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NATO: Defense Ministers Focus On Afghan Reconstruction --> NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (left) with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak (right) (epa) As the 26 NATO defense ministers move into their second day of discussions in Vilnius, they are emphasizing the strength of the alliance in spite of disagreements over burden-sharing in Afghanistan.

Opening the session today, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that "when it comes to Afghanistan, cautious optimism is justified."

"Without a doubt, the situation on the ground is challenging. But despite some gloomy headlines, there is clear progress," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Eighty percent of Afghans now have access to health care -- up 10 times from 2001. Over 6 million children are in school, and 40 percent are girls. Over 4 million refugees have come home -- the largest such return in history. Afghan forces are starting to take the lead in major operations in the south and the east."

The ministers today are turning their attention to the issues of civil governance and reconstruction. The first day of talks, on February 7, was dominated by discussions on the willingness of some members to contribute troops to the fight against the Taliban.

The United States, Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands say they are shouldering too much of the combat burden because their troops are deployed in the south, where the resurgent guerrilla movement is most active.

Canada has insisted that other alliance members must contribute to the fighting in the south if Ottawa is to prolong the mandate of its troops serving there. Canada has warned it will pull its contingent of 2,500 troops out of Afghanistan next year unless allies provide reinforcements in Kandahar Province.

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France on February 7 signaled a willingness to help Canada, but Paris said it was premature to announce troop figures.

A day earlier, Germany announced it would send a 200-strong rapid-reaction force to northern Afghanistan, but said its troops would not be deployed in the south except in an emergency.

Many European governments are under public pressure not to send troops to the Afghan front lines out of concern over potential casualties.

Today’s focus on issues of governance offers an area where alliance members can more readily reach accord. All the NATO partners in Afghanistan see reconstruction as key to isolating the fundamentalist Taliban.

"Governance must visibly improve, so that the Afghan people have trust in their leaders," de Hoop Scheffer said. "The police need robust support to develop, and they need it now. The narco-economy must be replaced by a legal, sustainable economy. And the Afghan Army must get more support from NATO nations and from partners, to stand on its own feet and defend its own country."

There are other issues in addition to Afghanistan on the agenda today. The ministers are scheduled to discuss new security threats for alliance members such as "cyberwarfare" and energy cutoffs.

They were also due to meet with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, having met with Ukraine's defense minister on February 7. However, reports say Serdyukov has cancelled his visit at the last minute, allegedly due to illness, and is sending a deputy in his place.

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