BRUSSELS -- NATO's secretary-general has described Western military operations in Afghanistan as being key to nudging the Taliban toward reconciliation.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen's comments came after Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the weekend urged the United States to scale back its military operations in his country, saying night raids on Afghan homes were making the situation worse.
Speaking in Brussels today, Rasmussen said there was "no alternative" to Western military operations.
"I consider it of the utmost importance to continue our military operations, because the fact is it is the increasing military pressure on the Taliban and the Taliban leadership that has stimulated the reconciliation talks," Rasmussen said.
"The Washington Post" reported today that U.S. General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, expressed "astonishment and disappointment" at Karzai's call to "reduce military operations."
That call was interpreted in Washington as applying to the short term. "The Washington Post" said in its story that Petraeus warned a senior Karzai adviser on November 14 that the president's own position risked becoming "untenable."
Rasmussen today sought to play down the apparent rift.
He said he could not agree with everything the Afghan leader said. But he argued that Karzai's words mirror NATO's intention to hand over security responsibilities to Kabul by 2014 -- a plan to be formalized at the alliance summit in Lisbon this weekend.
"I've read carefully what President Karzai actually said and in fact the thrust of his comments goes exactly in the direction we wish to move as well -- towards greater Afghan leadership of military operations and a transition to a supporting role for international forces," Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen sought to cast Karzai's comments as in a longer-term perspective. He repeated the standard NATO position that lead responsibility for security will start being handed over to Afghan forces early next year, as and where conditions allow.
Assuming the Afghan National Army and police are able to handle that responsibility, the process will be finalized in 2014. That is also the date when the United States and Britain reportedly plan to end their combat missions in the country.
Many Western observers have over the past weeks and months cast doubt on the Afghan forces' ability to withstand insurgent attacks in the short and medium term.
Karzai is due to participate in the NATO summit in Lisbon this weekend, which is expected to formally confirm that the transition to an Afghan lead in security matters will begin before next year.
Commenting on other summit goals, Rasmussen said he expected NATO to agree to set up a joint missile-defense shield. The NATO chief also said he hoped Russia -- whose President Dmitry Medvedev will be present in Lisbon -- would agree to cooperate with the alliance on missile defense.
Rasmussen today declined to identify individual countries considered by NATO to pose a missile threat. In the past, he has pointed the finger at Iran, among others.
The alliance will also adopt a new strategic concept, aimed at preparing NATO for what are known among the allies as the "21st-century challenges" -- chief among them terrorism, cyberattacks, and energy security.
Queried on further NATO enlargement, Rasmussen said the summit would continue an "open doors" policy. This means, he said, that both Georgia and Ukraine, among others, can join the alliance -- provided both countries and NATO itself are ready.
However, Rasmussen said, the eventual summit statement was likely to recognize the new Ukrainian leadership's unwillingness to continue pursuing that goal.