IF the two rockets which killed twelve Afghan civilians in Helmand province over the weekend were indeed the reported “setback” to the military assault involving thousands of US and British troops then the prospects for ultimate success for General McChrystal's new strategy in Afghanistan cannot be good.

The General's immediate apology to President Karsai for the loss of life was probably good public relations but surely also raised the question of whether it is seriously thought that operations of this kind -- and there will have to be many before the strategy achieves its objective -- can be conducted without loss of civilian life. Amongst the firepower assembled for the Operation Moshtarak assault on the village of Marjah there would inevitably be some weapons that would malfunction or be misused; in addition the preliminary air attacks would have been at risk of causing unintended casualties and damage. From the start of the US and Nato presence in Afghanistan President Karsai has been quick to complain at incidents involving the loss of Afghan lives. While regrettable they are, in the nature of armed conflict, inevitable and the President should accept that fact and explain to his people why that is so.

For the moment the first stage of Operation Moshtarak seems to have been militarily successful. The ultimate test, however, will be whether the expulsion of Taliban fighters and the planned reconciliation of Afghan civilians proves to be permanent in character.