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Canadian envoy didn't mince words about Hamid Karzai

Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan William Crosbie holds a meeting at Kandahar airfield on Sept. 9, 2009.

Sergeant Serge Gouin

Bill Crosbie always showed the ambassador's charm, not the stinging tongue of his more famous politician cousin, John Crosbie. But the diplomat's biting edge, sharpened by the frustrations of Afghanistan, leaked into public view this week in memos excoriating Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Now Bill Crosbie, Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, has become not just the Canadian collateral damage from the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic notes, but the face of Canada's scathing view of Mr. Karzai and his entourage.

In his own memo to Ottawa, leaked this week, and in records of his conversations with U.S. diplomats leaked in the WikiLeaks trove, the erudite ambassador's silky supper-table charm gives way to fiery words castigating Mr. Karzai and his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Kandahar kingpin viewed by Western diplomats as corrupt.

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"He was emotional, saying the issue 'makes my blood boil,' " the U.S. cable notes, "as he described the Canadian view that the international community must stand up for the silent majority or be blamed for letting Karzai and his family establish across the country the system of patronage and control that exists in Kandahar."

For decades, it was John Crosbie whose blustery phrases raised ire and smirks, while Bill was the behind-the-scenes player as political aide and diplomat who steered his way through a career full of headache cases.

When he worked as an aide to his cousin John, he had to help the then-fisheries minister navigate the closing of the East Coast cod fishery. As a diplomat in Washington, he handled economic matters when relations were littered with trade disputes over softwood and beef. In 2007, he became head of consular affairs just as the government faced an outcry of public demands to obtain the release of Canadian Brenda Martin from a Mexican jail.

Now ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr. Crosbie is rated as influential and persuasive and, after more than a year on the job, as a fast learner who grasped much of the complex affairs of Afghan diplomacy. As a boss, he is not a yeller but a leader who motivates staff by appealing to a duty to serve.

But his blunt private words don't surprise those who know him well. He is, according to some current and former colleagues, a man who feels emotion about work issues - and a touch unforgiving about the frustrating realities of Afghanistan.

"Newfoundlanders, at a certain point, all have a limited tolerance for external bullshit,' said his second cousin Tim Powers, an Ottawa lobbyist. "We can live with our own blarney, but when we see when we're trying to make a difference and move forward that there are hurdles, we're relatively quick in pointing it out."

In the 1980s, when he moved to Ottawa to work for his cousin John, he was known for making high expectations felt. "You were more worried about disappointing Bill Crosbie than making him angry," said Jim Armour, who worked for him then. "You were sort of honour-bound."

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In Afghanistan, he has been viewed by other diplomats as an erudite and reassuring figure with a human touch, who travels to war-scarred Kandahar and goes outside the wire to meetings and village councils.

Last December, when four Canadian soldiers and journalist Michelle Lang were killed by an IED blast, and a diplomat was seriously wounded, Mr. Crosbie sent an e-mail that somehow sounded the right note to comfort devastated staff.

"It was so reassuring that I printed it and taped it to the inside of my notebook for the rest of my tour," said Renée Filiatrault, who worked as a public-affairs officer at Kandahar Air Field.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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