US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will give details of her plans for Afghanistan to eager NATO foreign ministers at a meeting Thursday, March 5. The alliance is also expected to reopen talks with Russia.
Clinton said she was ready to listen to what America's allies have to say
The meeting in Brussels is the first by the United States' new chief diplomat, who kicked off her maiden voyage to Europe with a trans-Atlantic dinner hosted by the Belgian government on Wednesday evening.
Thursday's NATO ministers' meeting takes place as US President Barack Obama prepares to deploy 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan and is busy putting the finishing touches to its strategic review of the war against the Taliban insurgency as the main contributor to NATO's operations in the country.
However, senior US officials at NATO said ahead of the meeting that Clinton was also keen to "listen to our allies, to consult, to take part in an effort of building a strong consensus, a strong sense of solidarity and shared commitment."
Obama's election was warmly welcomed in Europe, where hopes are high that he will bring new momentum to diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts around the world.
Clinton is expected to "underscore some of the emerging thoughts from the new administration about how we are looking at some of the challenges," including Afghanistan and eastern Europe, US officials told the German dpa news agency.
Election in Afghanistan NATO's main topic
NATO is considering troop levels ahead of Afghan elections in August
NATO officials say much of Thursday morning's discussions will be devoted to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and its role in the Aug. 20 presidential and provincial elections.
The alliance's commanders have called for the deployment of four additional battalions in the country's south, north and west to protect voters from possible Taliban attacks during the election.
NATO officials also welcomed a decision by the country's Independent Election Committee on Wednesday not to bring forward the poll, as had been requested by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying it would give the alliance the time needed to boost its security measures.
But signs of warming relations between Washington and Brussels are also evident in foreign ministers' likely decision to resume direct talks with Russia.
Re-establishing direct talks with Russia
Official talks between Russia and NATO are likely to restart
The main forum for such talks, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), was suspended by the alliance in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war in August and Moscow's subsequent recognition of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
But there is now a growing consensus within the 26-member alliance that such meetings should resume.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who plans to brief ministers about his recent talks with Russian officials, "hopes that tomorrow's meeting will lead to a decision to re-engage in the NRC," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai.
"There are clear areas where NATO and Russia need to engage more fully -- on Afghanistan, terrorism and in other areas," Appathurai reporters, adding that a formal ambassadorial level meeting of the NATO-Russia Council could happen "very, very quickly."
At the same time, the resumption of NRC meetings would "in no way diminish" NATO's condemnation of the August conflict and Russia's plans to build up its military presence in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Appathurai said.
Missile defense differences
The NATO meeting is part of Clinton's first trip to Europe as secretary of state
Despite the NRC freeze, NATO and Russia are already actively cooperating in several areas, including in Afghanistan and on international counter-piracy missions.
Tension between Moscow and Washington has also been eased by Obama's suggestion this week that preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon would diminish the need for the United States to base a missile-defense system in eastern Europe.
Plans by former US President George W. Bush to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic had drawn strong criticisms from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, with Moscow viewing the deployment as a threat to its own strategic nuclear deterrent.
Thursday's is the last high-level NATO meeting before the alliance celebrates its 60th birthday at a summit in Strasbourg and its German suburb of Kehl on April 3-4.