WASHINGTON – NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he's saddened by recent deaths of Afghan civilians, and said the alliance is committed to defending democracy in the nation once ruled by the repressive Taliban regime.
"That's a tragedy, but let me convince you to look at the broader picture," de Hoop Scheffer said on Friday after a meeting at the White House with President Bush. "They are against democracy. Girls did not go to school when the Taliban was running Afghanistan. Now they go to school. Now there is a president. Now there is a government."
In an Oval Office meeting that lasted about an hour, de Hoop Scheffer and Bush reviewed the alliance's mission in Afghanistan. Some 32,000 NATO-led troops are serving in the most dangerous areas of the insurgency-wracked nation.
NATO expanded its mission this year from the relatively stable north and western parts of the country to far more dangerous areas in the south, where Taliban militia have been most active since a U.S.-led coalition drove them from the seat of power, Kabul, in 2001.
On Friday, a roadside blast ripped through a pickup truck in southern Afghanistan, killing 14 villagers who were traveling to a provincial capital for holiday celebrations. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Kandahar, mourners attended a prayer ceremony in memory of civilians killed during NATO operations on Tuesday in the nearby Panjwayi district. NATO said its initial reports found that 12 civilians were killed, but Afghan officials estimated the number of civilians killed at between 30 and 80, including many women and children.
"NATO is delivering security," de Hoop Scheffer said. "And NATO will continue to do this, indeed, with its present, but also with global partners because terrorism, proliferation, failed states and failing states are global threats we have to face and to counter on a global scale."
Bush thanked the NATO secretary-general for leading 26 nations of NATO into Afghanistan, and for reaching out to other nations that share its values, but have not been considered a part of NATO.
"You know what I know — that the real challenge for the future is to help people of moderation and young democracies succeed in the face of threats and attacks by radicals and extremists who do not share our ideology, have, kind of, a dark vision of the world," Bush said.
De Hoop Scheffer, fresh from a visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, is in Washington for talks about matters including the NATO chief's wish for closer relations between the alliance and Russia. The NATO secretary-general said he wanted to deepen the relationship between Moscow and NATO because of Russia's importance to solving many conflicts.
Russia signed a partnership agreement with NATO in 2002, outlining cooperation in counterterror, nonproliferation, peacekeeping and other fields. At the same time Putin's government has continued to make public his opposition to the alliance's eastward expansion.
That expansion has included the absorption of countries that were part of the former Soviet Union — the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — and former members of NATO's Cold War nemesis, the Warsaw Pact — Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
A NATO summit in Washington in 2008 is expected to take up the question of membership bids. Among countries seeking to join are the Balkan states Albania, Croatia and Macedonia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
The summit meeting in the Latvian capital of Riga next month is expected to discuss strengthening relations with democracies such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan. This move is favored by the United States, Britain and some other members but opposed by France, which objects to the alliance's taking on a global dimension.
De Hoop Scheffer has said the trans-Atlantic security concept needs to be re-evaluated because of international terrorism, which he has called a "threat without a face."
He said NATO has no desire to play the world's policeman but is the right tool for an international security partnership.