COIN Center Interview

The U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Center recently interviewed COL Chris Toner upon the return of his brigade from Afghanistan.  COL Toner commanded 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division from June 2009 to June 2012.

3-1ID IBCT (Task Force Duke) deployed to Khost and Paktia Provinces, Afghanistan, in January 2011 and conducted combat operations until March 2012 as part of Regional Command - East, ISAF Joint Command.  See the result of the interview and COL Toner's thoughts on "security" or "lethal" operations as part of a counterinsurgency campaign here.

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This is not an issue of integrity, it is an issue of doctrine, strategy, operational design and tactics - we treat symptoms rather than causes, and when we do it well those symptoms go away - for a time. Then we let up that pressure and the whole thing comes back to life.

Our COIN histories overflow with such "victories" and subsequent "new" insurgencies.

When I first started reading this, I thought I was reading another politically correct officer espousing the goodness of the COIN FM. However, what he said in the last paragraph captured one of my main concerns which is that many officers (especially younger ones) don't think COIN involves combat operations. As for the rest of the interview I generally disagree with the COL's assessment, but professionals can disagree on key points. For example, I don't think we can legitimize an illegimate government, and I don't think helping the Afghans with agricultural development will stop the locals from supporting the insurgency (but it is still a human thing to do, so I'm not opposed to it, I simply don't believe that in this case it addresses the so called root causes of the insurgency).

How does one explain why many officers (especially the younger ones) don't think COIN involves combat operations?

Here is one potential explanation:

Could this be because these officers see COIN as being focused on and directed towards -- not defeating the insurgents -- but, rather, transforming the state and society of Afghanistan along modern western lines?

Herein, these officers -- because their leaders and publications have failed to explain these things correctly or candidly -- failing to understand that such state and societal transformation efforts consistently cause, breed, expand and/or aggravate an insurgency rather than defeat it. Thus, requiring combat operations to overcome a resistance which these officers must be made to understand is:

a. Not unusual to and/or separate from such state and societal transformation endeavors but, rather,

b. Common-place with, characteristic of and part-and-parcel to them.

Thought: If, in our discussions and in our publications, we simply replaced the terms "counterinsurgency" (COIN) with the terms "opposed state and societal transformation" (OS&ST) -- and correctly addressed our activities in such OS&ST terms -- then would these officers be more likely to see combat operations as being an integral part of our such efforts?

Bill C.

I recall an article written (or perhaps it was an interview) with Dave Kilcullen, and one of his comments was telling. He said it was always assumed that the military would continue combat operations against insurgents, the doctrine was intended to explain whatelse needed to be done. He identified two or more years ago that many U.S. military officers (especially the younger ones LTC and below) have mistakenly interpreted COIN doctrine as development doctrine. Tax payers don't need to waste their money on a military that is attempting to replace what USAID and the Peace Corp can do already. If the environment isn't secure enough for them to start development projects, then perhaps the main focus should be on security operations? We have created an enduring cultural myth within our ranks with the COIN doctrine that addresses the societial transformation you repeatedly address. If the upcoming generation of younger officers don't learn the art of critical thinking we'll be doomed to repeat the same errors in the future.

Many leaders have stated that you can't "just" do security- you have to do all three of the things (security, development, governance) in the holy trinity of U.S.-sponsored COIN. Now, some will make it more nuanced and say sometimes and in some areas you do more of one thing and less of another- but mostly it is argued you do some of all three at all times- that you can't just concentrate on security. Regardless, my argument is that the military is the wrong entity to do the last two- and, actually, any external entity- unless they are willing to do Ghenghis Khan or Roman-style operations maybe- in my opinion is unable to do ANY of the efforts- they can support security, but ultimately all three- and especially development and governance has to come from the internal players- and many times that is ugly and leads to less security.

Somehow we have to de-couple these three things and concentrate instead on what efforts of ours in an unstable country- will align with our regional and international security interests. I submit many of our military and other efforts in Afghanistan could be working at cross-purposes to our security interests in the region.

