President Bush and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer yesterday discussed how the Taliban has begun using Afghan civilians as human shields.
In a meeting at the White House, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said that he was saddened by recent deaths of Afghans and that the alliance is committed to defending democracy in the nation once ruled by the repressive Taliban regime.
The White House said the two leaders did not discuss NATO troop levels or the suspension of two German soldiers in connection with photographs of troops posing with human skulls.
“What they did talk about is that fact that the Taliban have begun using innocent civilians as human shields,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said about the Oval Office meeting, which lasted about an hour.
“Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer was really adamant about the kind of atrocities that are now being practiced by the Taliban and the importance of continued pressure on them,” Mr. Snow said.
NATO expanded its mission this year from the relatively stable northern and western parts of the country to far more dangerous areas in the south, where Taliban militia have been most active since a U.S.-led coalition drove them from the seat of power, Kabul, in 2001. Some 32,000 NATO-led troops are serving in the most dangerous areas of the insurgency-wracked nation.
Yesterday, a roadside blast ripped through a pickup truck in southern Afghanistan, killing 14 villagers who were traveling to a provincial capital for holiday celebrations. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Kandahar, mourners attended a prayer ceremony in memory of civilians killed during NATO operations Tuesday in the nearby Panjwayi district.
NATO said its initial reports found that 12 civilians were killed, but Afghan officials estimated the number of civilians killed at between 30 and 80, including many women and children.
“That’s a tragedy, but let me convince you to look at the broader picture,” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said. “[Members of the Taliban] are against democracy. Girls did not go to school when the Taliban was running Afghanistan. Now they go to school. Now there is a precedent. Now there is a government.
“NATO is delivering security,” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said.
Mr. Bush thanked the NATO secretary-general for leading 26 nations of NATO into Afghanistan, and for reaching out to other nations that share its values but have not been considered a part of NATO.
“You know what I know: That the real challenge for the future is to help people of moderation and young democracies succeed in the face of threats and attacks by radicals and extremists who do not share our ideology, have kind of a dark vision of the world,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, fresh from a visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, is in Washington for talks about matters including the NATO chief’s wish for closer relations between the alliance and Russia.
Russia signed a partnership agreement with NATO in 2002, outlining cooperation in counterterrorism, nonproliferation, peacekeeping and other fields. At the same time, Mr. Putin’s government has continued to make public his opposition to the alliance’s eastward expansion.
That expansion has included absorption of countries that were part of the former Soviet Union — the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and former members of NATO’s Cold War nemesis, the Warsaw Pact: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.