Ever since the cold war ended, NATO has been faced with the "what's our purpose" question. So far, the transatlantic military alliance has artfully dodged it. When its 26 heads of state meet in Latvia this week, they'll probably dodge it again; at their peril.
Originally, the summit was expected to address the transformation of the alliance – to set its course for the new demands of the 21st century. That's been pushed aside by division among NATO members about the "purpose" question, and by the pressing issue of Afghanistan, where NATO leads about 32,000 troops.
As it turns out, the subject highest on the summit agenda – stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan – is the very one that demands an answer to NATO's existential question. If not this year, then very soon.
When the alliance formed in 1949, the original 12 members – the US, Canada, and their European allies – agreed on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's mission and then designed the tools to carry it out. In practice, that amounted to joint exercises to defend against a communist aggressor.
Since that threat disappeared in the early 1990s, the process has been reversed. NATO has created some new tools, added new members, and deployed in areas beyond its borders, but it hasn't gone back for a deep think about its reason for being. Meanwhile, global security has drastically changed since 9/11, adding to the urgency for a serious and broad review of the alliance's mission.
The ad hoc approach sufficed for NATO action in the early post-cold war conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. These trouble spots developed directly on NATO's doorstep, and the alliance understood them to be near and real threats to member states.
But Afghanistan is another matter entirely. Core, unresolved issues in the alliance include how far afield it should go, and what it should consider as a threat. One would think that 9/11, and the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, would convince NATO countries that a resurgent Taliban or a weak and vulnerable democracy in Kabul are threats worth preventing.
But that's not necessarily the case, and the response among NATO members has been mixed.
This has serious operational implications. It explains why NATO's top commander is still seeking 2,500 more troops in Afghanistan, a call put out in September. It explains the tension between NATO members playing a supportive role in Afghanistan and members – such as Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands – that have deployed to the violent south and are taking casualties there.
Leaving questions such as distance and threat unanswered affects equipment as well. For instance, the Afghanistan mission has been dogged by inadequate airlift, especially long-haul transport. And what about reconstruction? Rebuilding is vital to winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. But is that NATO's job?
Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. It could go the way of Iraq if it does not receive the political, military, and rebuilding support it needs. In ad hoc fashion, NATO's heads of state will this week have to commit to greater support. But they must also agree finally to face the big questions about their mission. Afghanistan demands it, as does NATO's viability.