Ryan Crocker’s Afghanistan: Mission Impossible

A one-of-a-kind U.S. diplomat says he’s leaving Afghanistan. Ron Moreau on what the ambassador achieved and how hard he will be to replace.

In late 2001, shortly after the Taliban’s collapse, a young, relatively unknown Pashtun tribal leader was named as interim leader of Afghanistan by an international conference at Bonn, Germany. Just 10 days later, one of America’s top troubleshooting diplomats landed in Kabul. It would be his job to reopen the U.S. Embassy, which had been shuttered since 1989. But Ryan Crocker’s other job in the Afghan capital would be even more important: to work closely with President Hamid Karzai, whose main qualification for the job was that unlike practically every other potential Afghan leader, he didn’t have blood on his hands from the country’s interminable civil wars. “We were together every day for the four months I was here,” Crocker told The Daily Beast earlier this year in the heavily guarded American Embassy earlier this year. “And every single conversation we had would have the phrase ‘What the hell do we do now?’”

President Obama and the State Department must be asking the same question right now. Crocker has announced that he’s preparing to leave Kabul, returning to retirement a full year before his latest two-year posting was to end. Replacing one of the State Department’s most talented diplomats won’t be easy, not only because Crocker has an intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of the region, but also because he managed to establish a close rapport with the famously difficult, mercurial, and irascible Afghan president.

Crocker and Karzai bonded in early 2002 while they tried to figure out their next moves in a country that had been devastated by three decades of war and five years of Taliban misrule. And that decade-old friendship served them well after President Obama cajoled Crocker to come out of retirement last summer, leave his cushy position as dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and return to Kabul. A sense of patriotism and mission forced Crocker to accept Obama’s can’t-refuse offer—much to the disappointment of Crocker’s wife, Christine, a retired Foreign Service officer herself. She thought her husband’s service on the front lines of American diplomacy had continued long enough.

Upon his arrival in Kabul in July 2011, Crocker faced an enormous challenge: to rebuild a working relationship between the United States and Karzai. The connection between the Afghan president and the outgoing ambassador, retired U.S. Army Gen. Karl Eikenberry, couldn’t have been more dysfunctional. A leaked cable from Eikenberry to the State Department pretty much summed up Eikenberry’s view of Karzai and showed how frayed and tense their dealings had become. The Afghan president, Eikenberry wrote in exasperation, “is not an adequate strategic partner … [He] continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance, or development.”

And it wasn’t just to mend ties that Crocker was sent back to Kabul: his assignment was to sit down with Karzai and negotiate the terms of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the framework for Afghan-U.S. cooperation in the entire decade after the 2014 American troop withdrawal. Crocker had his work cut out for him. Karzai fulminated loudly and often against what he called U.S. violations of Afghan sovereignty. He even famously threatened to join the Taliban if America didn’t change its ways.

At issue were the Coalition forces’ frequent night raids against Afghan homes that were suspected of harboring Taliban fighters and commanders. The U.S. military called those operations its most effective tool against the insurgency, but Karzai had repeatedly denounced them as a violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and an insult to the country’s conservative traditions. And there was another sore spot: the Americans’ incarceration of Taliban suspects in U.S.-controlled prisons. Karzai demanded an immediate end to the night raids and the transfer of all Afghan prisoners held in U.S. custody to the Afghan government within weeks. Both disputes loomed as insurmountable obstacles that threatened to doom any strategic agreement, even though the Americans—and most Afghans—deemed the partnership essential to the Kabul government’s long-term survival. “I’m hoping to reset the relationship,” Crocker told The Daily Beast earlier this year.

And he largely succeeded. Leveraging his close personal relationship with Karzai, Crocker was instrumental in negotiating side agreements on night raids and the prisoner issue that were satisfactory to both the Americans and the Afghan government—even its difficult president. Most Afghan prisoners would be transferred to Afghan custody by the end of the year. And night raids would continue, but with Afghan forces in the lead. U.S. troops would enter people’s homes only if expressly asked by Afghan forces. Beyond that, the Americans would provide the Afghans with intelligence, firepower, logistical support, and bus service, delivering Afghan troops to their targets. (As Crocker says, it will be a long time before the Afghans are able to conduct such surgical operations on their own.)

With those two thorny problems out of the way, the stage was set. During the U.S. president’s late-night surprise visit to Kabul earlier this month, Obama and Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. Now, having patched up relations with Karzai and negotiated the crucial agreement, Crocker has announced that he’ll be leaving Kabul this summer. His wife, Christine, must be relieved at his decision. She experienced the dangers of the job firsthand back in 1998, when her husband was serving as ambassador to Syria and a frenzied crowd attacked and burned their Damascus residence.

Few American diplomats have served with such distinction in so many of the globe’s most strategic hotspots. In April 1983 the young Foreign Service officer stood cut and bleeding in Beirut as he briefed the press in front of the U.S. Embassy, which had just been destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Seven months earlier he had investigated another scene of horrendous carnage in Lebanon after the massacres of Palestinians by pro-Israel Lebanese Christian militias at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He witnessed yet more horror amid the ruins of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, following the October 1983 truck bombing. But Crocker is probably best known for his role in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009, when he worked closely with Gen. David Petraeus to restore a modicum of stability to an Iraq that was torn apart by merciless insurgency and sectarian bloodletting.

His abilities will be sorely missed in Afghanistan and across the region. In fact, his retirement may not be as restful as he and his wife might hope. The White House, the State Department, the U.S. military, and the CIA will almost surely be calling him constantly to ask him a question he knows well: what the hell do we do now?