I would advocate our young leaders imagining the following:

- imagine you are a platoon leader of a platoon from a Middle-eastern nation as part of a multi-national force that is invited in to a section of a Southeastern U.S. state in a rural area that has been hit by a devastating natural disaster (don't worry about the strategic why this has happened- just the implications to your platoon of this mission). So, this one county is the place your platoon has to operate in. It has three small towns, a deep-seated antagonism between Blacks and Whites, a more recent problem between long-time residents and Latino-immigrants, terrible poverty going back since the textile industry collapsed, and everyone owns a gun. The police force is pretty corrupt, but the sheriff is locally elected and has a strong following. There is a right-wing paramilitary group that lives in tents in the more rugged areas and that is involved in black market activities and rare lynchings. There is a strong drug trade. The local mayor has run off and governance is at a standstill (maybe think Katrina). And there is a highway that runs through the county that enables both trade in neighboring counties and illegal trade in your county. You have been ordered to "do COIN", help establish stability in the area until U.S. troops can come into the area and take over the mission for you. The local national guard was decimated in Afghanistan- and has been disbanded, but the armory is still used for parties. You have no idea how long you will be there- you've been told to plan for 12-15 months. You may or may not be relieved by another Egyptian unit. What do you do (at the tactical level- and assuming that your countries' interests align with you being there indefinitely, etc.)?

Do you, for instance, keep your men wearing their uniforms at all times, keep their beards, tell them they cannot pray towards Mecca 5 times a day in front of others, cannot eat pork or drink if offered it by the locals, cannot associate with female locals, cannot build a sound system to broadcast the daily prayers, cannot wall themselves off from the locals in a compound with maximum security, cannot travel without up-armored vehicles and body armor, cannot listen to Middle Eastern music?? Do you tell them to attempt to help the locals with economic development? Would you fight the drug trade? Would you work with the local sheriff or would you attempt to displace him and his cronies? Would you go after the right-wing group? Would you try to solve the racial issues? The immigrant issues? Would you try to re-establish some kind of government?

Thinking of this scenario- knowing what I know of southeastern U.S. culture (I'm from "The South")- and it puts the whole Afghanistan situation into greater perspective for me. I KNOW how most would react in the South to a Middle-eastern unit deploying into our country- even if they were backed by tons of Saudi financing and gave away money like it was candy. Talk about a mission impossible...

Instead we think we can overcome anything and hubristically assume that our "superior" culture and technology makes us irresistible to others- of course they want to be like us and will defer to us when we offer our advice. If we think of the problems this Middle-eastern scenario offers, I think we can start to see why we might be asking the impossible of- not only our military- but also our entire executive branch.


In light of 3rd IBCT, 1st ID’s one year deployment (2011-12) around Khost I am wondering why you consider their achievements as ‘Mission Impossible.’ I believe that Col Toner made it very clear that the security, governance and economic tasks that the FM dictates as essential for completing his mission were achieved with resounding success by his men. Furthermore Col Toner expresses complete confidence in the GIRoA he is handing over to - something I found a pleasant surprise.

The region is not an easy one. It has been the epicentre of Haqqani’s forces for more than thirty years. Khost and its airfield can be easy bracketed by 107mm rockets fired from inside Pakistan let alone the mountain ranges that completely surround the town. The road to Kohat has been the major all year route between the Sub-continent and Af for thousands of years so it is not just Haqqani’s men that you are pushing up against.

To me at least Col Toner seemed very clear about the validity of the FM doctrine to frame his successful mission and sounded very satisfied with his brigade’s achievements.



No disrespect to COL Toner- but a commander has to be the last person I'd expect to give an honest assessment of his unit's performance in public. I don't know of anyone who has written an AAR of their unit- even for internal consumption- that pointed out failure.

