By Laurent Lozano/AFP
Crawford, Texas: US President George W. Bush on 20 may welcomed NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at his Texas ranch for talks focused largely on fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bush himself drove a pickup truck to meet De Hoop Scheffer’s helicopter as it landed at the president’s sprawling ranch here, where discussions are expected to cover the recent strong showing by Taliban insurgents and civilian deaths in Afghanistan, which threaten to erode support for US troops and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force backing the Kabul government.
Bush is expected to seek reinforced allied commitments to participating in the US “war on terror” campaigns in Afghanistan if not Iraq.
Also likely on the agenda are Kosovo, expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the US effort to position a strategic anti-missile defense system in Europe, according to the White House.
De Hoop Scheffer arrived amid heightened tensions driven by Russia’s objection to the anti-missile shield’s expansion to Central Europe.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if those issues came up,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
Bush and the NATO leader will have a working dinner with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates late Sunday, and further meetings early Monday.
Afghanistan could dominate the discussions, due to the recent surge in attacks by Taliban forces and a spike in civilian deaths in the fighting.
About 37,000 NATO-led troops are in Afghanistan, including 15,000 US soldiers. Another 12,000 US soldiers operate separately under their own command in the country.
Bush wants allies to provide more manpower and equipment in Afghanistan and to lift restrictions some impose on their troops engaging in battle as the Taliban pursue their spring offensive.
Violence linked to the insurgency has claimed the lives of roughly 1,500 people this year, most of them rebels but including scores of civilians and nearly 60 foreign soldiers, according to an AFP estimate based on reports.
Increased use of air power by US and NATO troops has driven civilian casualties sharply higher in recent months, drawing criticism from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and concerns among NATO members.
Last Monday German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said he had complained to NATO about the increasing civilian casualties.
“We must ensure that operations do not develop this way. It would not be a victory to set the (Afghan) people against us,” Jung said, after talks between EU defense ministers in Brussels.
“We have to be very concerned about it,” said Fratto Sunday.
“It’s tragic that in the effort to provide peace and security in a country that non-combatants, children, become killed or injured in these activities, and so it’s a very high priority for us.”
“We don’t want to see any erosion of support in the civilian population in Afghanistan.”
But he pinned the blame for the civilian deaths on the Taliban: “I think it’s important for everyone to understand that this is a clear express tactic of the enemy in Afghanistan to put civilians in harm’s way.”
Another subject likely to come up is the future of Kosovo, where NATO peacekeeping troops have been based since 1999, and which is generating more tensions between the United States and Russia.
Fratto said that Rice will probably talk about her recent Moscow visit during dinner.