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    US Proposes Afghanistan Conference

    NATO foreign ministers agreed to resume high-level talks with Russia, despite remaining differences. Also on Thursday, the United States proposed a special international meeting on Afghanistan, possibly the end of March. The ministers met throughout the day at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

    It was a whirl of closed-door meetings at NATO headquarters that sometimes included intense debate, especially about relations with Russia.

    The issue was whether to resume formal, high-level contacts with Russia after a seven-month suspension.  

    Some East European NATO members fear that resuming contacts might signal a weakening of Western resolve to stand up to Moscow.

    But in the end, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the issue was resolved.

    "Ministers reached agreement to formally resume the NATO-Russia Council," he said.

    He predicted a ministerial level meeting soon after NATO's 60th anniversary summit in early April.

    The reason for the decision seemed clear.

    "Russia is an important player," he said. "Russia is a global player. And that means that not talking to them is not an option."

    NATO suspended high level talks of the NATO-Russia Council in protest over Russia's military action in Georgia last August and its subsequent recognition of two breakaway Georgian enclaves.

    Those differences and others still remain, said Scheffer.

    "Were we disagree and we go on disagreeing is Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, its intention to build bases there - part of Georgian territory - let's not forget that," he said.

    U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first visit to NATO as America's top diplomat, said she understands some members' concerns about dealing with Russia. But Clinton stressed there was also much common ground.

    "We have areas where we believe we not only can, but must, cooperate with Russia - non-proliferation, arms control, anti-terrorism, anti-piracy efforts," she said.

    Secretary Clinton is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.

    NATO members also welcomed Russia's offer to help with opening up new supply lines into Afghanistan - another area that figured prominently in Thursday's discussions.

    Clinton announced that the United States wants to see, what she called, a "big tent" international conference on Afghanistan to include NATO members, donors and neighboring countries, including Iran.

    "We have presented this idea, which is being discussed - nothing has been decided - as a way of bringing all the stake-holders and interested parties together," she said. "If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited as a neighbor of Afghanistan"

    Clinton said the United States believes that a greater regional effort is crucial and she said that includes dealing strategically with Afghanistan and Pakistan together.

    "It is clear that the border areas between the two countries are the real locus of a lot for the extremist activity," she said. "It's becoming obvious that Pakistan faces very serious internal threats and that Afghanistan faces continuing external threats that emanate out of Pakistan."

    The United States has pledged another 17,000 troops for Afghanistan, and other NATO members are being asked for further contributions.

    However, the U.S. and NATO are stressing that it is not only the military effort that is needed in Afghanistan, but also development and civilian help.  

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