U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will be in Italy Thursday and Friday for an informal meeting of NATO defense ministers that is expected to focus on final preparations for expanding the alliance's role in Afghanistan and for the creation of the NATO rapid response force. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin will be traveling with the secretary and filed this report on what is expected at the meeting.

A senior defense department official who spoke on condition of anonymity says the expansion of NATO operations in Afghanistan to cover the southern part of the country will present more challenges to alliance troops. NATO activity in Afghanistan has been in the north and west, where the situation is relatively quiet, and troops have focused on stability and nation-building operations. But the south has had increased insurgent activity in recent months, and the official who spoke Tuesday said the NATO troops will have to deal with that.

The deployment will add 6,000 troops to the 9,000 NATO already has in Afghanistan. It was delayed by internal political debate in the Netherlands, which will provide a substantial part of the new force, but that dispute has now been resolved.

The senior U.S. official says the NATO mission in Afghanistan must succeed in order to prove that the organization's reforms are succeeding. The official says reform will also be an important topic of discussion at the meeting in Italy, including the need for the 26 NATO members to make their forces available to the alliance without too many restrictions attached. The official says progress has been made in that regard, but more needs to be done, and more members need to be convinced that NATO's mission of providing security for Europe requires more operations outside of the continent.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee Tuesday, the NATO commander, U.S. Marine General James Jones, called for the same thing. "My feeling is, we're moving in the right direction. We need to accelerate it but, generally, this is a new concept. And I think we have two kinds of transformation in the alliance, one physical and the other cultural. What do you do with the forces you have? What is NATO willing to do with it? Are we really willing to be a pro-active alliance, which I think is really the destiny of our future operations," he said.

General Jones said NATO has made important progress in developing creative command structures and rules for participation in missions. The new procedures are designed to enable the organization to take on new missions like the one in Afghanistan, and operate effectively, while still enabling members to have some say over their own roles.

The other senior defense official, who spoke anonymously, said that is true for the new NATO rapid response force. The official says the force will have a major exercise in West Africa in June, and is supposed to be declared operational in October. But the official says NATO members have committed only about 80 per cent of the troops needed for the force, and Secretary Rumsfeld will be pressing for more commitments at this week's meeting.

The official says the Italy meeting will also include a session with the Russian defense minister, and another one with defense ministers from the seven members of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue group.

In the Russia meeting, the official says the main issues will be the sharing of radar information, strategy for fighting the drug trade in Central Asia and Afghanistan and concern over Russia's recent withholding of natural gas supplies from Ukraine in a political dispute.

The official says Russia and three of the Dialogue countries will participate for the first time later this year in a NATO counter-terrorism naval operation in the Mediterranean. The three regional countries will be Morocco, Algeria and Israel, representing what the official called a "not insignificant" moment of cooperation between Israel and the two Arab countries.