tampabay.com

Afghanistan tops Bush's agenda at ranch

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 21, 2007


CRAWFORD, Texas - A relaxed President Bush welcomed NATO's top diplomat to his ranch Sunday for talks to be dominated by the surging violence in Afghanistan.

Bush and first lady Laura Bush greeted Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and his wife, Jeannine, after the guests arrived by helicopter.

The invitation for an overnight stay at the ranch is considered a coup, a way for the White House to underscore its commitment to NATO and its leader, de Hoop Scheffer.

Afghanistan's struggles are likely to be a leading topic discussed today.

In Afghanistan, more than 1, 600 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to U.S., NATO and Afghan figures. The mounting death toll has fueled distrust of international forces and U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

"It's a very high priority for us, just on a humanitarian level, " White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Sunday about the civilian casualties. "It's a high priority for us on a hearts-and-minds level: We don't want to see any erosion of support from the civilian population."

Fratto said the blame lies with Taliban militants who use civilians as shields. "This is a clear, express tactic of the enemy to put civilians in harm's way, " he said.

The role of the 26-nation alliance in the war in Afghanistan remains a sensitive matter.

The Bush administration is urging some European allies to provide more troops to fight Taliban forces and to lift restrictions on how and where soldiers can fight.

Politicians in the United States, Canada, Britain and other nations with troops in south Afghanistan have been annoyed by the reluctance of some European allies to commit extra soldiers to the roughly 37, 000-strong NATO force.