When NATO leaders hold their summit this April 3-4 one of the key issues will be Afghanistan. The alliance took responsibility for the main international effort in the country two-and-a-half years ago, with mixed results. And, Afghanistan may have had as much of an impact on the alliance as NATO has had on Afghanistan.
The NATO mission in Afghanistan was supposed to ease the burden on the United States, speed the day when Afghanistan would be peaceful and prosperous, and define a new 21st century mission for an alliance founded to fight the Cold War.
Instead, the United States continues to shoulder most of the military burden, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and the effort has raised questions about NATO's ability to succeed in a tough fight far from its own borders in Europe and North America.
"NATO has always had its ups and downs, and I think any rumors now that it's in grave peril are a bit over exaggerated," said Sally McNamara, a British analyst based at Washington's Heritage Foundation.
"I think rumors of NATO's death have always been a bit fanciful," she added. "The core mission of NATO has always been to protect the members. And so what Afghanistan means really is they're going out of area to protect the members. I don't think this should be seen as anything radical. It's just an adaptation to the environment we face."
McNamara says Europeans need to remember that their troops were sent to Afghanistan to fight terrorists who could, and already have, attacked Europe.
But taking NATO's mission outside its home area proved difficult in military and political terms. Many NATO countries could only offer very limited numbers of troops. Others put restrictions on how their troops could be used, and how much danger their missions could involve. And many governments in NATO countries were limited in what they could do in Afghanistan by strong public opposition.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamented the situation during a speech in Britain last October.
"Despite the best intentions of allied governments and militaries, and despite having more than two million men and women in uniform among NATO's European members, the Alliance nonetheless struggles to scrape together a few thousand more troops and a few dozen helicopters for our commanders in Afghanistan," he said.
In fact, the United States and a handful of other members continue to do most of the fighting, and take most of the casualties, in Afghanistan, while other NATO countries patrol relatively peaceful areas or send civilian assistance. Sally McNamara calls that "absolutely not" acceptable.
"We have always wondered about what a two-tier alliance would look like, and a two-tier alliance is essentially an alliance split," she said. "We have to say to countries, if you want to be in this alliance, if you want to have the benefits of it, then you have to share the costs."
Secretary Gates has also urged NATO not to become a "talk shop," and he spent much of his first year in office, 2007, trying to convince the allies to send more troops to Afghanistan. But last year he began to change his tune, apparently accepting that some allies simply can not get over the problems that keep their troop numbers low and the restrictions on their use high. So Secretary Gates says he had a different message for his counterparts at the most recent meeting of NATO's defense ministers in Poland in February.
"My focus at Krakow for all of our partners was really more on what could be done in terms of civilian capacity, whether to help governance or police training or economic development and so on," he said.
Experts say Afghanistan needs such civilian experts to help with governance and development as much as it needs foreign troops to train its forces and help establish security. European allies will likely be pleased about that.
At the U.S. National Defense University, Professor Hans Bennendijk says NATO leaders need to make a new effort to convince their people that the alliance is relevant to their own security, and is not only focused on Afghanistan.
"It is important not to have the people of the alliance believe that the NATO alliance is all about Afghanistan," he said. "In a sense we have to bring NATO home. We have to remind the people of the alliance that there are still a number of security challenges within Europe and within the United States and Canada, the treaty area, that need to be tended to."
Analysts say the NATO summit will be an important juncture as the alliance continues to chart its way forward and define its new missions. But first, experts say, it needs to finish what it started in Afghanistan. Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the arrival in Europe of a new American president could go a long way in that regard, if he has a good plan.
"To the extent that President Obama goes to meet with his NATO counterparts and he has a credible plan, a plan that they think has a chance of working in some finite period of time, that's going to increase the likelihood of European buy-in," he said.
It is a plan senior officials of the new administration have been working on for weeks, and which President Obama will have to finalize and convincingly present to the allies at the summit.