STOCKHOLM -- As EU foreign ministers were arriving in the Swedish capital Stockholm for a two-day informal brainstorming meeting, the situation in Afghanistan weighed heavily on their minds.
The NATO bombing of a suspected Taliban convoy in Konduz Province was seen as a potentially serious setback as the international community -- including the EU -- reappraises its strategy in Afghanistan.
Heading into the meeting early this afternoon, EU ministers acknowledged the international community is facing an uphill struggle in Afghanistan.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters the situation in Afghanistan remains "very difficult." He said that as soon as a new Afghan administration is in place this autumn, a new international strategy is required for the country.
Without going into detail, Kouchner said the focus of the new strategy will be "Afghanisation" -- the progressive handing over of responsibility for security, but also for other matters, to Afghan authorities.
This strategy has already encountered what could be a serious early setback, as reports came in that an overnight NATO air strike on fuel trucks in Konduz Province killed as many as 90 people.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued a statement saying the attack had targeted Taliban insurgents and that an investigation has been launched.
But the death toll represents a challenge for NATO, which in recent months has adopted a more cautious approach in its operations, realizing that high numbers of civilian casualties risk alienating ordinary Afghans.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said NATO attacks resulting in civilian casualties could undermine the Afghan government's commitment to the fight against the Taliban insurgency.
"I look forward to a prompt and urgent investigation into what actually happened, because I think that given the sacrifices that NATO is making, that NATO countries are making, it's a vital time for NATO and Afghanistan's people to come together,” Milliband said.
"We have a very strong NATO commitment [and] we need a very strong Afghan commitment, and obviously incidents like this currently undermine that. That's why it's important that we are very open and clear about what happened -- and make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.
EU ministers are debating a draft EU strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on September 4 and 5. The document attempts to position the bloc and its contribution within the larger U.S.-led international effort of stabilizing the country.
Addressing the broader strategic challenges, Kouchner said the EU believes there can be "no military victory." He said "victory" in Afghanistan is only possible if the international community, together with the Afghan security forces, succeed in creating a security environment stable enough for reconstruction work to be undertaken in the provinces.
"There must be enough security, so that first a [sufficient] Afghan force, and Afghan army, an Afghan police is in place, and that we could have easier access to the civilian population in order to offer them projects which they themselves can carry out. This is the only solution," Kouchner said.
Miliband indicated the EU's ambitions run beyond providing economic assistance, encompassing a role in the political reconciliation process which must take place between the government and Taliban insurgents.
"The EU, I think, can have an important role in backing up political reintegration and reconciliation of those Taliban who are willing to live within the Afghan constitution, but also the economic and social development that Afghans want," Miliband said.
Elections 'A Success'
Kouchner said the August 20 presidential elections count as a "success" for the international community. However, he refused to comment on the lingering tensions surrounding the outcome.
The draft EU strategy for Afghanistan attaches great importance to progress in the law enforcement and justice sectors -- noting the existence of some Afghan "resistance" to ongoing reforms -- and respect for human rights, good governance, and the functioning of the rule of law in general.
Briefly touching on Iran, Miliband said the EU wants to engage Tehran in direct talks over its nuclear program, but emphasized that the EU will continue to insist the program will have no military dimension.
The host of the meeting, Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the bloc is not looking for confrontation with Iran, but noted that the "decision is Iran's."
The EU has no direct role in the process, however. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China -- together with Germany are currently examining a recent overture from Iran holding out a vague prospect of new talks.
Miliband also reiterated the EU's support for a two-state solution in the Middle East, as well as the bloc's call for Israeli settlement to stop in the West Bank.
Asked about EU-Russia relations -- not formally on the Stockholm meeting's agenda -- Kouchner noted that the relationship remains "difficult" but said dialogue remains "the only solution."
Miliband said the EU is still looking to Moscow to abide by the provisions of the Sarkozy-Medvedev accord from August 2008, which put an end to the five-day war between Russia and Georgia. The terms of the accord stipulate that both sides must return their forces to pre-conflict lines and that international monitors must have access to all of Georgia's constitutional territory. Russia has yet to meet either of these provisions.