BERLIN -While the United States is thinking about how to rebuild Afghanistan, Europeans are wringing their hands less about what comes next in the war on terrorism than what it means for the future of Europe's role in fighting wars and keeping the peace.
For the second time in two years, the United States has fought a war while its European partners have been mostly left cheering - or in some cases jeering - from the sidelines.
True, the 1999 Kosovo war was run from NATO, with the European allies formally involved in the decision-making. But Washington called all the important shots, and the battles were fought mainly with U.S. skills and technology.
In the war against al-Qaida, the Europeans have shown admirable solidarity with the United States, but aside from the important contributions of British special forces, they have not played any significant combat role.
For the first time, NATO invoked Article V, its self-defense clause, but Washington's war planners wanted nothing to do with the alliance's tedious decision-making process. This created an unusual circumstance: In the past, the Europeans have become anxious because either they objected to the mission or because the United States refused to get involved. In Afghanistan, the Europeans complained because they weren't involved enough.
Part of the reason they were left out is the unique circumstance of the Sept. 11 attacks. This was America's fight. But another reason - one of more long-term concern - is that Europe is not capable of fielding military forces with the same skills, weapons sophistication and deadly reach as those of the United States. Afghanistan shows that the military capabilities gap between the United States and Europe first shown in the Kosovo war still exists; if anything, it has gotten wider.
Take Germany. Here in Berlin, the capital is buzzing with reports of the first deployment of a few hundred German troops to Kabul to take part in the British-led peacekeeping force. The mission has gotten off to a start that can be politely described as less than auspicious.
The Germans have no real airlift capacity of their own. They've had to rely on the Dutch for transport and then had to lease planes from Ukraine. Even so, their troops were grounded by the weather. And one can only blame so much on winter. As the influential newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine put it, this episode reveals "the homegrown limitations of the German military itself."
Germany's troubles in deploying its own modest force to Afghanistan have done nothing but reinforce the belief, held by many in the United States, that Europe cannot handle "real" military threats. Deployment problems are only barely acceptable when the mission is limited to keeping the peace. Not so in a war. The temptation in Washington to go it alone is already strong. So long as Europe's forces continue to lag so far behind, this view will be impossible to change.
This leaves many wondering whether what we're left with is a new division of labor: The United States will fight the big global wars and leave regional peacekeeping to the Europeans. There's no doubt that this is what many in the Bush administration, especially in the Pentagon, want. Peacekeeping has been frequently (and incorrectly) derided as a "non-military" and therefore "non-American" task. Some Washington officials would prefer to keep it that way.
This would be unwise. As the Balkan experiences show, the United States has an indispensable role to play in peacekeeping. The Europeans are right to ask for more, not less, U.S. involvement in such missions. But at the same time, Europe must put more resources into military spending.
Doing neither will create a self-fulfilling prophesy: The more the Europeans dominate peacekeeping because they aren't capable of contributing to heavy combat, the less the United States will be willing to participate in peacekeeping.
More important, today's real military threats are too complicated and vast for the United States to handle itself. The war on terrorism cannot be won alone. Defeating the Taliban was an impressive military victory, but one can't assume that the next fight - could it be Iraq? - will be as easy.
The amount of effort and resources the United States had to put forth there proves that in the future, Washington needs strong European partners. It won't always want - or be able - to act alone.
Derek Chollet is a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.