Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has just submitted his first assessment of what needs to be done to turn the tide in that battered and war-torn nation long known as the graveyard of empires dating back to Alexander. While classified, that assessment summarizes the situation as “serious but still winnable.” That conclusion is sadly reminiscent of the strategic assessment of the Kaiser’s senior advisers in Berlin in the early years of the last century as Europe headed toward war.

“In Paris, the situation in Europe is seen as serious but not yet hopeless.” In Berlin, however, “we see conditions as hopeless but not serious.” Depending on one’s view, Afghanistan vacillates between serious and hopeless.

Afghanistan is not going to bring the world to a cataclysmic war. If the West fails, this will prove at least a major setback for the United States and for NATO and possibly worse. Conceivably, the alliance could become a relic if Afghanistan proves too tough a nut to crack. In the United States, should the Obama administration not produce a workable solution as in the healthcare debate, its political currency will be weaker than the dollar.

At the same time NATO and the White House are reflecting on the McChrystal review, NATO is engaged in producing a new “strategic concept” to chart a future course and hopefully make powerful arguments as to its relevance that can be understood by publics and politicians alike in order to keep the alliance from becoming a relic. Whether the future of Afghanistan and NATO can be integrated and coordinated in fashioning a new strategic concept remains one of the major challenges confronting the 12 “experts” commissioned by the alliance to undertake this effort. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright is the chairman of this group that will report in time for the fall 2010 NATO heads of state summit in Lisbon.

The Obama administration entered office vowing to move Afghanistan from under the shadow of George W. Bush’s fixation on Iraq. A strategy called “AFPAK” was written, although the document was more vision and intent than a functioning strategy, and McChrystal was deputized to implement that strategy. Part of his assessment was recommending additional steps to ensure a happier outcome in Afghanistan. The reality is that happy outcomes are not in the cards. The reasons have been sadly obvious for too long no matter how competent our people in Afghanistan are — and they are.

NATO and Afghanistan must overcome years of neglect. Governance and economic development have been failures. The Karzai government is weak, corrupt and ignored by most Afghans. The low turnout for the past election is a further symptom no matter whether Karzai wins now or in October after the runoff. The insurgency has spread, and NATO casualties rise as operational intensity increases. The standard of living for Afghans remains pitifully low and is probably worsening. Despite all the aid, by most accounts only a nickel or dime of every dollar gets directly to Afghans.

So what can NATO do? The first step is to get an accurate assessment of conditions on the ground. Second is to determine alternate strategies and determine what if any additional resources NATO and its member states are prepared to commit. Third, if that assessment is grim and the resources deemed necessary to turn conditions around cannot be found, is NATO prepared to consider an “exit strategy” however defined?

In full disclosure, since early 2004 this column has been sounding the Afghan alarm with no effect. Now that attention has finally shifted, my conclusion is that it is too late. The NATO experts committee drafting the strategic concept can take the courageous (and some would say politically foolhardy) choice of addressing Afghanistan head on in their considerations. To ignore Afghanistan would have been akin to writing a military strategy in Europe in 1938 with no reference to Hitler. Yet, as former U.S. ambassadors to NATO recognize, to raise Afghanistan could unleash centrifugal forces that will neuter or shatter any semblance of alliance cohesion.

Secretary Albright has been conducting a listening tour in preparation for this important assignment. She has received many fine ideas and recommendations about how to approach this potentially Sisyphean labor. But the toughest and most difficult choice will be Afghanistan and how to address it if at all.

Born in Czechoslovakia before the war and fortunate to escape in time, the secretary fully appreciates how the threat of the Soviet Union coalesced the original signers of the Washington Treaty into creating NATO in 1949. Afghanistan is not in the same universe as Soviet Russia. Yet, its shadow may be as powerful in affecting the future of the alliance in 2010 as Moscow was 60 years ago.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was syndicated by UPI.