The Obama administration is preparing to nominate Ryan Crocker to be the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, putting one of the nation’s most experienced diplomats in charge of the civilian side of the flagging U.S.-led war effort there, a White House official confirmed.
The move, which could be announced this week, would reunite Crocker with Gen. David Petraeus, the diplomat’s partner in Iraq during the pivotal years where the two men helped bring the country back from the brink of civil war. Petraeus, who describes Crocker as the most capable diplomat he’s ever worked with, has been privately pushing the White House to make the appointment while urging Crocker to come out of retirement to accept it.
If finalized by the White House and confirmed by the Senate, Crocker’s appointment could revitalize the administration’s ongoing effort to repair its tattered relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai publicly criticizes the United States at virtually every public opportunity, and the mercurial Afghan leader largely ignores current U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Crocker will be charged with repairing ties with Karzai while helping to advance the on-again, off-again peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban.
The decision to send Crocker to Kabul is the Obama administration’s most significant move in months to shuffle the ranks of its Afghan war team ahead of a critical period in the decade-long war there. The United States surged 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan last year in a push to end the Taliban’s battlefield momentum and oust the armed group from its safe havens in the east and south of the country. The White House is preparing to launch a wide-ranging review of the war’s progress ahead of a self-imposed July deadline for beginning to bring those troops home, and the appointment means Crocker and Petraeus should have several months to work together before taking part in those policy discussions.
The move is also virtually certain to keep Petraeus in Kabul longer than many observers had expected. The Afghan war commander told the White House that he would stay through the end of the current Afghan fighting season, which could extend until sometime in December, but some senior Pentagon and administration officials had thought he might step down as early as September. Given the close personal and professional relationship between the two men, Petraeus is now likely to extend his tour in Afghanistan by several months to see if he and Crocker can recreate the success they enjoyed in Iraq.
Crocker is one of the nation’s most-respected diplomats. During 37 years in the Foreign Service, Crocker served in hotspots ranging from Lebanon to Pakistan and forged tight relationships with an array of senior U.S. military officers. In Baghdad, he developed close ties with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and is credited with curbing the Iraqi leader’s sectarian impulses and successfully prodding him to crack down on the country’s Iranian-backed Shia militias. Crocker, who retired in 2009 to become dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, was no stranger to Iraq: he met his wife during his first stint in Baghdad in 1979.
Still, Afghanistan poses a different and more complex set of challenges. As he did in Iraq, Crocker will assume the helm of one of the largest American embassies in the world. But unlike in Iraq, Crocker will go to Kabul when diplomatic relations between the United States and Afghanistan are at an all-time low. Karzai routinely accuses U.S. forces of carelessly killing Afghan civilians and inadvertently fueling his country’s corruption by pumping aid money into Afghanistan with little oversight. Many U.S. officials, for their part, see Karzai as corrupt, feckless, and unappreciative of the thousands of coalition troops who have died in support of his government.
Eikenberry, in a private conversation recounted in Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, told administration officials that the Afghan leader was manic depressive and suffered severe mood swings. “He’s on his meds, he’s off his meds,” Eikenberry was quoted as saying. Karzai cut virtually all ties with the ambassador after the book’s publication.
When he leaves for Kabul, Crocker will inherit the difficult job of managing both Karzai and the often unwieldy State Department-led effort to improve the capabilities of the Afghan central, provincial, and local governments. There is probably no diplomat better equipped for those difficult missions than Crocker, a man Petraeus used to fondly describe as his “diplomatic wingman.” Whether he can pull them off in a country as broken as Afghanistan, however, remains to be seen.