U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday the conflict in Afghanistan is an important test of the credibility of the NATO alliance. Rice told a U.S. military audience in Alabama the allied mission in Afghanistan is one of necessity, not choice. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Afghan conflict has been an issue of contention within NATO, with some members refusing to send combat troops or limiting their forces to relatively secure areas.

U.S. officials reported some progress on the issue at the recent Bucharest summit. But in her comments Monday at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force in Montgomery, Alabama, Rice made clear the alliance can still do more collectively.

She said the United States and its allies all have a "vital interest" in victory by the Western-backed Afghan government over Taliban insurgents, and that the stakes in the conflict "could be not higher:"

"Success in Afghanistan is an important test of the credibility of NATO. Let no one forget: Afghanistan is a mission of necessity, not a mission of choice. That county must never again become a haven for the kind of terrorists who attacked America on September 11th, who have attacked our friends and our allies repeatedly, and who seek to do us all even greater harm," she said.

Rice said the Afghan conflict is a "hard counter-insurgency fight," not a peacekeeping operation.

She said the Taliban, rather than offering any real political vision for the country, aims to undermine the Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai, fracture the Western coalition, and as she put it, "outlast us."

She said success in Afghanistan will "roll back" the drug trade there, resist de-stabilizing behavior by Iran, and anchor the growth of political and economic liberty in South and Central Asia.

Rice, who was given an honorary degree from the U.S. Air Force's international Air University, also stressed the Bush administration's determination to build good relations with Pakistan's new coalition government.

Questioned by a Pakistani officer who suggested the United States has been too closely tied to Pakistan's autocracy, Rice said the formation of a broad-based Pakistani government, despite extremist threats, is a "terrific step" for the Pakistani people:

"I believe that the coming of a democratic government in Pakistan is a new strategic opportunity. It is an opportunity for an ally in the war on terror," said Rice. "But remember that our answer to terrorism is not just to fight the terrorists, it is to deal with the conditions that produce terrorism, and the absence of freedom is one of the conditions that produces terrorism. Perhaps the most important condition is the absence of freedom."

Rice said in her prepared remarks that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. But she said the United States pushed hard for an end to the state of emergency he declared late last year and for the free and fair elections in February that yielded the new government.