NATO defense ministers will review procedures in Afghanistan on Thursday as part of efforts to halt a wave of civilian casualties threatening to undermine public support for foreign peacekeepers there.
NATO peace efforts in Afghanistan, vital to the credibility of the 49-year-old Western alliance, will be the centerpiece of talks in Brussels where US defense Secretary Robert Gates will also sound out his Russian counterpart on a surprise Kremlin offer of help for a US missile shield plan.
US forces on Tuesday mistakenly killed seven policemen in an air strike in the east of Afghanistan and the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Western forces must do more to prevent civilian casualties when bombing insurgents.
NATO commanders say some of the incidents are the result of poor coordination with Afghan forces and a separate, US-led coalition. But they recognize procedures must be tightened, accidents investigated more quickly and humanitarian help offered to victims.
"Broadly speaking we think the necessary arrangements are in place now. It is a question of making sure they are working," said one senior alliance diplomat before ministers discuss the issue on Thursday.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on Monday that dozens of recent casualties risked hitting Afghan and European public support for the presence of some 50,000 NATO and US-led troops at a critical time in the battle against Taliban and other insurgents.
Allies with soldiers on the ground say they are doing all they can to avoid such casualties but insist that some are inevitable given insurgent tactics, citing for example the use of civilians as human shields.
"We are not in the same moral universe as them. They are trying to draw civilian casualties to break our will and weaken the support of the Afghan people," a senior US official said.
Gates will call for others in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to offer army trainers to be directly inserted into Afghan units in a bid to boost the efficiency of the Afghan army. Some pledges are expected at the Brussels talks, with others to follow.
NATO allies are also expected to agree to explore options for complementing a U.S. missile shield in eastern Europe aimed at pre-empting missile threats from Iran and the Middle East, but which would not protect a swathe of southeast Europe.
Some NATO nations want agreement by an alliance summit next April to build so-called "bolt-on" shield components to plug those gaps, but there is no consensus yet on how much it would cost and who would pay.
Gates will meet his Russian counterpart but diplomats doubt there will be an early agreement on President Vladimir Putin's offer to share a Russian-controlled radar in Azerbaijan for missile defense.
US officials said they see the offer, which took the West by surprise at a Group of Eight (G8) summit last week, as a sign Putin wants to end months of corrosive attacks on the shield plan and recognizes scope to work jointly on missile threats.
They have avoided detailed public analysis of the offer, although some experts say the Azeri radar is simply too close to any missile threat to effectively pre-empt it, and have proposed expert-level discussions with Russian officials.