Fester Lente — “make haste, but slowly” — was the motto guiding the Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus as his forces fought the wars that guaranteed the Mediterranean world two centuries of peace. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram's advisors need to whisper those words in his ear. Tuesday's horrific annihilation of an entire company of the Central Reserve Police Force by insurgents in Chhattisgarh was wholly avoidable. It was not just one of those inevitable tragedies that scar the road to ultimate victory. It has demonstrated that the architecture of the government's counter-Maoist campaign is fundamentally flawed. Mr. Chidambaram's dramatic pursuit of success and his high-sounding polemical attacks on the Maoists have endeared him to Indians frustrated by years of inaction against terrorism. However, a poorly thought-through counter-insurgency campaign has ended up jeopardising the lives of men who are being pushed into a battle they are ill-trained and ill-equipped for. For the most part, the new forces arriving inside the forest heartlands of the Maoists have been doing little other than protecting their own logistical lines and camp perimeters. Tuesday's massacre, and the killings in West Bengal and Orissa that preceded it, have shown that the surge isn't displacing the insurgents: it's creating targets for them to attack.

Last year, counter-insurgency strategists in the Union Home Ministry began deploying central forces in a ‘clear, hold, and build' strategy. The theory was that the forces would displace the insurgents and thus pave the way for a civilian development programme. It hasn't worked. In successful counter-insurgency campaigns, the number of enemy combatants killed by state forces far exceeds their own losses. In Jammu and Kashmir, for example, Indian forces killed 3.1 jihadists for each fatality of their own last year. But in the counter-Maoist campaign, data published by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management's show, police forces have suffered far more fatalities this year than they have been able to inflict. Last year, too, 312 police officers were killed compared with 294 Maoists. It is clear that a thoroughgoing training programme is needed for both central and state forces. Police in J&K, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Tripura learned those skills in battle, sustaining horrific casualties in the process. The waste of human life can be avoided — but it will take time. Even as they build counter-insurgency capabilities, the central and State governments would do well to content themselves with a more modest, workable containment strategies. As the scholar Ivan Arreguín-Toft has shown in his thoughtful work on asymmetric wars, the strong do sometimes lose — in the main when their responses to their adversaries' strategies are flawed. India ought not to be losing the war against the Maoists. It will, inevitably, continue to do so as long as grandstanding substitutes for capacity-building and strategic thinking.

More In: Editorial | Opinion