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Interview: Amb. Ryan Crocker warns against war fatigue in Afghanistan

Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Afghanistan, sees progress amid an extended 'rough' patch in relations. He also cautions against quitting Afghanistan too soon, citing Al Qaeda. 'If we decide we're tired, ... they'll be back.'

By Staff writer / March 26, 2012

Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Afghanistan speaks during an interview at the U.S embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this 2011 file photo.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File

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Kabul, Afghanistan

It’s not news to anyone that the United States and the international community have recently experienced some rough weeks in Afghanistan.

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But if there’s a silver lining to the clouds hanging over the American-led war effort here, it’s that the terrible recent events – the unintentional burning of Qurans by American forces and ensuing civil unrest, the revenge killings of US and other international forces by “friendly” Afghan soldiers, and the horrific murders of 17 Afghan villagers allegedly committed by a US Army sergeant – have provided a measure of Afghanistan’s progress, and of the importance of a continuing international commitment.

That’s the message of the US ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, who counters reports of doom for the US mission in Afghanistan with evidence of progress – even as he warns of the consequences for America’s national security of giving in to war fatigue and pulling out.

“We’ve had a rough fall, a rough winter – and we are having a rough spring,” acknowledges Ambassador Crocker, who then shifts focus to two signs of a stronger, more mature Afghanistan as revealed by the recent trial by fire.

First, the Afghan security forces that NATO and other international partners are training to take over command of the country’s security kept control of an explosive domestic climate after the Quran burnings, protecting both Afghans and foreign forces with minimal loss of life.

“It was Afghan security forces who stepped up…. They protected Afghan lives, and they protected American lives [and] the lives of others from the international community,” he says, noting that 30 Afghans were reported to have died in the days of unrest. “That’s not too darn bad given the volatility of the situation.”

Second, Crocker underscores the fact that, despite some turbulence, the US-Afghanistan negotiations toward reaching a Strategic Partnership Agreement – the framework that will determine the US military role in Afghanistan after 2014 – weathered the trying events and are moving forward.

“We’re making very significant headway” in negotiations, he says, “and we’re doing it under particularly difficult conditions.”

Crocker says such signposts of progress should encourage both the US and the international community to muster the “strategic patience” that will be necessary for sticking with a country that may seem to be progressing slowly – but which to abandon would be to open the way to potential recurrences of the 9/11 tragedy.

The two countries have already settled the thorny issue of the conditions for handing over some 3,000 detainees in US custody to Afghan authority, while the question of night raids by foreign forces is still under discussion.

The night raids – troops entering sleeping villages to ferret out insurgents and suspected terrorists – are particularly unpopular among Afghans, and they raise the ire of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who considers them a stab at Afghan sovereignty. But US military commanders consider the tactic an essential tool in the anti-Taliban effort, and the US insists on the ability to rely on the raids in the counterterrorism efforts it wants to continue after the international combat role ends in December 2014.

Some US and international military officials hint that an accord on night raids is likely, perhaps by assuaging Mr. Karzai’s sovereignty concerns with a provision requiring a warrant from an Afghan judge.

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