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With Crocker's exit, a chance for a new approach to Afghanistan

Ambassador Ryan Crocker announced he is stepping down as the US ambassador to Afghanistan. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / May 23, 2012

In this June 2011 file photo, Ryan Crocker testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Crocker will be stepping down as US ambassador to Afghanistan this summer – a year earlier than planned.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File


This July, when Ryan Crocker steps down as US ambassador to Afghanistan – a year earlier than planned, because of health reasons – the baton of American foreign policy will be passed along to a new envoy charged with what must easily be the most difficult diplomatic job in the foreign service.

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Mr. Crocker’s successor will have to manage both the personal and institutional relationships between two countries who will slowly part ways, as the US military begins to withdraw 90,000 troops from bases in Afghanistan, and as the Afghan government rises up to take on the responsibilities of its own security, development, and governance.

Crocker’s past year as ambassador was not an easy one. Afghan soldiers have begun killing their US, French, and British trainers. NATO airstrikes on civilians, NATO burnings of Qurans, and the deliberate burning of Qurans by a Florida preacher have all strained the US-Afghan relationship, leading to protests on Afghan streets, and heated meetings between governments.

Crocker brought to the table a familiarity with Muslim culture. He speaks Arabic and served as ambassador in Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as previous stints as ambassador to Pakistan and to Afghanistan, immediately after the US embassy was reopened in early 2002. Crocker's most important calling card was helping to pacify Iraq, but this success carries its own challenges. Like many members of the US diplomatic corps, Crocker's approach to US diplomacy in Afghanistan is marked by one single event – the September 11 attacks – and an obsession with security.  

Time for a shift?

Crocker's departure might be a good time for a shift in the US's diplomatic approach, away from a single-minded focus on 9/11. 

One thing about the decade after September 11 is that it has clarified for an entire generation of US diplomats what their job is about. Before 9/11, there was a lot of talk about America’s soft power abroad, about the myriad ways in which American culture and economic power was unifying men and nations. Destruction of the Twin Towers changed all that. Post 9/11, US diplomats pared down their job description to three essential functions, to report, influence, and defend: that is, to report on events in foreign lands, to influence foreign leaders to make decisions in line with US interests, and to defend US interests (rhetorically at least) abroad.

Traumatic events have a way of shaping a diplomat's world view. In the lead-up to Britain's 1956 intervention in the Suez Canal, which Egypt had nationalized, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden admitted that he was prompted to take firm action by the haunting memory of Europe's failed diplomacy in the leadup to World War I, and its weak response to Adolf Hitler's aggressions in the 1930s. 


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