The attention given to the killing of at least 27 Afghan civilians in a Nato airstrike shows a significant political and military change in the Afghan war. Political support for the war is so fragile in the US and other states contributing troops that every misdirected bombing has to be apologised for. The Dutch government has already fallen because of disagreement over the Dutch military contribution of 2,000 troops to the Nato force.
This limitation on airstrikes removes one of the Nato powers' main advantages against Taliban guerrillas: the ability to call in air power whenever fighters were located. The Nato planes fired yesterday at a convoy of three vehicles; among the dead were four women and a child, and 12 more were wounded. The group were believed to be Taliban fighters. The outcome of the bombing confirms that when air power is inaccurate the blame lies not with inadequate technology but with the failures of the intelligence on which targeting is based.
In the mountains of Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan, intelligence is always going to be patchy or even based on deliberate misinformation. It is therefore increasingly difficult for Nato to claim, as it did early last year and the year before, that casualties are not civilians but in fact Taliban fighters.
In Afghanistan incidents like the bombing of civilians in Uruzgan will inevitably be highly publicised, not least because the government of President Hamid Karzai is seeking to burnish its nationalist credentials by protesting volubly against the loss of civilian lives. This is in sharp contrast with Iraq where, at the height of the fighting between 2004 and 2007, the Iraqi government would happily confirm that civilian dead were insurgent fighters.
The fact that these airstrikes took place in Uruzgan, from which the 2,000-strong Dutch contingent is being withdrawn, shows that no Nato power contributing forces can keep itself politically and militarily on the margins of the escalating conflict.
Meanwhile the curtailment in the use of air power by Nato will mean that more foreign troops will be needed to make up the loss in firepower just as support for the Afghan venture is waning in the countries which supply them.