Ryan Crocker, ambassador to Afghanistan, to leave

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ryan Crocker, the unflappable diplomat who became the civilian face of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over two administrations, is stepping down as ambassador to Afghanistan and retiring from the U.S. foreign service after a storied tenure in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday the 62-year-old veteran envoy would leave his post in Kabul this summer because of health reasons she declined to detail.

His departure comes a year earlier than planned after Crocker came out of retirement in 2011 to take the helm of the embassy at President Barack Obama’s personal request. His resignation was announced as the U.S. and its NATO allies forged ahead with plans to close the largely stalemated conflict by the end of 2014 but keep their troops fighting there in the meantime.

With that timetable on track, Crocker’s departure from Kabul will not likely herald any new U.S. approach to the conflict. However, the loss of his presence as a trouble-shooter since the 1980s will be felt as the administration struggles to prevent Afghanistan from descending again into the cauldron of extremism that gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and leaders of his al-Qaida network.

Crocker’s departure comes at a time when the NATO and U.S. civilian efforts in Afghanistan face increasing strain while the military draws down its forces in time for the 2014 end of combat operations.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul confirmed Crocker’s departure “with regret” while officials in Washington said he made his plans known to Obama during this weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago at which the allies discussed the way forward in Afghanistan.

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