The Atlantic alliance made history Monday when it took command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. The turnover marks NATO's first mission outside Europe since its founding in 1949.
The move represents an important revitalization and redefinition of the expanded alliance, which was originally created to defend against Soviet attack.
The organization took its first steps in crisis management and nation-building in 1995, when it used military force to stop the fighting in Bosnia. It intervened again in 1999 against the Milosevic regime in Serbia to defend the Albanians in Kosovo. Alliance peacekeeping in the Balkans since then has provided important preparation for the Afghanistan mission.
NATO's new role helps heal the rift between allies caused by disagreement over Iraq. Canada is providing 1,900 troops, Germany 1,500 (perhaps more), and France 550. The peacekeepers operate separately from the US-led coalition troops that still are tracking down terrorists.
NATO will add needed stability to the 5,000-member International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). Until now, a rotating group of countries - including Turkey, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands - has led the peacekeeping effort.
NATO's assumption of command and long-term commitment to Afghanistan provide an important boost to both the struggling government of President Hamid Karzai and the war on terrorism. The question remains, however, whether ISAF's mandate will expand outside Kabul. The security situation in many provinces is poor at best, as Taliban and bandit raids continue. On Tuesday, for example, the UN suspended aid activities in the south after a week of attacks that killed or injured several police and aid workers.
A useful model might be the "provincial reconstruction teams" the coalition has stationed in four provinces. These teams of 60 to 100 soldiers and civilians perform security and humanitarian work, reaching areas too dangerous for aid groups.
Expanding the PRTs as part of the NATO mission would be a good first step. But President Karzai's government needs more help than that to extend its rule outside the capital. ISAF must both beef up its presence in Kabul and deploy significant forces in the provinces. That will require an additional 10,000 troops. Without them, the outlook for elections next year is dim. For NATO and its partners, the choice should be clear.