Trio of Top U.S. Diplomats, Including Ambassadors to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Leaving Their Jobs

May 23, 2012 - 4:48 AM

Pakistan-Munter

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter and his wife Marilyn Wyatt observe a flood-affected area in Swat, Pakistan on November 4, 2010. (Photo: State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – The United States is losing three top diplomats in the coming months, including those overseeing two of Washington’s most critical and challenging bilateral relationships.

Between them, Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman have more than 90 years’ experience in the Foreign Service. By the summer, all three will have left.

Crocker’s departure in mid-summer will come one year after he came out of retirement following an eminent diplomatic career, to take up the ambassador’s post in Kabul.

“Ambassador Crocker has confirmed, with regret, that he will be leaving Kabul this summer,” the embassy said in a Twitter message.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on the reasons for his departure – reportedly on health grounds – but said “this is something that he has been working through.”

“We simply wanted – and he wanted – to make it clear that this should not in any way be seen as a lessening of his personal commitment and our national commitment, obviously, to Afghanistan,” she said, adding that Crocker would stay on through an Afghanistan economic conference to be held in Tokyo in July.

Nuland said Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham would “steer the ship in the interim,” pending the White House’s nomination of Crocker’s successor.

Ryan Crocker

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker addresses an event at the National Museum of Afghanistan last month. (Photo: US Embassy, Kabul)

Crocker’s links to Afghanistan predate his appointment as ambassador last July. He served as interim charge d’affaires when the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was reopened in early 2002, following the ousting of the Taliban regime.

Having previously served as ambassadors in Beirut, Islamabad, Kuwait City and Damascus, his appointment last year was part of a major national security shuffle by President Obama, including General David Petraeus’ move to the CIA, and Leon Panetta’s shift from the CIA to the Pentagon.

Taking over from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry at a time relations between the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai were at a low point, Crocker’s tenure saw further crises test his diplomatic skills, including the violent reaction to the damaging of copies of the Qur’an at the U.S. military base in Bagram, the shooting of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar, and the appearance of photos depicting soldiers with the bodies of dead insurgents.

His departure comes at a critical time, during Afghanistan’s last summer “fighting season” before NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops shift to a purely supportive role next year, as confirmed at the NATO leaders’ conference this week.

Crocker attended the summit in Chicago, along with his counterpart in Islamabad, who is also leaving his post in the summer.

‘Step off this fast track’

Like Crocker’s, Munter’s departure comes earlier than expected, and in his case followed reports in Pakistan’s conspiracy-inclined media alleging differences between the ambassador and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the issuing of a $10 million reward for information leading to the conviction of alleged Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed.

The ambassador announced his plans during an embassy staff meeting earlier this month, and both Clinton and her department sought to play down the significance.

“It’s not unusual in these very difficult assignments that we have now – Afghanistan, before that Iraq, Pakistan, others – that the intensity of the work that is required, it leads someone to say ‘I’m going full-out for two years and then I am going to need to step off this fast track,’” Clinton said in a radio interview while on a visit to India on May 8. “So I’m very understanding of that. It was totally his request, and we’re going to honor it.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Munter had made a “personal decision to depart Pakistan this summer” and added that two years was “a perfectly normal period for an ambassador to Pakistan.”

Currently, Munter has served one year and seven months. Of the past five U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson served three years, two months; Ryan Crocker served two years, four months; Nancy Powell was in the post for two years, two months; Wendy Chamberlin served eight-and-a-half months (immediately after 9./11); and William Milam held the post for two years, nine months.

The reward offer for Saeed, a high-profile radical cleric, added to tensions between Washington and Islamabad, and Pakistani media claimed that Munter was upset that Clinton, during her India visit, reaffirmed that the U.S. was going to “keep pushing” Pakistan to act against Saeed.

Some outlets even claimed that Munter and Saeed had met secretly, prompting the U.S. Embassy to issue a terse statement denying that the ambassador had met with or offered any assurances to the “wanted terrorist responsible for the deadly attack on Mumbai in November 2008 that killed 166, including six Americans.” (For his part, Saeed says he plans to sue the journalists concerned for allegations that were untrue and damaging to his reputation.)

Like Crocker, Munter has had to deal with serious crises in Washington’s relations with his host government, including the arrest early last year of a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis; the Osama bin Laden raid a year ago, drone strikes, and especially the accidental killing in an airstrike last November of 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Shortly after the fatal strike along the Afghan-Pakistan border, the New York Times reported that Munter pushed for a formal apology, but that the Defense Department resisted and the U.S. response was limited to an expression of regret

In the absence of the explicit apology it was demanding, Pakistan retaliated by shutting supply lines used by NATO forces in landlocked Afghanistan, a situation yet to be resolved.

Jeffrey Feltman

Assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman meets with reporters in Tunis, Tunisia on January 26, 2011 (Photo: State Department)

In yet another diplomatic departure, Feltman is due to leave his post as top diplomat in the Middle East within days – reportedly for a senior position in the United Nations.

Nuland said Tuesday only that Feltman had advised Clinton of plans to retire “and that he is going to be pursuing other opportunities.”

Feltman was sworn in as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in August 2009. His 26-year career included senior posts at the State Department, an ambassadorship in Beirut, and positions in Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, Hungary and Haiti.

Crocker retired after a 38-year career in 2009, after which he served as dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M university. He came out of retirement last July to take up the post in Kabul.

During his 26 years in the Foreign Service, Munter served as ambassador in Islamabad and Belgrade, led a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, and was deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, Prague and Warsaw, among other posts at home and abroad.