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EUPOL Head of Mission to Afghanistan Kai Vittrup hands a plaque to RCMP Commissioner William J.S. Elliott. The RCMP commissioner visited Eupol in April 19 2010.

The embattled bureaucrat who has been running the Mounties for three years has learned how to shoot a gun.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott was photographed during an official visit to Afghanistan in April looking very much a professional cop in a Mountie uniform and packing a sidearm.

The picture was circulated in a European police newsletter in May and raised eyebrows within the RCMP ranks and beyond. That's because Mr. Elliott - a lawyer who cut his teeth in security matters inside Ottawa's Privy Council Office - has never been known to wear a uniform, much less wield a weapon.

"Frankly, I don't believe the Bill Elliott could hit the broad side of a barn door if he was called upon to use it," Liberal Senator Colin Kenny said on Wednesday of his reaction to the photo.

The Mounties say that wearing a uniform and sidearm is de rigueur for police officials visiting Afghanistan. The nascent national police force of the war-ravaged country is being mentored by a legions of trained police officers from Canada, the United States and Europe.

"The commissioner wore the operational RCMP uniform, carried a sidearm and on occasion wore body armour," RCMP Sergeant Pat Flood explained on Wednesday in an emailed response to questions from The Globe and Mail.

The Mountie spokeswoman said Mr. Elliott was advised to carry a gun by senior officers in Canada and Afghanistan and that he "was provided with firearms training adapted to the operational requirements of his travel to Afghanistan." She did not go into specifics about how much training Mr. Elliott got.

Although he got a crash course in lethal force, the commissioner never boned up on less lethal options. Sgt. Flood said he underwent an adapted version of the standard Mountie firearms training, and no courses on how to incapacitate someone with pepper spray or a baton.

Speculation is building that Mr. Elliott will shake up the upper ranks of the Mounties since surviving a revolt in the ranks. Several senior officers have recently complained, privately and publicly, that the commissioner has a fly-off-the-handle temper and tendency to demean subordinates.

The complaints spawned workplace investigations, yet do not appear to have caused the federal government to question Mr. Elliott's leadership. "The government has confidence in Bill Elliott, and he will remain commissioner until he chooses to leave the position," a senior federal official said last week.

The photo of the pistol-packing commissioner was first published in the EUPOL Serving Afghanistan newsletter, which documents how European police are mentoring Afghan counterparts. Mr. Elliott was snapped as he was handed a plaque by the head of the European police mission to Afghanistan.

Sgt. Flood said that Mr. Elliott "travelled throughout Afghanistan to meet with RCMP personnel and a wide range of government and other representatives." She added that he carried a standard-issue pistol when "the circumstances warranted being armed for personal protection."

Mr. Elliott is not the only Canadian civilian carrying a gun in Afghanistan these days. The Globe reported earlier this year that the clandestine operatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Services have also been given permission to wield weapons there, even though CSIS agents have never been allowed to carry guns in Canada.

When the Stephen Harper government appointed Mr. Elliott to the RCMP, he opted to be sworn in wearing a dark suit rather than the traditional red serge.

Mr. Kenny, the Liberal Senator who headed the upper chamber's national-security committee for a decade before he was replaced this year, said he doesn't recall ever seeing the civilian commissioner in a uniform before.

He also questions whether Mr. Elliott's gun made anyone any safer. At best, he said, it was redundant, given how soldiers guard VIPs during visits. At worst, he said, the gun could have gone off by mistake. "If you don't have sufficient training," Mr. Kenny said, "it's likely or possible that you could injure people around you."

The Mountie chief has received other specialized training since becoming commissioner. Last year, for example, he attended a $44,000 course in Arizona for executive behavioural training.