WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is likely to name seasoned diplomat Ryan Crocker as the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, several sources told The Associated Press on Tuesday, part of a far-reaching turnover of the nation's top leadership of the Afghanistan war as Obama prepares to begin bringing forces home this summer.
The move would reunite Crocker with Gen. David Petraeus in a rerun of the diplomatic and military "dream team" credited with rescuing the flagging American mission in Iraq. In the coming months, Obama will have to name replacements for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, other senior military leaders and probably Petraeus himself.
Crocker emerged this month as the leading candidate to replace Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former Army general whose two-year tenure was marred by cool relationships with major players in the Afghan war, including the White House, U.S. military leaders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Administration and other sources said Crocker's is the only name currently under consideration, but the White House has not made a final decision.
All sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the nomination is not final and Eikenberry is still in his job. His departure has not been announced, and he may remain in Kabul for weeks or months while Crocker or another replacement gets the necessary Senate confirmation, sources said.
Officials said the White House is weighing several factors, including Crocker's role in the larger cast change in Afghanistan policy this summer and fall. Those personnel changes are unrelated to the progress of the war, now in its 10th year, but come just as Obama needs to demonstrate enough success to follow through with his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July.
The administration has yet to inform legislators of its choice, a sign that the nomination might not be imminent, according to a congressional aide.
U.S. military and civilian defense leaders call 2011 the make-or-break year for turning around the war and laying the path for a gradual U.S. exit by 2015. The main obstacles are the uncertain leadership and weak government of Karzai, the open question of whether the Taliban can be integrated into Afghan political life and the continued safe harbor Pakistan provides for militants attacking U.S. and NATO forces over the border in Afghanistan.
Mullen, the nation's top military officer, will leave his post in the fall. Gates has said he will leave office this year, and his departure is widely expected to happen over the summer.
Petraeus, who took over as Afghanistan war commander in June, is expected to leave that post before the end of this year. He could either assume another top military command or retire from the Army. His name has been floated as a possible replacement for CIA Director Leon Panetta if Obama taps Panetta to replace Gates as Pentagon chief. Petraeus' top deputy, the war's day-to-day commander, is also leaving soon.
Petraeus claims that military advances, especially in the traditional Taliban stronghold areas of southern Afghanistan, have blunted the Taliban-led insurgency and given the edge to the U.S. and its NATO partners. A planned transition to Afghan security control begins this year, and the U.S. wants to start withdrawing some of its approximately 100,000 forces in July.
The diplomatic heft Crocker may be able to bring to the post and his experience running the civilian side of a war alongside Petraeus could help Obama cement recent military gains ahead of the planned withdrawal. But bringing back the duo that helped salvage former President George W. Bush's political fortunes in Iraq also risks making Obama look desperate or lacking new ideas for the war he said was more important than Iraq.
Crocker didn't respond to emails from the AP seeking comment. His assistant at Texas A&M University, Mary Hein, said he has been traveling for the school over the past week and was not available for interviews.
There is no set time limit for the ambassadorial job, but Eikenberry has told friends and others he is not likely to stay for a third year. He marks two years in the job this month. The White House began considering possible replacements several months ago, with an eye to Senate confirmation before summer.
Asked about his replacement on a trip Monday to Afghanistan's Bamiyan province, Eikenberry declined to comment.
It's unclear whether the administration will want to replace its Afghanistan lineup at once or stagger the changes to ensure some continuity. But the nearly wholesale change at the top will leave fewer military and civilian leaders who have Obama's ear and who also have experience in Afghanistan.
The top candidate to replace Mullen as Joint Chiefs chairman, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, has never served there. The same is true for the leading candidate to replace Petraeus whenever he goes, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen. The Petraeus deputy who is leaving, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, has one of the longest Afghan resumes in the U.S. military.
On the civilian side, the Obama administration recently named Marc Grossman to replace the late Richard Holbrooke as head of the multiagency Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Grossman is working to patch up relations with Karzai, who saw Holbrooke behind U.S. hopes that the Afghan leader could be unseated in fair elections.
Crocker is seen as a kindred spirit for Grossman, a low-key diplomat with a record of assembling international support for U.S. foreign policy aims, and someone who is respected on Capitol Hill. Like Grossman, Crocker would be charged with increasing the U.S. focus on Afghanistan's own ability to lead itself. He also would work with Grossman to promote political reconciliation among the Karzai government and insurgent groups, something he excelled at in Iraq.
Eikenberry's relationship with the temperamental Karzai also was severely strained after a leaked 2009 diplomatic memo quoted him as calling the Afghan president unreliable. After Karzai won re-election that year, the Obama administration was left with no choice but to reassure him that it would not pull its support for his government or bail out on the war.
Crocker, 61, was the State Department's most seasoned diplomat in the Middle East when he retired in 2009, having served as ambassador in Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria. An Arabic speaker, he also held diplomatic posts in Qatar, Iran and Egypt. His last and probably most challenging task was in Iraq.
Crocker arrived in Baghdad in March 2007 in the early days of the troop surge, after Bush announced that he would send 20,000 more soldiers into Iraq with Petraeus leading the effort. Crocker and Petraeus quickly forged a close relationship, creating a military-diplomatic partnership that drew raves in Congress and among allies.
The pair used symbolism as well as substance to portray the American effort in Iraq as unified – to the point of having adjacent offices in the U.S. Embassy and taking morning runs together. They also attended meetings together with top-level Iraqi government officials, and testified side-by-side before the Congress at critical stages in 2007 and 2008. And, most importantly, the tide of the war turned and civilian deaths decreased markedly.
Crocker and Petraeus have remained close.
Since January 2010, Crocker has been the dean of Texas A&M University's George Bush School of Government and Public Service. In May, Petraeus was invited to deliver the commencement speech to graduating seniors and he praised Crocker as proof that the military is far from the only form of public service.
If Crocker is nominated and confirmed, it would be a return to Afghanistan after a caretaker stint nine years ago when he reopened the U.S. Embassy after the Taliban regime was ousted in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Matthew Lee and Robert Burns in Washington, and Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.