If that area's "success" is sustainable and we can visit it in 10 years and it has even improved- according to disinterested parties- then maybe I'll concede that their efforts were a resounding success. Until then I remain skeptical of any reports of resounding success in Afghanistan- since I have been reading about these "successes" since 2002.


I understand your argument now.

In your opinion how far down the chain of command do we have to go before we can expect an honest AAR? I gather from your experience :

"I don't know anyone... "

that it is not just the 1st Infantry Division that has problems with honesty but the whole Army.

I wouldn’t bother with the speculative :

"If that area's success is sustainable and we can visit in 10 years…..etc "

as the lack of integrity you are describing would make the future redundant as well as the present.

Maybe Dave Dilegge can get someone from the Brigade who was in Paktia at this time who’s testimony you can trust.


RandCorp---if one would really read GMartin's comments he was doing the following;

1. frame the operational environment which he did
2. frame the problem which he did
3. frame the solution which he did

One must realize that a BCT Cmdr will and this goes for all AFG deployed BCT Cmdr's never signal a failure or failures---WHY the BCT Command is a stepping stone to one star and a BCT Cmdr will never allow for failure---that is one of the main reasons we are having deep trust issues within Staff's and Cmdr micromanagement which is increasing and not decreasing.

All he was trying to conduct was really a design drill---we all need to listen more carefully to this group of officers.

I use to run the same drill for Iraq bound Company Cmdrs in explaining how they could reduce tensions during raids.

Outlaw 09 & GM

I think I am correct in saying that both GM and Outlaw believe that no BCT Cmdr would signal failures in his AOR regardless of whether or not failures had actually occurred during his BCT’s deployment. The reasons given for the lack of disclosure is that such candour would jeopardise the Brigade Cmdr.’s chances for promotion.

Most Americans would consider the honor of commanding 4000 fighting men in a war-zone a great privilege – perhaps one without equal. They would expect the BCT Cmdr to be as tough as nails and trusted to tell it how it really is and to hell with anything or anyone else. Unfortunately the reality, as suggested here, is that the taxpayer (simple souls that they are) must await the suitable pay-grade an ambitious senior officer considers appropriate before he or she graces their service to the nation with candour and objectivity.

Of course one could argue that in a general climate of tactical, operational and strategic success the failure to report the occasional mishap; though unhelpful, would do no serious harm. As we are all aware this is far from the case and despite much cost in blood and treasure in both Iraq and Afghanistan the possibility remains that the US will suffer a strategic defeat in both regions. Consequently many would argue that there have been more than enough failures to feature in a thousand AARs from a hundred forthright colonels. So much so that the question arises to what extent has lack of candour caused lack of success?

So what?

Over the last ten years the Pak ISI has spent around $2 to $3 billion supporting the Taliban & the Haqqani network. In that time they have lost zero number of fighters who they gave a damn about. Over the same period the US has spent $300 billion and has suffered more than 2000 dead and 15,000 wounded - all of whom were cared for a great deal. Any attempt to understand how such a mind-bogglingly lopsided effort has produced so little of worth is obviously important.

However, how meaningful is it to debate what Sun Tzu, Clausewitz or Jomini would have done, what hardware or software might have been deployed or whether less FM 3-24 and more Design would have carried the day? I personally believe such debate is meaningless if it is acceptable to have BCTs commanded by officers who believe bullshit is the key to promotion - and just as damaging - Promotion Review Boards that consider the same bullshit no impediment to career advancement.



I don't think the reasons are simple, I wouldn't label this as so "black and white", and I would strike more of a balance between the Pollyanish and the cynical. Maybe I come across as cynical- so my fault.

Some commanders- BCT and other- actually really believe what they are saying. They have either been institutionalized so much in how the military talks and thinks that they actually have convinced themselves that what they say is true and if you hooked them up to a lie detector machine, they'd pass. So they aren't lacking in candor and they aren't dishonest- if you count intent as important.

