The Center for a New American Security is holding its annual conference in at the Willard Hotel this afternoon. Last year I ruffled a few feathers when I attended and came out feeling not unlike a person who had wandered in and out of a revival tent — that is, if the tent was filled with Long War COINdinistas, their patron saint, Gen. David Petraeus, condescendingly handing down the “word,” or the formula for success, via Power Point. Only Andrew Bacevich served as the heretic of the event, pointing out that the movement had no clothes.

What a difference a year makes. COIN’s hoped for ratification in Afghanistan is falling short –in a big way — signaling greater disaster if the ISAF attempts anything similar in Kandahar, a much bigger Pushtun population center with not only an entrenched and empowered Taliban presence, but a shadowy empire run by Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid. Wali has been making a cool billion off the war machine every year and is a known drug trafficker with a number of private militias under his control. Want to guess how far his interest in a successful counterinsurgency extends?

So this is the headline on the front page of the Washington Post this morning, hours before the epicenter of COIN flings open its proverbial doors for its fourth annual naval gaze:

“Commanders fear time is running out in Marja”

Residents of this onetime Taliban sanctuary see signs that the insurgents have regained momentum in recent weeks, despite early claims of success by U.S. Marines. The longer-than-expected effort to secure Marja is prompting alarm among top American commanders that they will not be able to change the course of the war in the time President Obama has given them.

What makes this all the more poignant is that Marjah was supposed to be a public relations coup. The military, mindful that this was not a strategic priority — that would be Kandahar — instead thought Marjah would help build the public’s confidence in the counterinsurgency when it was cleared and held and a “government in a box” was parachuted in to prove the central government was preferable to the Taliban.

Or, as IPS writer Gareth Porter pointed out with his usual prescience back in February,  the brass had hoped that Marjah would deliver for Gen. Stanley McChrystal a quick military win in the battle of perceptions, and build momentum, not only for a summer incursion into Kandahar, but towards President Obama’s stated timeline for withdrawal in July 2011.

Unfortunately, with headlines like the one in the Post today, all that has been stood on its head. A PR orchestration that grew its own legs and is now tap dancing all over our heads in southern Afghanistan.

The slow and uneven progress has worried senior military officials in Kabul and Washington who intended to use Marja as a model to prove that more troops and a new war strategy can yield profound gains against the Taliban. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told officers here in late May that there is a growing perception that Marja has become “a bleeding ulcer.”

Not to put a finer point on it, but President Karzai  himself is now jumping on the bandwagon. In Wednesday’s Guardian:

President Hamid Karzai has lost faith in the US strategy in Afghanistan and is increasingly looking to Pakistan to end the insurgency, according to those close to Afghanistan’s former head of intelligence services.

Amrullah Saleh, who resigned last weekend, believes the president lost confidence some time ago in the ability of Nato forces to defeat the Taliban.

As head of the National Directorate of Security, Saleh was highly regarded in western circles. He has said little about why he quit, other than that the Taliban attack on last week’s peace jirga or assembly in Kabul was for him the “tipping point”; the interior minister, Hanif Atmar, also quit, and their resignations were accepted by Karzai.

I will be very interested to hear the message that former CNAS president Michele Flournoy, now sitting in Doug Feith’s old seat at the Pentagon, offers in her keynote address this afternoon. The same goes for the rest of the COIN cheerleaders who shouted down most dissenting views in the past year, only to find an “I told you so” at the end of their ostensibly triumphal march.

Andrew Exum, one of the more well-known COINdinista’s, displayed what I can only describe as unusual honesty on this front, when on his CNAS blog he acknowledged that COIN’s critics “after all, have some damn good points.” Unfortunately, Exum still thinks that COIN “theorists and practitioners should enjoy their moment in the sun.” Maybe Exum should take a step outside the tent of believers and see the storm clouds brewing yonder. They’ve been gathering for a while.