PRAGUE

At the NATO summit in Prague last week, President Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were on speaking terms again. That's a start. During the final phases of his election campaign in September, Schroeder had exploited German fears over a war with Iraq and unleashed anti-American sentiments that had lain dormant for nearly two decades. It would have been understandable if Bush had given Schroeder a cold shoulder, but he didn't. The German chancellor looked noticeably relieved, as he clenched Bush's hand and smiled into the television cameras.

Schroeder needs his Texan partner. And so does the rest of Europe. For as much as Europe wants its political voice heard in international crises, and on issues of war and peace, its dwindling contribution to NATO's military preparedness leaves the United States at the fulcrum of any major decision.

Despite the cheerleading about European and U.S. unity in Prague last week, and the warmth of a moment that also served as Czech President Vaclav Havel's going away party, the NATO summit could hardly conceal growing fissures in the Alliance. By all accounts, the United States would be happy to have a vigorous partner in global security and Europe wants strategic leverage. But how can Europe have an equal voice when NATO's military strength rests so lopsidedly in the hands of the United States?

The case of Germany, my native country, is illustrative. One of the ways the German government has tried to atone for sins the Schroeder team committed during the election campaign has been to offer to take over the leadership of the peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. Many Germans like the idea; it fits with their ambitions for Germany to become a big European power with a global role. Besides, the British and Turks have managed to lead the peacekeeping mission. Germany will now take over those forces next year. But as a practical matter, Germany's military leaders doubt whether the country can do it. With good reason.

Germany currently has 1,200 troops taking part in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a U.N. group. To take over the leadership of the ISAF, another 800 soldiers will need to be sent to perform functions such as logistics, communication and managing the strategically important airport in Bagram near Kabul. You would think that unified Germany, with Europe's biggest economy and a population of 84 million, could manage such a modest step. But many defense experts think that taking over the ISAF leadership will be a considerable stretch for Berlin. How is that possible?

Thirteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany's military forces are still largely structured to defend against Soviet tanks streaming across the Fulda Gap. True, progress has been made. A decade ago it was politically unthinkable that German soldiers would be sent on missions abroad. Today roughly 10,000 of them are abroad in places from Kosovo to Kuwait. Germany is a leader, after the United States, in contributing to peacekeeping missions. And the plodding German military has begun restructuring, by having the Bundeswehr (the German Armed Forces) adopt the idea of crisis-reaction forces. The number of troops assigned to such work has grown from next to none to 50,000 in less than 10 years. Retired German general Klaus Naumann says we must "reduce the tail and favor the teeth."

But the bigger picture remains a dim one. Germany has 280,000 men and women under arms, most of them equipped for national defense of the Cold War variety and not the new mobile, flexible rapid-reaction work the global fight against terrorism requires. That's why adding a few hundred troops to ISAF and taking the lead is a challenge. The current ISAF mandate ends Dec. 20, but Turkey, the lead nation on the ground now, won't be able to turn over the reins before February because Germany won't be ready. Germany needs a good two months to get troops and materiel to the field, and this only with the help of others. Berlin has to rely on a private London-based company that rents the Germans Ukrainian and Russian transport aircraft. That's dozens of flights over weeks to deliver a modest contingent. (And a license to print money for any company that helps the poorly equipped Germans.)

In fact, calling Germany the new lead nation in Afghanistan is a bit of an exaggeration. The Dutch are "partners in leadership" with Berlin and without them, Germany's plans would not be possible. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) the capabilities of the Dutch are not much better than those of the Germans. But let's say the German-Dutch contingent gets on the ground and set up for business. What then?

It can work under the present climate. But what happens if the warlords misbehave or Afghan President Hamid Karzai falls into real trouble? ISAF controls Kabul (and the Bagram airport) and nothing more. The lightly armed, battle-soft Bundeswehr and their Dutch partners can keep the peace, not make it. If things go badly, according to a senior Bundeswehr officer who is training Germans for the Afghan mission, then there is really only one strategy: Koffer packen und raus, pack your bags and get out.

Even that strategy can't be executed without help. Germany would either have to go back to leasing aircraft to evacuate troops (the Dutch do not possess significant airlift capabilities either), or march forces out through perilous conditions in Pakistan under American protection, or appeal to the United States for airlift help. While the United States has more than 250 long-range transport aircraft, all of Europe has 11. Germany has dozens of shorter-range, tactical transport aircraft, and at 20 to 30 years of age, they resemble flying buses. With most lacking armor or armaments, these military craft can only fly safely to peaceful places.

The German and Dutch shortcomings represent a microcosm of Europe's military problems. In Prague, East Europeans were complaining that they have to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, while their West European mentors lag far behind. (Germany spends 1.1 percent.) In Kosovo, allied forces were nearly wholly dependent on the Americans for airlift, communications and intelligence. At the time, German general Naumann warned that the gap between American and European troops was so wide that their soldiers would soon be unable to fight together on the same battlefield. And the gap is growing wider.

The NATO summit in Prague set out to solve this. The idea is "smart procurement." Europe will never match U.S. defense spending, but it can spend more wisely. For smaller European countries this strategy of developing "boutique" capabilities works.

But for Germany this is not enough, especially if it wants to play a major international role on matters of war and peace. Germany tried to show off its "boutique" capabilities in chemical and biological warfare by deploying 50 soldiers and their half-dozen specialized tanks, equipped to detect and deal with lethal contaminants, to Kuwait. Then, when it soured on the Bush administration's bellicose stance toward Iraq, Germany threatened to withdraw the contingent. A senior Bush administration official said Germany should get out before the tiny troop contingent gets in the way. But the 50 specialized forces remain in Kuwait. To get home, they would need a lift from a leasing company or a NATO ally.

The contingent is a metaphor for Europe's place in comparison to America's. Europe needs political cohesion and leadership, and it cannot shirk from its responsibilities to NATO. The way that Europe -- and Germany, in particular -- has responded to the threat of Saddam Hussein and the challenge of U.S. policy toward Iraq suggests unity and commitment is still a vision. Which means it's good that Gerhard and George are talking again. If things in Afghanistan go badly and Germany needs to make a 911 call next year, it will have to be routed through the switchboard at the White House.

Heidi Reisinger is a research fellow at the Academy of the Federal Armed Forces for Information and Communication in German. The views expressed here are her own.

Taking the lead will be challenging: German ISAF soldiers in Kabul in September.