Others are incapable of thinking objectively or in any depth. This is due to many things- our culture, our education (American and military), our epistemology, etc. Intellectualism is something that many in the military make fun of- to our detriment in my opinion.

Some are just careerists- yes, and those guys slip through the system, probably would any system- and everyone seems to know a few and despise them. I can't see why the Army doesn't work harder at weeding them out or at the least pressuring them to improve. A mandatory 360 degree eval system that affected your evaluation report might help- but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Your last sentence leads me to believe you must not be in the military---?

Again, though, it isn't as simple as saying it is BS. I submit that as long as our personnel system is centrally managed the way it is, there is only one pathway to general officer (Ops and no bad marks), and education is frowned upon- we will continue to suffer these issues- even though it is much more complex than you have described by subscribing it to just one source. And lots of it has emerged I'd argue and wasn't something that just happened overnight. I'd even argue our government and populace as a whole- making up society as they do- play a part in it as well. We may cheer a Patton at the movies, but we would demand he be fired in the real world today.

RC---as a passing comment---there seems to be a disconnect in your comments on AARs.

Currently there is a serious lack of trust in many BN/BCT/Div Staffs and we have now a serious micromanagment problem on the part of officers even into the NCO realms---how then can AARs be considered objective and brutally honest?

If in fact every BCT Cmdr published a brutually open and honest assessment of their unit's deployment we would not be reinventing the wheel on every RIP TOA.

Agree fully with GMartin---have not seen such an animal (brutually honest AARs) in a long-long-long time.

Actually if the CTCs had been given the ability in the last years to redline a unit and take them off the Patch Chart due to poor performances during a CTC rotation we might actually be further along in AFG than we currently are.

If you think things are well and great within BN/BCT/Div Staffs---wait for the results of the FY13 DATE training rotation AARs.

Lack of trust is the first tip of the ice berg and right now no one wants to call a spad a spad-especially in a published AAR.

The second tip of the ice berg is the utter lack of Staff training and mentoring---that alone is worth a long article here in SWJ.

Outlaw 09

You wrote:

“Currently there is a serious lack of trust in many BN/BCT/Div Staffs and we have now a serious micromanagement problem on the part of officers even into the NCO realms---how then can AARs be considered objective and brutally honest?”

The “lack of trust” you are referring to is not a lack of an Auftragstaktik type of trust the recent CJCS’s Mission Command White Paper is extolling but a lack of simple honesty and integrity. Is that correct? (Forgive me for repeatedly asking but I am somewhat dumbstruck by the implications of what you are saying.)

Rather than a well-meaning but misguided commander making sure his or her subordinates are doing their job properly the O6’s primary objective is to ensure glowing AARs are submitted regardless of what may or may not be happening on the ground!

I was kinda hoping Vietnam had confined this ruinous ‘Five O’clock Follies’ approach to ‘Mission Command’ to the dustbin of history. Now all we need is a shameless liar like Westmoreland and the whole Vietnam nightmare will be back to haunt us.



RC---two comments---if one really gets into the CJCoS's WP he is in fact talking about Trust as envisioned in Mission Command---trust generated by a Cmdr's team building using UVDDLA ie Art of Command vs the Staff side which if built and mentored correctly adds to the Cmdrs UVDDLA and the entire group acquires a higher level of understanding of the OE.

There was a WP handed out at the MC Conference recently in KC---basic thesis was are we as a Force ready to pay the true moral and mental pain necessary to correct the issues around Staffs and Trust---some think we are not ready to pay the price thus Design will fail and the concept of Mission Command will fail---there is something to that line of thought.

We currently are not truly training our BCT/BN Staffs and coupled with the failures in Officer education and a serious decline in overall personal officer development ie understanding the real world around them we get as an example the following----BCT redeploys and heads into the rebuilding phase---at say the BN level the Staff is composed of about half being 1st Lts (with no MDMP training as they get that as the CCC), 3 to 4 CPTs with hopefully the S3 being a MAJ and a XO as a MAJ.

