America's new top diplomat in Afghanistan sought Monday to allay the fears of the Afghan people who worry the U.S. is abandoning the nation after the drawdown of American forces began.
Ryan Crocker, a veteran diplomat who served in Iraq, formally took over as ambassador just as President Barack Obama began withdrawing some of the 33,000 American reinforcement troops he sent in December 2009. Some Republican lawmakers call the withdrawal plan too risky, saying it does not leave enough coalition troops in the country to deal a decisive blow to the insurgency.
"We must proceed carefully," Crocker said at his swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "There will be no rush for the exits. The way we do this in the months ahead will have consequences far beyond Afghanistan and far in the future."
Crocker is faced with mending relations with embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who publicly has cast doubt on America's commitment and has wooed the support of other nations in the region, such as Iran, as a hedge to support his political future.
Karzai's relations with Crocker's predecessor, Karl Eikenberry, were far from smooth. Just as he was leaving, Eikenberry publicly reproached Karzai for painting American forces as occupiers and enemies.
However Karzai still needs the massive U.S. military and civilian assistance. He needs that support even though he publicly derides U.S. efforts because anti-American sentiment has swelled among the Afghan people, who believe that 10 years of war and international aid has done little to improve their daily lives.
One of Crocker's tasks is to mend relations with the Afghan president.
Speaking after he was sworn in, Crocker tried to ease fears about Obama's plan to bring 10,000 U.S. troops home by year's end, as many as 23,000 more by September 2012 with an eye to wrapping up combat by the end of 2014.
He said the U.S. was wrong to withdraw support from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, but stressed the U.S. had no interest in having permanent bases in the nation.
Many Afghans felt abandoned by the U.S. after 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its army from Afghanistan and U.S. support to mujahedeen fighters battling the Soviets dried up. Afghanistan then sank into years of brutal civil war, which was followed by the rise of the Taliban, al-Qaida's use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary and the Sept. 11 attacks. They are reliving that fear today.
"The coming year will be critical in setting the right glide path," Crocker told hundreds of embassy employees, diplomats and military leaders gathered outdoors in a red tent where a light breeze tempered the morning heat.
Crocker has held top diplomatic postings in Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon.
He was named ambassador to Iraq in January 2007, arriving in Baghdad at the start of the troop surge at a time when the U.S. military and diplomatic missions were facing a severe challenging in trying to turn the tide of the war. He and then top military commander at the time, Gen. David Petraeus, were credited with reversing America's diplomatic and military fortunes in Iraq.
As a junior diplomat, Crocker also survived the 1983 terrorist bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in which 64 people were killed.
He is no stranger to Afghanistan.
Crocker reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. He also helped bury a piece of the World Trade Center, which was toppled during the Sept. 11 attacks, at the base of a flagpole on the embassy grounds.
"We will never forget and 10 years on, I'm here to join all of you in doing our utmost to ensure that such an attack never happens again," said Crocker, who recalled being in New York on Sept. 11 and watching the twin towers collapse.
At his swearing-in ceremony, he acknowledged that many citizens of nations who contribute to the coalition in Afghanistan, including the United States, were weary of the war.
"My answer to that is to remind those who say 'We should be done' of the incalculable, long-term effects and costs of getting it wrong" in Afghanistan, he said. "We owe nothing less to the next generation of Afghans, Americans and others not to repeat the mistakes of 20 years ago."
A gradual transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces has already begun. In recent days, Afghan forces have taken the lead for securing seven areas of the nation. By 2014, they are to be in charge across the country, allowing foreign combat troops to either leave or take on supportive roles.
"Beyond 2014 _ even when Afghans have transitioned to a full security lead _ I'm confident that we and the international community will be in a position to work with Afghanistan to prevent any forcible return of the Taliban to power," Crocker said. "Those days are gone."
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Amir Shah contributed to this report from Kabul, Afghanistan.