The western military alliance is facing a credibility crisis -- struggling to rustle up troops as its first major combat test, in Afghanistan, rests on a knife-edge. Founded to confront a country and empire that no longer exist and an ideology that is largely moribund, even its name, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is incongruous, given the eastward lurch of its center of gravity.
As leaders of the 26 member states gather in the Latvian capital, Riga, next week, the question that will haunt them, one they may be too frightened to ask, will linger uncomfortably: what is NATO for?
Some NATO countries, and the US in particular, are desperate to show that an alliance founded 57 years ago to meet a perceived Soviet threat remains relevant in a post-cold war world. NATO faces a challenge to reinvent itself.
At the heart of the debate, which is only now beginning to surface, is the US plan to transform NATO into a global organization: an alliance of western-style democracies, embracing Australia, Japan and South Korea -- countries far away from the North Atlantic.
This US vision is strongly opposed by France, in particular, but also by NATO's new members in central and eastern Europe, notably Poland, who remain rather more concerned about their large neighbor to the east. For them, next Tuesday's summit will have a special resonance. It will be the first to be held in a former Soviet republic.
Then there are those -- hard-nosed military figures among them -- who question the point of such ambitious projects if NATO cannot even get together enough forces to mount an effective campaign against a few thousand Taliban and their hangers-on in Afghanistan.
In Riga on Wednesday, General James Jones, NATO's supreme commander, is expected to announce that the alliance's new response force of 25,000 troops is up and running. It will be something that NATO leaders can cheer. But Afghanistan may quickly silence them.
What will be its use, asks Lord Garden, the UK's former assistant chief of the defence staff, if NATO cannot get together even 2,000 troops? This is a reference to the reinforcements promised to Lieutenant General David Richards, NATO's commander in Kabul, but not delivered.
"Afghanistan is going to be center stage in Riga," said a senior British defense official on Friday.
European allies, notably Germany, have resisted pressure from Britain and others to send troops ensconced in the relative security of northern Afghanistan to help fight the Taliban and build up infrastructure in the south. Rules of engagement -- or national caveats, as they are called -- include a refusal to fly helicopters at night. British soldiers complain of a lack of proper equipment, including a shortage of thermal imaging sights to help identify enemy fighters.
Yesterday, NATO's secretary-general said he was confident that all 26 member nations would allow their troops in Afghanistan to provide emergency support to allied units anywhere in the country.
"In case of emergency, every single ally will come to the assistance and help of every other ally," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said.
"Military failure in Afghanistan would be catastrophic for the alliance," said General Joseph Ralston, a former NATO supreme commander and now adviser to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.