NOTE: We are great at training small units but when it comes to staff training it does not seem to exist and with the new DATE scenarios that units will be exercised on---units will live or die by their Staff's performance or lack of performance.

While all have been a couple of times to either Iraq of AFG they are basically a new Staff.

If under Mission Command the BN Cmdr typically a LTC does not actively train/mentor/build the team and assist his Staff in their jelling as a Staff it then falls to the XO---IF trust is not built by the Cmdr leading by example the Staff stays on a tread mill and basically it is being lead by the XO. As a result you tend to see micromanagment and a serious distrust of their NCOs and little to no open communication between the officers and absolutely no critical thinking as no one is willing to venture forth into any discussion.

This I am seeing over, over, and over the last couple of years at BNs/BCTs and even higher---it is serious and it is deepening.

With the stepping stone to one star being the BCT ---can you expect to see anyone admit failures?

We all need to get out from under the rock and finally admit that this is a serious problem and unless it is corrected it will lead to the failure of Mission Command and Design.

Not sure why you are surprised---the problems are easy to see and document---this is where GM, BZ, and others are repeating over and over.

If the system punishes objectivity, then good guys falling on their sword and committing career suicide and leaving only bad guys in charge doesn't seem to be a sign of more integrity to me- so I do not share your charge of a lack of integrity.

By your response I take it that you haven't noticed (or maybe you can correct me)- a lack of AARs or reports from unit commanders that talk about the resounding failure they've experienced--? I haven't- at least not from O-5s and up, but I'm even hard-pressed to find ones from those lower. If this is a fact, then what do you surmise from it?

I conclude that we are all doing a lot of hard work, the system doesn't reward brutal public honesty, and we shouldn't use public reports to back up an assertion. You asserted that my description of this "mission impossible" was wrong due to the resounding success described in the article. I simply pointed out what I thought to be the flaw in your assertion.


You wrote :

Quote “No disrespect to COL Toner - but a commander has to be the last person I'd expect to give an honest assessment of his unit's performance in public.” Unquote.

I personally would choose the Colonel commanding a brigade as the first person I would go to for an honest assessment and I would expect no less from Col Toner. I imagine that is the reason the COIN Centre interviewed him.

I appreciate that non-combat commands may embrace a more Machiavellian attitude to assessment but in a combat zone that is not even remotely acceptable.


Have you chosen any "combat" commands that gave a less than stellar report? Have you read any?


As a matter of fact I have read AARs which declared the whole thing ‘has gone to hell’ but that is not the important issue here. I have read a great many more AARs describing events in Pansjhir, Munjon, Nuristan, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar which were dangerously misleading - to put it mildly. This lack of objective record and rational interpretation of subsequent events helped shape the West’s ridiculous naivety towards the region’s political, military and diplomatic power-brokers. You are probably more aware than most of the present-day consequences of this deception and your suggestion that this inexcusable BS is continuing is alarming.

The prime mover in misleading Congress and the Reagan admin was the Soviet GRU, followed a close second by the Pak ISI and then the Muslim Brotherhood, which as you know spawned ALQ. Obviously the GRU’s efforts were expected but up until 10 Sept 2001 the ISI and the ‘Arab fighters’ were considered anti-Soviet and by default (my enemy’s enemy is my friend) pro US.

Literally tens of thousands of reports and hundreds of books saw to it that this fantasy was an established wisdom for the best part of 30 years. The fact that at no time did the ISI nor the MB make it a secret that they openly despised the US and were just as intent on reducing Afghanistan to anarchy and rubble (witness Kabul and other major cities which were essentially untouched when the Red Army withdrew) as the Soviets were.

As opposed to the GRU, ISI, Muslim Brotherhood, a large number of self-promoting journalists and a handful of check-book traitors in the USG the BCT is as All-American as you can get. There is a direct link between the President’s will, the Operational Plan and the BCT commander. Your suggestion that any BCT commander, let alone one recently returned from deployment - “ the last person I would ask for an honest AAR.”- is astonishing.



