Speaking ahead of the two-day meeting, NATO officials have been quick to dismiss a recent suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States place its planned missile-defense installations in Azerbaijan and possibly Turkey instead of Poland and the Czech Republic.Problems With Russian Suggestion
In an apparent reference to Iran, NATO's Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a conference organized by the Brussels-based Security and Defense Agenda think tank on June 8 that placing a radar in Azerbaijan would put it "too close to rogue states."
Briefing journalists on the NATO meeting on June 11, John Colston, NATO's assistant secretary-general for defense policy and planning, said that the "first impression is that a radar in Azerbaijan might actually be too close to the presumed sources of threat to be as efficient as a radar positioned slightly further away."
However, NATO officials are careful to stress that final decisions on where the installations will be located rest with Washington and that the missile shield, once operational, would be under U.S., not NATO control.
NATO's defense ministers -- among them U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- will have an opportunity to discuss the issue during a meeting with their Russian colleague, Anatoly Serdyukov, on June 14. Russia maintains the U.S. plans are designed to blunt its own nuclear strike capability and has threatened to again start targeting Europe.
One NATO official told RFE/RL privately that the radar base the Russians are offering in Azerbaijan, built in 1984, is thought to be obsolete and incompatible with U.S. systems. Both a radar in the Czech Republic and a base for interceptor missiles in Poland are felt to be ideally placed, although the United States has reportedly expressed interest in setting up a forward-based radar in the Caucasus.
The official said Putin's proposal, made at last week's Group of Eight (G8) summit, was an attempt "to muddy the waters" and exploit divisions among the NATO allies -- some of whom have questioned the U.S. choice of Poland and the Czech Republic.
The NATO defense ministers' meeting will also study plans for its own additional missile shield for a number of Southern European allies who will not be covered by the U.S. project. No decision is expected before 2008.Difficulties In Afghanistan
The other major topic on the ministers' agenda will be Afghanistan. On June 15, they will also meet with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
ISAF has faced a difficulties in the last few months (epa file photo)
On June 8, de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was facing an uphill struggle in the country.
"In Afghanistan, NATO's most important operation, we have had some difficult, testing months -- and, I should add, some bad press as well," he said. "Especially in the south of the country, many of our forces have been engaged, and are engaged as we speak, in serious combat to counter the Taliban and to provide greater security."
Providing security presents the alliance with a double challenge. First, NATO needs to shore up the support of the Afghans, which it fears is being eroded by the increasing numbers of civilian casualties.
De Hoop Scheffer underscored in his speech that attacks by insurgents claimed many more lives than NATO operations, which he said took great care to spare civilians.Better Communication, Training Needed
However, the problem is seen as acute by NATO. Assistant Secretary-General Colston said on June 11 that the alliance's defense ministers will look at four main issues -- ensuring that "proportional force" is used to counter the insurgents, securing better coordination between international and Afghan security forces, speeding up investigations of the incidents that do occur, and ensuring that NATO fully addresses the humanitarian consequences of its attacks.
Secondly, longer-term security in Afghanistan will require stepping up the training and equipping of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. Both are needed to hold and secure areas cleared of insurgents by the NATO-led international troops.
Colston said that police training especially has not yielded good results, describing as "a reasonably well-founded perception" that the national police "development" has not been "making the kind of progress that either the Afghan or the international community would wish." He said the "ambition is to have around 82,000 police officers," while currently there are only about 40,000.
Colston welcomed a recent EU decision to send upward of 160 police trainers to Afghanistan this month. A larger U.S. training contingent has already been present in the country for some time.
NATO officials say they also want the EU and other international organizations to do more to help rebuild and rehabilitate the areas held by NATO and the Afghan National Army.
But one official admitted that NATO and the EU were facing a vicious circle in the less stable areas -- while visible reconstruction efforts would help boost security, foreign officials and workers would still face unacceptable risks in many areas, especially in the troubled south.
AN RFE/RL VIDEO PRESENTATION: The Czech Republic responds to the U.S. missile-defense proposal.