My question was simple: "Can we win in Afghanistan?" But that only prompted another question: "How do you define victory?"
With that, any sense of clarity was a lost hope.
The question was directed at a roomful of mid-career military officers, all clad in gray-green camo. Most were Army, attending the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth. The school, known as SAMS, trains officers for high-level staff work.
I was one of a group of visitors last week that included another Star editorial writer, several of The Star's Midwest Voices columnists and two members of the papers Readers Advisory Panel. Maj. Grant Martin, a SAMS student and Midwest Voices writer himself, arranged the discussion at the school.
We sat in a room with a mottled blue carpet and light gray walls. Several gray metal desks had been pushed together in the center of the room. What struck me was that the SAMS officers didn't seem to know much more than we did about the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy. One officer asked, What is the goal? Is it simply to keep al-Qaida out?
Well, that's the way President Barack Obama framed it. The mission, as he put it in March, isn't to create a European-style democracy, but merely to ensure that Afghanistan "is not a safe haven for terrorists."
Obama deserves credit for taking this stand and ordering a surge of 21,000 troops to boost existing totals.
But to me, keeping al-Qaida out implies more than this simple mission statement suggests. Success will require a certain amount of "nation building." Afghanistan must be able, on its own, to exert control over its own territory.
The Afghan challenge may prove more daunting than Iraq, not only because of the poverty of the country and its isolated, widely dispersed settlements, but because the enemy can attack from sanctuaries in Pakistan, and until recently Pakistan hasn't been especially interested in doing much about it. Pakistan has kept much of its military force deployed to deter an attack from India.
Worse, our main supply line runs through contested parts of Pakistan, where convoys are subject to Taliban attack.
Our visit to Fort Leavenworth came a day after the Obama administration announced the firing of the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan. He was being replaced by Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal, whose background is in special operations.
The press coverage was full of the sort of contradictory speculation that crops up when reporters are dealing with an information vacuum. The Wall Street Journal said the change meant the administration was implementing a new strategy, one relying more on counterinsurgency. But The Associated Press said the strategy was still "a work in progress."
An AP analysis the next day took a completely different tack. The writer concluded it was unlikely McChrystal's new posting portended a new strategy. Rather, the Pentagon was merely hoping a shake-up would lead to better implementation of the existing strategy.
Maj. Bill Taylor, an armor officer in the SAMS group, came to a similar conclusion. He said that perhaps the administration merely wanted to "put a new face on the strategy."
Which brought us back to the original question, What's the strategy? Someone made the point that you can't fix Afghanistan until you fix Pakistan, and another voice added that you can't fix Pakistan until you fix India, which led Martin to suggest that given all that, maybe the goals in Afghanistan should be very limited. But that ran up against my point that merely keeping al-Qaida out implied some degree of nation-building.
A recent piece from Stratfor, a private group of analysts, discussed the feasibility of coming to an agreement with the Taliban. If the Taliban "agree to block al-Qaida operations in Afghanistan, the United States will have achieved its goal," the author wrote.
But Stratfor also noted that Gen. David Petraeus, Centcom commander, had a different view. The Taliban aren't as divided as many believe, so splitting off a faction and doing a deal probably won't work. And the Taliban are hardly reliable partners. Even if they agreed to block al-Qaida, their promise may not be worth much.
Bing West, a former Marine and assistant defense secretary, sensibly argued recently that the best course was not to seek accommodation with the Taliban but to build up the Afghan Army and even give it a role in the country's governance. It's the country's "most trusted institution." It's more reliable than the Afghan police or civilian bureaucracy.
But that will take time. Whatever the strategy, success in Afghanistan will require that Obama have the fortitude to face down increasingly vocal critics of the war, many of whom will be members of his own party.