By Missy Ryan and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker confirmed on Tuesday that he plans to step down this summer because of ill health, and sources said the highly regarded career diplomat was leaving at a time of his choosing and was not pushed out.
Reuters reported on Monday that Crocker, a veteran diplomat who came out of retirement to take the demanding Kabul post, was expected to step down soon, leaving as Washington negotiates a host of challenges on its course out of the long, costly war.
"Today, Ambassador Ryan Crocker confirmed to the Afghan Government, U.S. Mission Afghanistan, and the ISAF community that he intends to depart his post for health reasons in mid-summer," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force.
The spokeswoman declined to elaborate on Crocker's health but said "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."
Nuland said U.S. Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham was expected to run the embassy after Crocker leaves, which she said will not be before a July donors conference in Tokyo. She declined comment on who might replace him permanently.
A summit of the 28-nation NATO security alliance, which makes up the core of ISAF, endorsed an exit strategy on Monday that calls for handing control of Afghanistan to its own security forces by the middle of next year.
However, it left unanswered questions about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan after the pullout.
When Crocker took up his post in Kabul last July, the Obama administration hoped that he could build a stronger relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai or, at the very least, one better able to withstand strains as U.S. troops begin to leave.
BROKER PEACE DEAL
Crocker's tenure has coincided with an intensification of a controversial diplomatic push, led by the State Department, to broker a peace deal between the Taliban and Karzai's government.
However, after months in which U.S. officials hoped political negotiations between the two Afghan sides were within reach, initial talks were put on hold in March when the Taliban suspended its participation.
Several sources who spoke on condition that they not be identified said Crocker - a six-time U.S. ambassador - was well-respected and by no means was forced out of his position, among the most challenging in the U.S. diplomatic service.
"Ryan Crocker has done superbly the toughest jobs American diplomacy had to offer in the last forty years," said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
"He's been bombed, had his house stormed by mobs, and his embassy shot at and never let it divert him from accomplishing his job; something to remember when we weigh the importance of diplomacy to national security," Neumann added.
Crocker previously served as ambassador in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, and in 2004 former U.S. President George W. Bush gave him a rare honor by awarding him the highest rank in the U.S. diplomatic service - that of career ambassador.
He had unusually challenging assignments, among them going to Kabul in 2002 to lead the reopened mission there and working in Beirut in 1982-83, a period that included bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks there and Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
The White House praised him lavishly, noting that he came out of retirement at Obama's request to go to Afghanistan.
"The president is enormously grateful for that," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "He has done an extraordinary job."
The other most senior U.S. official in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, is also expected to leave during the coming winter. Like Crocker, he began his Afghanistan tenure last July.
Allen, who commands the U.S. and NATO force of 130,000, is under initial consideration to become head of U.S. European command, U.S. officials say.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jackie Frank and Philip Barbara)