NATO defense ministers met in Italy Thursday to discuss further expanding the alliance's role in Afghanistan, final preparations for a new rapid reaction force and other issues officials described as important in shaping NATO's role in the 21st Century.

The ministers appear to have stayed close to the plan set out by senior officials in recent days. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said some nations made new or increased pledges for the NATO rapid reaction force, which is to become operational in October. But he could not say whether the force now has all the commitments it needs. Earlier in the week, a senior U.S. official said the force had about 80-percent of the resources it needs.

The ministers also discussed NATO's plan to take control of security and stability operations in southern Afghanistan in the middle of this year. Secretary Rumsfeld said NATO's Afghanistan effort is an example of the kind of operations the alliance needs to conduct in order to do what is necessary in today's world. "There's a reason NATO is involved in Afghanistan, and that's that this is the 21st Century, problems are not specifically nation-state problems. They're not specifically even regional problems. In many instances they're global problems. And it requires an alliance like NATO to evolve and adjust and face the challenges that exist in this new century," he said.

The NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer expressed a similar view at the meeting's opening. "Our meetings this year, culminating in the summit, must enable the alliance to continue to remain a flexible and effective instrument to safeguard the security of its members, and to promote stability and security ever more broadly and widely," he said.

The NATO defense ministers will meet with their Russian counterpart on Friday, and also with seven Mediterranean countries that are in a NATO dialogue group. The seven nations, six Arab countries and Israel, will for the first time participate in a NATO counter-terrorism operation in the Mediterranean in a few months, and Russia will, too.