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Warlords and WikiLeaks

A conversation with Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan

William Crosbie is Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan.


By Rebecca Cohoe

Like the many other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians involved in the Afghan mission, William Crosbie is a long way from home; however, as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, his experience in the conflict is unique.

In January, Ambassador Crosbie visited Memorial, his alma mater, to present at a Harris Centre Synergy Session, and to discuss the transition of the current mission, from combat to training.

Due to Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan, Ambassador Crosbie’s posting is significantly different from those of his Canadian diplomatic counterparts.

“One of the novel things about this position is how much I work with the military,” he explained. “It’s unique to this mission.”

According to Ambassador Crosbie, the difference between the current combat mission, ending in 2011, and the upcoming training phase will be significant.
“Canada’s first comprehensive mission in Afghanistan, running from 2008-11, was very much focused on the province of Kandahar. Fifty per cent of our development spending took place in Kandahar, and all of our combat troops were based in that province,” said Ambassador Crosbie.

After 2011, the mission’s scope and range will change. “Our mission will cease to be involved in combat, and will cease to be responsible for a geographic area, and we will be focused on building the capacity of the police and the army,” he said.

Despite Canada’s decision to end its combat mission this year, “the security environment, while it has improved, continues to be based upon the intimidation and threatening of all of those people who are critical to bringing governance and development. Teachers, civil servants, political leaders, members of parliament: if those people are assassinated, as we see in the campaign going on now, we’re not going to be able to do any of the things we want to do,” said Ambassador Crosbie.

He had no difficulty supplying recent examples of violence directed at politicians and civil servants. “We just lost the deputy governor of Kandahar, assassinated, and also the commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission: she, her husband and three children were all killed in a supermarket bombing.”

Along with the challenges of the mission transition, Ambassador Crosbie recently found himself at the centre of a diplomatic mess that has feathers ruffling all over the world.

In December 2010, the Canadian media reported on a leaked document that stated that Ambassador Crosbie had offered to resign in advance of a WikiLeaks release containing details of a meeting between himself and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Although the Wikileaks release did include the ambassador’s comments, including questions about the ethical conduct of Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, Ambassador Crosbie kept his diplomatic position; however, he says the experience has changed both his approach to his job, and the way that international diplomacy works on a global scale.

“International relationships between governments have similarities to personal relationships, insofar as we all need a space to be able to talk in confidence to one another,” he said. “If you remove that space, if you inject into those private, confidential conversations, the possibility that what you say could be revealed to the world, it can be very damaging to your ability to build relationships, and to communicate frankly with one another.”

Along with complicating diplomatic relationships, Ambassador Crosbie worries about the impact leaks can have on confidential sources. “It means that it’s harder for the people on whom I rely, Afghans in particular, who may have opinions that are divergent from the government.”

Still, Ambassador Crosbie said he supports Canadians’ desire to know more about the reasons behind their government’s foreign policy decisions. “I think it’s a good thing to always challenge the government for more information,” said Ambassador Crosbie. “I think it’s important to be consistent in wanting to know more and understand the rationale, and I think one of the things that makes our society healthy is when you have people outside the government who challenge it.

“That said, I think that we in government should be very clear that there are some things that we are going to not reveal, but we need to tell the reasons why, explain why, and justify it. Sometimes people won’t accept that, and there will be criticism, but they should be forcing us to limit the amount of information that we keep to ourselves,” he concluded.