Against the backdrop of rising casualty figures in Afghanistan, NATO defense ministers will meet in the Polish city of Krakow on Thursday for informal talks preceding NATO's 60th birthday bash summit in early April.
The NATO alliance is facing many challenges around the world
No hard decisions are expected to come out of Krakow, but ministers nevertheless face a heavy workload.
These range from a review of NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo to the possible extension of anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, closer ties with Georgia and Ukraine and cooling relations with Russia, which the meetings' hosts view as a growing threat to Eastern Europe.
The Afghan talks will be attended by officials from ISAF's 41 contributing nations, as well as by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide of Norway.
Both guests will want to hear what NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has to say about the worryingly high number of civilian casualties.
A record death toll is a major obstacle to NATO's conquering of Afghan hearts and minds
According to United Nations estimates published in Kabul on Tuesday, the toll of Afghanistan's civilian death by military action rose by 40 percent last year, to 2,118, the highest figure since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
The UN blamed just over half of the killings on insurgent groups. A further 39 percent were blamed on Afghan or international forces.
NATO has put the number of Afghan civilians killed by its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at just 97. It accuses the Taliban of causing bloodshed by using civilians as human shields.
"Reducing civilian casualties is a clear priority for NATO," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday.
Take, hold, build
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, this time working for President Barack Obama rather than George W Bush, will likely reiterate US calls for allies to boost troop levels, so that ISAF can improve its "take, hold, build" success rate in Taliban-infested areas.
President Obama is increasing US presence in Afghanistan
Obama announced on Tuesday he would be sending an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan.
And while European ministers will keenly want to learn details of Obama's planned review of his country's overall Afghan strategy, discussions will likely focus on the need to provide more trainers to the local army and police and on ways of helping the country stage its presidential elections on August 20, diplomats said.
Germany, which is ISAF's third-largest contributor with about 3,500 troops, has already announced the temporary deployment of an additional battalion, consisting of 600 soldiers, to help provide security during the vote.
A similar announcement from Britain is expected "very soon," one diplomat said.
Alarm bells have also been ringing at NATO's headquarters in Brussels over an agreement between Muslim hardliners and Pakistan's provincial government. It would allow the enforcement of Islamic laws in the restive Swat Valley, a lawless tribal area next to the Afghan border.
NATO was founded 60 years ago
"Without doubting the good faith and efforts of the Pakistani government," Appathurai said, "we would all be concerned by a situation in which extremists were to have safe haven."
Thursday and Friday's talks take place in Poland -- a founding member of NATO's Cold War-era foe, the Warsaw Pact -- which is now solidly in the Western camp.
In fact, the meeting marks the 10th anniversary of Poland's entry into NATO and comes amid growing concern in Central and Eastern Europe about a resurgent Russia following its war against Georgia.
The event's organization has been scaled down due to the economic and financial crisis. Nonetheless, police are to be tested by planned anti-NATO protests by some 1,000 anarchists.
Though officials insist talks on the next NATO chief are not on the agenda, the hosts will likely seize on the occasion to promote the candidacy of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski.
Sikorski faces competition from former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday he was not interested in the job, despite being considered by many as the favorite to replace Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman.