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On 60th anniversary, NATO faces its biggest test

The fight against the Taliban will overshadow the alliance's 60th anniversary celebrations.

Canadian soldiers from the NATO-led coalition check a dry river in the Taliban stronghold of Arghandab district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, March 12, 2009. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gears up to celebrate its 60th anniversary April 3-4, there are nasty whispers — behind its back, in front of its face and down its halls — about whether the sexagenarian is fit for what many consider its most strenuous task ever: the war in Afghanistan.

And it’s not just NATO’s critics who raise the questions. No less an insider than NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has for years called the situation in Afghanistan the most complex and difficult challenge the alliance has ever faced, as the situation on the ground has continued to deteriorate.

The very involvement of NATO in the U.S.-led effort against the Taliban was historic, as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 led the alliance for the first time ever to invoke its founding treaty’s “Article 5,” stipulating that an attack against one member is an attack against all.

And now the occasion of a NATO anniversary coinciding with a new U.S. administration — both bodies put success in Afghanistan at the top of their to-do lists — has created a significant opportunity for analysis, reflection and projection. But while the new U.S. leadership has the fleeting excuse that it had nothing to do with strategies now seen as inadequate, NATO’s deniability expired long ago, as it took over command of the United Nations-mandated International Strategic Assistance Force (ISAF), the now 41-nation support effort for the Afghan government, in 2003.

New prescriptions for the mission have abounded, including one being crafted in Washington by U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security team. That policy review and revamp is expected to be unveiled just before the NATO summit. The administration’s assessment is expected to dominate that gathering, to the chagrin of those who would like a bit of attention paid to some of the high points in the alliance’s history.

In the meantime, think tanks and scholars are releasing report after report on what NATO should be doing to try to reverse the negative trends in the more than seven-year struggle, most with the underlying threat that “NATO’s credibility is at stake.”