In recent days, de Hoop Scheffer has said that without concrete action to reduce civilian casualties, NATO's mission in Afghanistan is at risk of losing support from the Afghan people, the parliament, and even Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
"The Afghan people and government, with the active help of the international community, have made immense progress," de Hoop Scheffer said. "What is now needed is to help create the circumstances where progress can be sustained and reinforced."
The International Committee of the Red Cross says NATO-led forces have killed dozens of Afghan civilians this year with air strikes against armed groups that were sometimes carried out without enough precaution for nearby civilians. It also says Taliban guerrillas and their Al-Qaeda allies are responsible for many civilian deaths -- and have a responsibility not to put civilians at risk or to target them.
There are no official figures on civilian deaths in Afghanistan. But a study by the Afghan government, its key foreign backers, and the United Nations suggests that more than 3,700 people were killed by fighting in Afghanistan in 2006. The majority appear to be insurgents. But it is estimated that some 1,000 civilians were killed last year by both Taliban attacks and NATO air strikes.
NATO Assistant Secretary-General John Colston says the alliance is concentrating on four issues related to civilian casualties. Two key areas would help prevent civilian casualties. The other issues focus on how Afghan and NATO officials work together to investigate civilian casualties and compensate survivors.
"Firstly, to ensure that indeed our rules of engagement provide for a proportionate use of force which minimizes the risk of collateral damage -- of civilian casualties. Secondly, that we take this forward in a coordinated way so the Afghan national security forces, [the International Security Assistance Force], and [Operation] Enduring Freedom are operating in a coherent and coordinated fashion to minimize the risks of any misunderstanding," Colston says.
"Thirdly, if incidents do happen, that we are able to investigate them properly in close cooperation with the Afghan authorities. And fourthly, that when incidents tragically do happen, that we are able to address the consequences of such action through our humanitarian relief efforts," he adds.
Many Funds, Few Funders
In Washington, a nongovernmental organization is calling on NATO ministers to back up their public statements about humanitarian relief efforts with real funding that will help Afghans harmed by NATO combat operations.
The group, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), notes that two programs already exist to help Afghan civilians who are accidentally harmed by U.S. and NATO attacks: that is, if they are injured, killed, or suffer property damage.
In late 2006, after NATO took command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, countries in the alliance created the Post-Operations Humanitarian Relief Fund to compensate people immediately after they have suffered harm.
But only five of NATO's 26 member countries reportedly have donated to that fund.
The United States also established and funds the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program to rebuild victims' lives. But the United States remains the only donor to that project.
Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of CIVIC, says NATO ministers will miss a golden opportunity to defeat the Taliban's public-relations machine if they leave Brussels without pledging compensation and aid to ordinary Afghans caught up in the fighting.
Holewinski also says the best way to help innocent Afghan civilians is for NATO countries to contribute to a single, unified NATO trust fund -- rather than for each country to operate its own compensation scheme.
"What we don't want to see is each country taking it upon themselves to compensate and aid civilians," Holewinski says. If that happened you are "going to have it done differently all across the country. Some families will get more than others. Some families won't get anything at all, depending on where they are located. So what we need is one unified program. That means collective funding and uniform guidelines to make sure that everyone who is harmed gets the help that they need."
Improving Accuracy Of Attacks
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says NATO's first priority should be on how to avoid civilian casualties in the first place.
That means taking steps to ensure that NATO forces don't launch air strikes on the basis of inaccurate information provided by Afghan factions trying to settle long-running feuds that are unrelated to the war on terrorism.
It also means improved communication between Afghan government forces and NATO to prevent attacks on targets where Afghan troops are aware that innocent civilians reside.
Rubin agrees with Holewinski's warning about too many compensation funds being run by different NATO countries.
"There should be a single unified system because otherwise it will be very confusing," he says. "Even for illiterate Afghans to have access to a single unified system would be difficult enough. If you expect them to have to figure out the different procedures for different national systems, then it is hopeless. That will just make the situation worse."
De Hoop Scheffer and NATO defense ministers say civilian deaths caused by NATO operations are in a "separate moral category" than deaths caused by Taliban suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
De Hoop Scheffer says that is because Taliban attacks are "indiscriminate" while he says NATO does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties.
Still, there is agreement within the alliance that the growing number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is causing anger toward NATO forces in the country -- and against Karzai's government.