'Isaf weapon fails to hit intended target, 12 civilians killed" That was the headline of a blunt press release issued immediately after American forces fired two rockets at a compound used by insurgents in Nad Ali on Sunday. They missed their target by about 300 metres. The rocket hit a house full of innocent Afghans. General Stanley McChrystal, the head of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, apologised right away. He said that the use of the lorry-mounted weapons would be suspended until a review could be completed. Both were carefully choreographed messages.
If you want a guide to the offensive in southern Helmand province, which is in its fourth day, take a look at General David Petraeus's 26 guidelines for winning a counter insurgency. The apology and press release follows rule number 19: "Be first with the truth." The offensive against the Taliban in the town of Marjah and surrounding areas is supposed to follow these directions written by America's top general to the letter.
There is no question that the Taliban insurgents are no match for the advanced firepower of the American and British militaries. They will take towns. But the longer war, which involves winning over the residents, will have to depend on subtler tactics. The Afghan government is holding frequent meetings with Pashtun tribal leaders in Helmand (rule number 15: build relationships) and a battalion of journalists are embedded with American, British and Afghan forces (rule number 20: fight the information war relentlessly).
When the fighting stops, the Afghan government has promised to send 1,000 police officers to establish security. A team of US state department experts in agriculture and development are on stand-by to rebuild the town (rules number 2 and 3: live among the people and hold areas that have been secured). It is the first time such an integrated and cunning approach has been used in the battlefields of Afghanistan since 2001.
If there truly is a shift away from a crude reliance on firepower, it will be a sea change. I remember in 2004 when the British unveiled their strategy for making sure the presidential elections that year would be free and fair despite the Taliban's promise to derail the ballot: the deployment of Harrier jets capable of taking off and landing vertically.
When I was nine, the only present I wanted for my birthday was a "Peaches and Cream" Barbie. The blonde American doll came dressed in a frilly orange-tinted dress with a poofy stole. It was a ghastly thing. I had other Barbies but that was the only one I wanted. For some reason I never got it. Barbie has come a long way since her peaches and cream days or chirping "math class is tough". Her latest incarnation (number 126) is "Computer Engineer" Barbie. The toy manufacturer Mattel is bowing to politically correct times by giving her a profession to which clever young girls can aspire. But Barbie still refuses to relinquish hot pink - she comes with pink glasses and carries a hot pink laptop. (The accessories were apparently chosen with the help of the Society of Women Engineers in America).
Barbie is now 51 years old. She's been a nurse, a Bond girl and a flight attendant. Isn't it about time she take her dainty foot off the accelerator? When I'm 50 I don't want the pressure of keeping up with women half my age, prancing about in hot pink and having to get the hang of the latest social networking site. I'd like to see an "Early Retirement" Barbie - fully accessorised with a set of golf clubs, a woolly cardigan and a brochure for a cruise line.