"NATO is much more than Afghanistan," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, chair of the Group of Experts advising the Alliance on its Strategic Concept, told the Atlantic Council The Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Jim Stravidis, agreed, adding, "Afghanistan is not a GO/NO GO litmus test."

NATO is not a "relic" of a bygone age but a "very, very active" fighting force engaged in missions all over the globe, Stavridis declared.    Yes, Afghanistan is important —  and Stavridis is confident of success — but it’s just the biggest of several crucial ongoing missions.  “We have 130,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines on missions on three continents,” the admiral reminded us. “Those are hard decisions, but they’ve all been made at NATO’s table among 28 different states. I maintain we’ve done a good job of getting 28 member nations together.”

But, while being ready to defeat the Alliances enemies in combat remains NATO’s  primary mission, it is clear that moving forward it must be prepared for a broader spectrum of operations than ever before.

Stavridis observed that "more than 400 terror attacks took place in Europe in 2009" and that, while counterterrorism operations remain primarily a matter for police and domestic intelligence, "there are support functions we can provide."   After all, NATO’s ultimate duty is to protect the people of the member states and it has tremendous resources that can compliment the work of primary agencies.

Similarly, the European Union is the lead agency addressing piracy off the coast of Africa. “That’s fine,” he said. “NATO is there with a complementary operation. The EU has the lead, and I see that as a comfortable situation. NATO does not always have to be the lead agency in every security dimension.”

Additionally, Stavridis believes "the long-range ballistic missile threat is already real and will get worse in the years ahead."  He showed a picture of an Iranian missile that can reach some of Europe’s capitals and thus demonstrate the urgent need for missile defense.  “The United States is moving forward with a phased, adaptive approach,” he said. “Much of the discussion before the Lisbon summit will be how NATO wants to be a part of that.”

On less kinetic matters, Stavridis declared, “We need to come to grips about what is a cyber attack.”   To do that, “We need centers that can focus on it. We need procedures to provide defensive means in this world of cyber.”  He stopped short of saying that Article V’s "an attack on one is an attack on all" should be invoked but acknowledged that it’s a question being grappled with.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  AP Photo.