When President George W. Bush meets European Union leaders for the annual US-EU summit in Washington on April 30, Afghanistan will be high on the agenda. This offers the EU the chance to move beyond rhetoric and take action to show it can be a credible force in the world. Although Afghanistan is the most active front in the war on terrorism today, most European nations are failing to do all that they can there and all that America expects.
It is true that all 26 Nato allies are part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Several lead provincial reconstruction teams that provide visible evidence to Afghans of a positive, although limited, support for a non-Taliban future.
European countries have also sent several billion dollars' worth of aid. Representatives of European non-governmental organisations are all over the country. But this will count for little if the overall effort in Afghanistan fails. Success is not assured, as the Taliban try to show the average Afghan that Taliban rule will one day be restored. Most visibly, only a few Nato allies have joined the US in fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan's south and east, notably Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.
Other European nations are largely sitting out the war in less risky places — Kabul, or in the relatively peaceful north. Their governments or parliaments impose "caveats" — restrictions on when and where the soldiers will fight. This limits the flexibility of ISAF commanders and is powerful evidence that not all allies will share risks in a conflict that they all agreed to join.
No US government will look kindly on European allies that do not pull their weight if Afghanistan heads back into deep trouble, as seems likely. And if the worst happens and the Taliban take over Afghanistan, the American people are unlikely to tolerate a "lost" war without pointing fingers at those who have let them down.
Three European allies have already accepted leadership in crucial areas: Britain for counter-narcotics, Germany for police training and Italy for the judicial system. But all three have extreme challenges ahead, as marked by the fact that Afghanistan's drug production is at an all-time high.
What is most needed is clear leadership and co-ordination of economic and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, in tandem with ISAF military operations and the Afghan government's role in creating a semblance of governance. Clearly, this is a job for the EU and its much-vaunted but little implemented aspirations to forge an effective common foreign and security policy.
Even if European states such as Germany will not remove their military caveats, the EU can still assume principal responsibility for Afghanistan's reconstruction as a way of helping to shape Afghanistan's future.
The EU should promptly appoint a top-flight, political-level co-ordinator for economic reconstruction in Afghanistan, as it did for Bosnia, when Lord Ashdown, the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats, took charge and contributed mightily to its success.
The EU should also increase its direct aid to Afghanistan to at least €10bn ($13.4bn) a year. It should bind together all outside agencies, from the United Nations to non-government groups. Most important, EU leaders should exhibit political courage and will to get the job done and show the rest of the world that they are willing to do so.
Most Europeans have long since ruled out helping the US in Iraq, and even Britain is reducing its troop commitment there, while sending more troops to Afghanistan. Three European countries and the EU have been pressing Tehran to rein in its nuclear programme, but they are at least as anxious to stop America from attacking Iran. Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is rising on the US Middle East agenda but no one can help America drag the parties toward compromise.
Afghanistan offers EU leaders a chance to help the US — and themselves — by standing up to the Taliban, a terrorist group that hijacked a nation and is trying to get it back. America can do only so much of the west's work, and it will judge the worth of allies and alliances on the help it receives. In its own self-interest the US will continue to support European security, but its enthusiasm and degree of involvement will depend on whether Europeans also assume burdens for what Americans believe is not a US problem alone, but a common hour of need in the greater Middle East.
The writer is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organisation. He was US ambassador to Nato from 1993 to 1998.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on April 12, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.