He has since said repeatedly that NATO "cannot afford" to fail in Afghanistan. He also said the alliance's work there will not be complete in a "year, two, or three."
The 19-member Western military alliance assumed command last summer of the UN-mandated 4,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). NATO members constitute the vast majority of ISAF troops.
But de Hoop Scheffer and others have not been clear about what constitutes success for NATO and ISAF in Afghanistan. The long-term goal appears simple -- stability and a democratic system. But the medium-term goal seems to be vaguely limited to extending NATO's presence in the country.
Here, the new secretary-general took over where his predecessor, Lord George Robertson, left off -- nagging NATO member states for helicopters, men, and materiel. The task does not appear to have become any easier in the past few months.
Speaking with RFE/RL yesterday, de Hoop Scheffer painted a picture of slow, if steady, progress toward goals that appear deliberately short on ambition. "What NATO is doing in Afghanistan is trying in more regions than just Kabul -- and Konduz is the first city where there is a first so-called Provincial Reconstruction Team [PRT] where ISAF has taken responsibility -- NATO's ambition is to have more of these PRTs under ISAF's, under NATO's, responsibility," he said. "NATO's job is to create security and stability in -- I'm not going to say in the [entire] country -- but in the regions where NATO is, and that has only been Kabul up to now. And we're trying to have more Provincial Reconstruction Teams and to spread security and stability into the provinces, starting in the north."
UN and EU officials have already indicated the security situation in Afghanistan will not permit credible elections to be held before autumn. Parliamentary and presidential elections had been tentatively scheduled for June.
But elections are only part of Afghanistan's problem. In the background looms the growing drug trade. Drug proceeds are now equal to half the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The NATO chief acknowledges that security and stability in Afghanistan are intricately intertwined with the drug problem. However, de Hoop Scheffer says NATO will take no responsibility for battling Afghanistan's drug trade, saying that is not part of ISAF's mandate.
"We have to be aware that NATO is not responsible -- or ISAF -- for everything which is happening in Afghanistan. That is certainly not the ambition. Counternarcotics is not in the ISAF mandate. You know that the U.K. is the lead nation, the UN is playing a big role, and first of all, the Afghan government, under [the leadership] of [Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid] Karzai, is of course [the] first responsible for counternarcotics. So, let's not confuse mandates," de Hoop Scheffer said.
De Hoop Scheffer did not say whether Karzai, whose influence does not extend far beyond Kabul, has the power to adequately address the problem.
Turning to other issues of NATO concern, de Hoop Scheffer expressed cautious support for recent U.S. attempts to launch a global initiative for the modernization of the Greater Middle East. "NATO is in favor of a Greater Middle East initiative -- I should say initiatives, because there are, of course, more than one," he said. "Of course, where NATO would have added value -- I mean, NATO is not the EU, NATO is not OSCE -- but where NATO has added value, I think, I look at the Greater Middle East initiatives from a very positive angle, underlining the fact and stressing that, of course, there should be ownership in the region, in the sense that I would like to know what the countries in the region want."
In stressing that all Western activity in the region must be a "two-way street," the NATO secretary-general repeated a key warning issued in recent weeks by EU officials. And, as in the case of the EU, de Hoop Scheffer notes that any new initiatives should take account of existing NATO work with countries in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. He says NATO's ambitions in the region are not yet clear and adds discussions will continue in the run-up to the alliance's Istanbul summit in June.
Inevitably, one of the largest challenges that continues to face the alliance is its relationship with Russia. The scheduled accession of seven new member states on 2 April has escalated the simmering row over the ratification of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE).
The CFE Treaty is meant to set equal limits for East and West on key conventional armaments essential for surprise attacks or initiating large-scale offensive operations. The treaty was adapted in 1999 to take into account the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the planned NATO entry of some formerly communist countries.
But the treaty cannot be ratified until Russia complies with its 1999 commitments to withdraw troops and armaments from Moldova and Georgia. Russia, in turn, has warned that the Baltic states must not become host to any NATO bases or hardware -- and is unlikely to withdraw from Georgia and Moldova until it receives assurances there will be no NATO military buildup in the Baltics.
De Hoop Scheffer said this is "a tough nut to crack,” adding that he is traveling to Moscow late this month in an attempt to soothe Russian concerns. His task may be complicated by NATO's impending decision to extend peacetime air-policing activities to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Officials have told RFE/RL this is likely to involve the creation of a NATO air base in Lithuania that will be home to six fighter jets.
On the prospects of NATO cooperation with the three South Caucasus countries -- another source of tension in NATO-Russia relations -- de Hoop Scheffer struck a cautious note. "[The South] Caucasus is a very important partnership for NATO," he said. "You know that NATO has all kinds of roads leading to what I call closer integration to the Euro-Atlantic structures. NATO will continue its open-door policy."
Asked about the eventual possibility of a NATO-led peacekeeping force policing trouble spots like Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh, de Hoop Scheffer said this is a distant prospect.