“When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” General Stanley McChrystal recently told reporters. “It’s a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people.”

The remark, notable for its defensive tone, provides a small but telling indication that things are not going well in Afghanistan. If there were any doubts on that score, Rolling Stone’s profile of the “Runaway General” and his eminently quotable staff have quashed them.

The wheels are starting to come off the Afghan Victory Express. Media reports suggest that McChrystal will arrive at the White House today with resignation in hand. If true, this may prove to be the odd case where the captain of a ship in distress is the first to go over the side. 

The counterinsurgency campaign designed by McChrystal and approved by President Obama is clearly falling behind schedule. NATO’s Marja offensive, launched with much fanfare in February and intended to demonstrate the alliance’s ability to deliver “government in a box,” has yielded disappointing results. Last month, McChrystal himself described Marja as a “bleeding ulcer.” Worse, the start date of an even more ambitious effort to pacify Kandahar has slipped by several months. Given the president’s publicly stated (and recently reaffirmed) promise to begin withdrawing U. S. troops beginning in July 2011, time is running short.

What’s going on here? To keep the air from completely leaking out of the Afghan balloon, the senior U. S. commander needs to provide answers. Expressions of contempt for the U. S. ambassador in Kabul, for the president’s special representative to “AfPak,” for the national security adviser (a retired Marine four-star!), for Vice President Joe Biden, and for the commander-in-chief himself—McChrystal reportedly retains a modicum of respect for the secretary of state—won’t suffice.

McChrystal’s above characterization of the core problem is accurate as far as it goes: Persuading Afghans to entrust their security to a bunch of foreigners is no simple task. Yet the formulation is incomplete and therefore inadequate. In describing NATO’s mission solely, or even largely, as one of offering protection, the general is either being disingenuous or, more worrisome still, he has not yet grasped the enormity of the task that he and the forces under his command confront.

For the United States military, the catchphrase “protecting the people” has become a mantra of sorts. Within the ranks of the present-day officer corps, it has assumed a prominence akin to that enjoyed in an earlier day by “winning hearts and minds.” Yet if “protecting the people” has become a cliché, it is also shorthand for a larger body of thought. This short phrase contains the distilled essence of the counterinsurgency doctrine, or COIN, which is the latest and hippest version of the American way of war (following “shock and awe”).

 “Protect the people and they will help you.” This precept lies at the heart of “Counterinsurgency 101,” a briefing prepared at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the Vatican of military orthodoxy. The key to getting people to accept your protection, this army presentation says, is to “make them an offer they can’t refuse.” Enlivening this particular PowerPoint slide is a picture of Tony Soprano backed up by Sal “Big Pussy”Bonpensiero, Paulie Walnuts, and Silvio Dante.

Crude perhaps, but refreshingly honest. Strip away the euphemisms and counterinsurgency is inherently a coercive enterprise. Moreover, the counterinsurgent objective—and this is true in spades when it comes to the Western mission in Afghanistan—is not simply to keep the people from harm, but to change the way they live.

Sure, NATO forces are attempting to rescue Afghans from the clutches of the Taliban.Yet that ranks as hardly more than an interim objective. The real purpose of McChrystal’s campaign is to engineer a radical transformation of the Afghan political economy, Afghan society, and, whether the United States and its allies will admit it or not, Afghan culture.

Here is what “protecting the people” signifies. We will tell Afghan farmers what crops to grow and how to grow them. We will instruct Afghans in the proper way to educate their children. We will redefine the relationship between the sexes. We will institute good governance. We will introduce new technologies. We will select and assign government officials who meet our approval and fire those who do not. We will drag the Afghan people into modernity, certain that our motives are pure and oblivious to the possibility that Afghans might prefer to exercise their collective right to self-determination in their own way. We will insist on their cooperation.

As our agents in this undertaking, we will rely on 19- and 20-year-old youngsters, indelibly marked with a postmodern, post-Christian sensibility as vivid as their tattoos and as proudly displayed as their eclectic musical tastes. As they rotate through the country on eight or twelve month tours, these Western troops—well-meaning infidels—will offer Afghans the promise of salvation: “We’re here to protect you, my brother.”

Should Afghans find that convincing? If the tables were turned, would Americans be convinced?

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of, most recently, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.