At a showy summit earlier this month, where the kings and captains of the West gathered en masse, NATO celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. The organisation was established at the height of the Cold War, indeed it was a prime emblem of the East-West confrontation. That war is long over. The Soviet Union is now Russia again, shorn of its many dependent republics. The Warsaw Pact that came up to oppose NATO has likewise disappeared. The two camps no longer patrol Europe in armed readiness. Not a trace remains of the apocalyptic rhetoric that once fed their antagonisms. NATO's original task of assuring the security of Western Europe against a perceived threat from the East is long since accomplished. Yet NATO lives on. Why it survives, and in what manner it answers present-day needs, is something of a puzzle, not least to the members themselves as they try to put together a coherent set of ideas for the future. It is only in the post-Cold War years when its essential task was done that NATO found it possible to engage in military operations: earlier, it was too dangerous. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the resultant strife in Eastern Europe forced a response - this was taking place in NATO's backyard and could not be ignored. Serbia under its irredentist leader Milosevic became the target for heavy aerial attack aimed at forcing it out from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this was later repeated in Kosovo to force its desired separation from Serbia. During these interventions in the Balkans, NATO effectively bypassed the United Nations Security Council and with it the risk of veto by China and Russia against collective military action. Such group readiness for peacekeeping action outside the UN leaves many members uncomfortable, and beyond Europe it has been difficult for NATO to do much: in Iraq, for example, while many members have been engaged individually within the US-led international effort, the organisation as an entity has contributed only marginally. Afghanistan is the exception. This is the first place where NATO has been engaged on the ground outside Europe and the Atlantic. Some 8000 troops from 36 member and associated countries have been deployed and have taken on tasks of supporting the Afghan government in its mortal struggle with the Taliban and their backers. It is a substantial force but the NATO troops are regarded as having delivered less than their numbers might suggest, being hamstrung by complicated rules of engagement derived from national demands and prohibitions: many member countries are extremely cautious about permitting their soldiers to take the field when there may be no clearly identified foe or target. Still, the NATO contingent has been there since 2003, with a post-dated UN mandate which gives it a certain legality. At least some of the national groups within the contingent are able to undertake patrolling activity and have had to sustain quite a few losses. NATO has the lead role in several Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) where military and administrative processes are united in a single command - an innovation designed to make governmental processes more efficient. But it is the USA, part of NATO but with its own chain of command, that is bearing the brunt of it. NATO is a relatively small part of the operation and it is not principally deployed in the most exposed provinces. Now that President Obama has decided to give high priority to Afghanistan and to deploy additional US troops, the future role of NATO in that country figured near the top of the issues at the recent Summit. The US president tried hard to persuade his country's allies to commit more troops but the response was poor: it is not a popular cause for Europe's domestic public. Some small additions were offered, mainly temporary commitments for security during the coming elections, nothing to make a real difference on the ground. As for political matters, the outgoing secretary general indicated that NATO would be willing to support Afghan-led efforts to reconcile with those rebels who renounced violence and had no links with Al-Qaeda. This looks like readiness to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' Taliban, a problematic proposition that is nevertheless making some current progress. The other main ongoing NATO preoccupation is its eastward expansion. This has already drawn in several former Warsaw Pact members as well as newly the emerged countries in Eastern Europe from the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia. The latest to join were Albania and Croatia. Not surprisingly, Russia feels very uncomfortable with this process. In its own reckoning, Moscow poses no sort of threat that should push its closest neighbours into the arms of NATO and regards its expansion as a way of perpetuating Europe's division. Plans to establish a missile shield in border areas as part of NATO's defensive preparations have been especially irksome to Russia and have contributed to the recent deterioration of relations. Many other issues, too, have brought disagreement to East-West relations, sometimes reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War. However, Mr Obama used his recent European tour to do something to improve matters, and his meeting with Russia's President Medvedev in the margins of the G-20 meeting in London had considerable effect. There was considerable bonhomie between the two leaders, which had its impact on the NATO Summit, where finger-pointing at Russia for its actions in Georgia and Ukraine was in abeyance. As part of the more accommodating policy now adopted, the suspended meetings of the Russia-NATO council were resumed in the month of March. Thus although there are many sources of friction between Russia and the West, there are also areas of common interest between them that are receiving revived attention. Yet notwithstanding all the visible effort, and the boost provided by the reintegration of France within its military command, NATO remains in search of a compelling raison d'etre. The fading of the military threat to Europe leaves the organisation with no obvious purpose, so fresh challenges are being identified further from the heartland. Cyber security, energy security, climate change have been mentioned in this context: not exactly the common idea of what NATO stands for. Anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa are another - here NATO will rub shoulders with India, China, Russia and many others, all engaged in the same quest, all yet to find the key to the problem. India's main interest in NATO's current activity relates to its commitment in Afghanistan. There is a shared strategic aim, to curb the Taliban. India has provided a great deal of development support while NATO, with some hesitation, has taken on a military role. A big test lies ahead for both. Thus even though they are at several removes from each other, some convergence of purpose and action is to be discerned. The writer is India's former foreign secretary. This article is also published by The Statesman of India today