KABUL (Reuters) - The nomination of diplomatic heavyweight Ryan Crocker as the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan represents a shift by Washington away from a military surge to a new political emphasis as foreign troops prepare to leave, diplomats and analysts said on Thursday.
Diplomats in Kabul have long complained of a political “vacuum”, while Washington concentrated on a military surge initiated by President Barack Obama in late 2009.
That military surge included sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, who Washington says have helped U.S. and other NATO forces make significant gains and arrest a growing insurgency since the last of the extra forces arrived in mid-2010.
General David Petraeus, commander of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, will also return to Washington as part of a major security overhaul.
Petraeus is the architect of the counterinsurgency strategy military commanders and political leaders say is starting to have a significant impact on a once-faltering campaign.
But diplomatic progress has lagged behind perceived military successes, with current Ambassador Karl Eikenberry having a difficult relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“From where I sit, it looks like a shift toward what (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton said ... about giving a preference to the diplomatic process,” a senior Kabul-based Western diplomat told Reuters.
“General Petraeus is a brilliant commander of events on the ground but it demonstrates that the military surge can’t work by itself,” he said.
Relations between U.S. officials and Kabul have long been strained, largely over civilian casualties caused by foreign troops hunting insurgents and by accusations from the West that Karzai’s government is riddled with corruption.
Eikenberry’s relationship with Karzai soured even more when the Wikileaks website began a steady stream of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables last August, among which Karzai was described as weak and paranoid and his brother as a corrupt drug trafficker.
Relations began to falter seriously after Richard Holbrooke, the late U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, clashed with Karzai over allegations of widespread fraud during presidential elections in August 2009.
The breakdown radiated through Kabul’s diplomatic circles.
“We are all diplomats. We say hello at functions, but I feel more comfortable talking to you, in fact, I feel easier talking to the U.S. media than I do with U.S. officials,” one non-Western diplomat told Reuters in Kabul recently.
In February, Washington named Marc Grossman to replace Holbrooke, who died last year. Grossman is seen as more low-key than the hard-edged Holbrooke and faces the tough task of rebuilding deeply strained ties with Kabul and Islamabad.
“Karl Eikenberry was a three-star general and a five-star diplomat but the agenda of the United States is still being shaped by the military surge,” the Western diplomat said.
“Maybe the appointment of such a diplomatic giant as Ryan Crocker and the appointment of a less-prominent general indicates a new emphasis.”
Petraeus will be replaced by Lieutenant General John Allen, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, U.S. officials said.
The vastly experienced, Crocker won praise for his work alongside Petraeus in Iraq, where the pair helped drag the country from the brink of civil war in 2007-08.
Crocker, 58, has served as ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. His relative lack of established relationships in Afghanistan could work to his advantage given the difficult ties of the past.
“He should bring new energy to relationships that seem to be chronically dysfunctional,” said Norine MacDonald, the Afghanistan-based president of policy research group the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS).
The appointments come at a crucial stage, with a transition program set to begin in July with foreign forces handing security responsibility to Afghans in seven areas, just when an upsurge in fighting is expected. Foreign combat troops will leave entirely by the end of 2014.
ICOS and other analysts have argued that it is too early to begin the troop drawdown so soon after Washington’s much-trumpeted yet fragile security successes, especially in the Taliban heartland in the south.
That argument casts doubt over the decision to move Petraeus back to Washington, where he will take over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency by September.
No major strategic changes are expected under the transfer but, unlike the diplomatic front, Allen’s lack of Afghan experience compared with Petraeus could be a disadvantage.
“Just as we argued that this summer is not the time for a drawdown, this takes away some of the energy and momentum,” MacDonald said of Petraeus’s transfer.
“A lot of what has been achieved has been relationships-based. The challenge will be to ensure the war effort is not set back while the new commander forms his own relationships.”
Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Alex Richardson