Please post a link to even one BCT AAR published publicly that implied their efforts were useless. I will take back my assertion.

I don't separate BCT commanders from Program Managers, key staffers at Corps and higher HQs, and major staff section heads at the Pentagon. These O-6 level leaders are working within the same system and are thus prone to the same pressures of the system. I have found little to no evidence that the system that is in place within our government/country today rewards objectiveness and candor from our O-6 level leaders- in fact I've found the opposite. I am not saying they lie. I am not saying they do not have integrity. I think the issue is much more complex than simple one-word labels and one paragraph analyses.

To me the proof of this is in the lack of BCT AARs published publicly that point out issues with what we/they are doing. Again, post one so that I can change my mind and issue an apology, but I have been unable to find all of these AARs myself.

(posted this from my kindle in an airport last night, went to top but it belonged here - reposting)

This is not an issue of integrity, it is an issue of doctrine, strategy, operational design and tactics - we treat symptoms rather than causes, and when we do it well those symptoms go away - for a time. Then we let up that pressure and the whole thing comes back to life.

Our COIN histories overflow with such "victories" and subsequent "new" insurgencies.

I am sure this article is COL Toner's honest assessment. I am equally sure that such effects achieved in one small location do not much change a nation/region-wide insurgeny, particularly when they do little to address the primary sources of insurgent causation as a whole - the fundamental illegitimacy of the Northern Alliance-based system of governance dedicated to the exclusion of any influcence associated with those populaces that lend their support to the former Taliban government for the revolutionary aspect of the insurgency; and our huge foreign presence and COIN operations that fuel the resistance aspect of the insurgency.

Symptomes in COL Toner's AOR? Suppressed. there is no reason to disbelieve the facts/metrics that he reports, but there is every reason to question his assessment of what those metrics mean. Overall drivers of insurgency in Afghanistan? If anything, probably stronger that before he and his men arrived.

COL Jones:

If the countries of the global north believe that it is essential -- to their security and to their way of life -- that they transform and incorporate the states and societies of the global south; this so that the global south might come to offer the global north less trouble and come to provide the global north more utility and usefulness instead,

Then can this objective of the global north be achieved minus the exclusion of those within the global south who would fight and die rather than see their state and society thus transformed and incorporated? (The revolutionary aspect of the insurgency.)

And can this objective of the global north be achieved minus a significant global north presence inside these global south countries; needed (1) to overcome these various contrary global south nations and population groups and (2) to otherwise manage, oversee and bring about the necessary transformation and incorporation of the global south? (The resistance aspect of the insurgency.)

If so, how?

G. Martin:

Enhancing your scenerio above:

If I were your Commander and I told you that we were there in the United States to do Opposed State and Societal Transformation (OS&ST).

Specifically, that we were there in the United States to:

a. Cause/help the people of the United States abandon their present way of life and way of governance and to cause/help them adopt, in the place of these, our Middle Eastern political, economic and social systems and to:

b. Capture, kill or otherwise overcome those individuals and groups who would, quite understandably, resist our such efforts and, thus, stand in our way.

Then, given this situation and this scenerio, would the young officers in your organization understand that lethal operations were an integral part of our campaign? (Herein, the term "Opposed State and Societal Transformation" -- rather than "counterinsurgency" -- telling everyone, from the get-go, much of what they needed to know).

That's a good question- and one at a little higher level than I was thinking (I was looking mainly at what the platoon might try to accomplish on a daily basis), but you're right- if they are trying to change the system while they are there- then they might face a greater resistance (which is what they would IMO, if they tried that change) and thus have to kill in order for that societal change.

And I couldn't imagine southeastern U.S. folks conducive to changing based on what some army folks from the Middle East think they should. Seems to me that even if it was arguably good change- it would be fought ... and to the death.