News  Afghanistan’s top Canadian soldier busts mission’s myths

Brigadier-General Thompson welcomes a stronger civilian presence

For the past nine months, Brigadier-General Denis Thompson acted as commander of Canadian and NATO military operations in Kandahar province – where Canada’s mission in Afghanistan is primarily focused. With his rotation over, the General took some time with The Daily to reflect on Canadian misperceptions of counter-insurgency and the mission, as it evolves toward a more development-led approach.

The McGill Daily: What are the main myths that Canadians hold about the mission?

Denis Thompson: I’d say there are four myths. The first is that the security situation is in a downward spiral, which it is not. What I’m suggesting is that people’s perceptions have dropped off. The situation isn’t in a downward spiral because [Afghans] aren’t actively supporting the [Taliban].

Number two, the Taiban exist as a shadow government in the province. What they do is they have these travelling mullahs that go around and administer severe judgements, usually hanging somebody from a tree for not following the Taliban’s wishes. My catch-phrase is that a travelling hanging judge is not governance made. Governance is providing some services…and that’s not what the Taliban are about.

The third thing is that air strikes are indiscriminate. I’m responsible for casualties in Kandahar and the units there…and we always used air power in a targeted way and there were no civilian casualties as a result.

The fourth and final myth, is that everyone returning from Afghanistan is an emotional wreck, [because] 40 per cent of people, according to the papers, have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But what they fail to make a precision on is that PTSD comes in certain grades [like obesity]. What’s changed in the Canadian Forces is that we make sure [mental health] services are now provided.

MD: In the past year, civilian presence in Kandahar – like diplomats and development workers – has doubled. Is it difficult to integrate civilians into military operation?

DT: They’ve more than doubled, and they were integrated when they arrived in August [2008]. There’s no plan to reduce [their presence. They’re important] because [they’re] the piece that delivers services to people that can change the quality of their lives. When you do this, you’re doing your part to win the mission.

MD: Does the military have a development role aside from creating a security parameter within which development and diplomacy workers can operate?

DT: In environments where the security situation is sufficiently tenuous, you really have to engage the military to make anything happen, or at least to supervise the work of locals doing development work. The important thing to take away is that while [a project] may be supervised by the military, it’s synchronized with the overall plan that is developed with civilians integrated into the mission.

— compiled by Alison Withers