Retiring general warns against skimping on support for future military missions

A retiring Canadian general who served a number of international tours in his almost 40-year career says there should be more resources for and less government control over future military missions.

Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson served as commander of Task Force Kandahar in Afghanistan in 2008

Gen. Denis Thompson meets with a district leader in Muhammad Rashid — a village created by a Saudi benefactor for Afghanistan's handicapped in this photo taken Nov. 13, 2008. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

A retiring Canadian general who served a number of international tours in his almost 40-year career says there should be more resources for and less government control over future military missions.

"I came back from Afghanistan and my biggest observation was what we have to stop is allowing capitals to run individual parts of the campaign," said Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson, who was attending an event in Calgary last week.

Thompson, who recently ended a three-year tour as head of the Multinational Force and Observers in Egypt, also had postings in Germany and Bosnia.

In 2008, he was commander of Task Force Kandahar in Afghanistan, where he saw different countries overseeing different regions with little co-ordination.

"Ottawa tried to run Kandahar. The British tried to run Helmand. The Dutch tried to run North Urozgan and the Americans ran several provinces, and it wasn't really joined up," said Thompson.

"So what happened is we had 2,750 Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, the home of the Taliban. Next door in Helmand, which was a sideshow, there were 8,000 to 10,000 Brits, and when the American marines arrived ... where did the marines go? To Helmand.

"So we were left holding the bag and ... running around playing whack-a-mole because we didn't have enough troops. We didn't even have half the number of troops we needed and [additional soldiers] didn't arrive until 2010-2011, and by then you're 10 years into the war."

Lessons to be learned

Canada sent its first soldiers to Afghanistan in October 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Canada's role initially was to help stabilize the Middle Eastern region and provide peace support operations.

But the assignment expanded into a full combat mission which continued until 2011. Some troops remained in a training and mentoring capacity until March 2014.

Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson, seen here in Kandahar province on Dec. 11, 2008, served a number of international tours in his 40-year military career. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

Thompson, who also served as Commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command in Ottawa, said there are lessons to be learned for future international missions.

"You have to apply enough resources, and the problem in a lot of these campaigns — whether it's UN, NATO, a 'Coalition of the Willing' — is there has to be one central commander who has all the authorities," Thompson suggested.

"He can apply all the pressures he needs to solve all of the problems and not allow people to tinker with a 10,000-kilometre screwdriver from a great distance and mess with your campaign plan."

'We need to invest in civilians'

Thompson favours leaving commanders in place for longer periods, so that they are familiar with all the nuances of a mission. He added more focus should also be placed on providing non-military personnel to help influence policy at local levels with aid organizations such as the Red Cross or the UN Refugee Agency.

"We need to invest civilians, send them to those organizations from our Foreign Affairs Department ... and send them straight to those organizations ... so they can influence the direction of the campaign."

Thompson said the Canadian military is as well prepared as it's ever been and will respond to whatever the government decides Canada should be doing. And as far as resolving problems in war-torn areas such as Iraq and Syria, he suggested there is a common denominator.

"It has more to do with fixing the economic imbalances and the widespread poverty, the destitution that's been brought about by this conflict. Until you really get to the root problem, you can't solve the overall security problem."