(RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers have begun a two-day meeting against the backdrop of escalating violence in Afghanistan.
The United States says it will use the meeting in Budapest to appeal to members of the 26-member alliance to send more troops to fight Taliban insurgents.
Commanders of the 50,700-strong NATO force in Afghanistan are seeking up to 12,000 more troops, but Washington's European allies have been reluctant to commit additional numbers.
Addressing Hungarian troops in Budapest, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stressed the importance of the alliance's mission in Afghanistan.
"I know from my own experience in Afghanistan just how difficult and challenging the conditions are," de Hoop Scheffer said. "But I also know that our security presence there is not just making a difference in the lives of the Afghan people, it is also increasing our security at home."
The United States says it plans to increase its forces in Afghanistan from the present 33,000.
On October 7, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet approved an increase to the German forces in Afghanistan by 1,000, bringing that country's total troop strength to 4,500. Berlin, however, has so far resisted Washington's appeals for German troops to be stationed in the volatile south.
Washington has also asked Japan and NATO allies not sending troops to help pay the estimated $17 billion needed to build the Afghan National Army achieve a target strength of 134,000.
In addition to seeking additional troops, NATO commanders are also seeking to better equip their forces and address shortfalls in key areas such as helicopters.
NATO's military commander, U.S. General John Craddok, and Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Rahim Wardak are also expected to call for a more aggressive fight against the opium trade that helps finance the Taliban insurgency.Russian Relations
The alliance will also discuss how to deal with a resurgent Russia. And it will consider how to rebuild Georgia's military, which was badly damaged in its war with Russia in August.
Georgia and Ukraine are seeking NATO membership, which Moscow staunchly opposes.
General Craddok is seeking to draft plans to defend new NATO members such as the Baltic states should they come under attack from Russia. The idea, however, has met resistance from Germany and France, who are concerned about antagonizing Moscow.
Speaking at an international conference on October 8 in Evian, France, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev argued for a new European security architecture, saying that "no single state or international organization can have exclusive rights to maintain peace and stability in Europe." The idea has gained little traction in Western capitals.
Medvedev also warned against further expansion of the alliance, saying that NATO "is moving its military infrastructure right up to the borders of our country and is drawing new dividing lines in Europe, now along our western and southern borders. And, whatever they say, it is quite natural that we consider these actions as actions directed against us."with agency reports