US president, NATO Chief Claim High Ground in Afghanistan

( LatWp ) - President Bush and the secretary-general of NATO defended the alliance Monday in the face of growing concern over civilian deaths in Afghanistan, arguing that their troops hold the moral high ground against the Taliban.

NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that while alliance forces try to avoid civilian casualties, they are sometimes unavoidable.

``But let me tell you one thing: We are not in the same moral category as our opponents, the Taliban, in Afghanistan,'' he said, with Bush at his side during a news conference in a rough-hewn patch of mowed lawn and weeds outside the president's office here. ``We don't behead people. We don't burn schools. We don't kill teachers. We don't plant roadside bombs. We don't send in suicide bombers.''

The alliance forces in Afghanistan include U.S. units and troops from 25 other countries.

Complaints by Afghans have grown in recent months along with a resurgence of Taliban activity and an increase in civilian casualties. Many complaints have centered on recent U.S. and NATO operations, including the deaths of 50 villagers reported kill during airstrikes in western Afghanistan and a Marine unit's attack on a group of Afghans in March that left 19 civilians dead and 50 wounded.

Bush said the Taliban had surrounded itself with civilians used as ``human shields.''

De Hoop Scheffer and his wife, Jeannine de Hoop Scheffer-van Oorschot, spent the night at the guesthouse at Bush's 1,583-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch, accepting an invitation the president has offered to only a few foreign dignitaries. The visit signaled the importance that the White House has attached to the U.S. relationship with NATO.

The two leaders rode mountain bikes in the morning between their meetings, crossing terrain dotted with wildflowers and yellow blooms on low-lying cactus.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is playing a key role in two central elements in the Bush foreign policy: Afghanistan and the establishment of a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, a project opposed by Russian President Vladimir I. Putin.

The Bush administration says the anti-missile weapons are intended to protect the U.S. and its European allies from long-range missiles from countries such as Iran. The Kremlin says it threatens Russia's strategic deterrent.

Afghanistan is the most troubling issue NATO faces at the moment. Roughly 37,000 troops, including 15,000 Americans, are fighting the insurgency led by the Taliban, a radical Islamic movement driven from power by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The sleepover summit was just one of a series of international meetings on Bush's schedule this spring during a period of intense diplomatic efforts. He held a farewell meeting last week with departing British Prime Minister Tony Blair and embarks early next month on a weeklong visit to Europe built around the annual meeting of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations, which takes place in Germany.

That trip includes three stops in Eastern Europe: in Poland, Bulgaria and, for the first time on an American president's schedule, Albania. Throughout his presidency, Bush has received warmer receptions in Eastern Europe than in Western countries, where there is far greater dispute with his foreign policies.

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