KABUL, Afghanistan – NATO remains committed to fighting Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the alliance's secretary-general said Thursday, although he acknowledged that recent fighting has slowed down reconstruction efforts.
Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also urged world donors to keep Afghanistan as a top priority.
"Development is taking place (and) we are now rolling out our presence there," de Hoop Scheffer said of southern Afghanistan. "I, of course, hope that as soon as possible we will see a situation there when ... development and reconstruction can take place."
De Hoop Scheffer is in Afghanistan for two days to review the 26-nation alliance's expansion into the volatile southern part of the country, which has recently seen an upsurge in fighting between coalition forces and Taliban — the heaviest in over four years — as NATO tries to take control of the region.
NATO nations are expected to give their final go-ahead to expand their mission July 26 at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
More than 800 people, mostly militants, have died in violence in Afghanistan since mid-May, mostly in the south. Poor security has severely restricted efforts to develop the impoverished region, hub of Afghanistan's booming drug trade.
A coalition solder was wounded in a rocket attack on a military base late Wednesday in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, spokesman Maj. Scott Lundy said. There was no material damage to the Kandahar Air Field.
A coalition helicopter also came under rocket-propelled grenade attack in Kandahar's Panjwayi district late Wednesday, but there were no casualties, Lundy said.
The NATO chief, who was joined on his trip by NATO's supreme military commander, U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, will meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai later Thursday and his defense and interior ministers.
NATO is deploying around 8,000 mostly British, Canadian and Dutch troops to the south, bringing its strength nationwide to about 18,000 by September.
Canadian troops in Kandahar and British forces in Helmand, currently working with U.S. troops as part of an anti-terror campaign, have met stiff resistance in outlying areas from insurgents wanting to disrupt their mission there.
"It is the combination of efforts we have to make. NATO is there to create the security and stability climate," he said. "It should be the international community as a whole and the Afghan government first and foremost to make development possible."
The NATO alliance hopes eventually to take on eastern Afghanistan by November, completing its expansion across the country and increasing its total numbers to 21,000.
The United States has at least 21,000 troops in Afghanistan, but there has been talk of a cut of up to 20 percent. Many of those that remain will be incorporated into the NATO force. However, the U.S. will also maintain a combat force independent of NATO to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida militants.