United States ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker took office on Monday, joining a new general at the helm as the U.S.-led mission looks to transfer responsibility to Afghans and exit the country.
Veteran diplomat Crocker took over from outgoing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, whose fraught relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai were documented extensively in leaked cables revealed in December.
Coined "America's Lawrence of Arabia" by former U.S. President George Bush, Crocker takes the diplomatic lead at a critical juncture in the nearly 10-year war, as a surge of troops begins to draw down amid deep war fatigue at home.
Last week NATO-led forces handed over seven parts of the country to Afghan control, triggering a process that is due to end with the withdrawal of all 150,000 foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
"We are at a time of transition in Afghanistan," said Crocker, after taking his oath of office in a low-key ceremony held at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
"It is a time for us to step back and for the Afghans to step forward, as they're doing. There can be no clearer evidence than last week's successful security transition," the incoming ambassador said.
But there is widespread doubt over the abilities of Afghan forces to take over from their foreign counterparts, with high levels of attrition and illiteracy and a lack of military equipment hampering their efforts.
NATO officials say the start of transition last week was just the beginning of a hand-over process that could last up to two years for each area.
"We must proceed carefully. There will be no rush for the exits," added Crocker, warning against a repeat of the hasty U.S. departure from Afghanistan in the 1990s that led to "civil war, the rise of the Taliban, sanctuary for al-Qaida and 9/11.
"Our people are tired of military involvement and the expense of blood and treasure," he acknowledged. "But my answer to that again is to remind those who say we should be done, of the incalculable long-term effects and cost of getting it wrong."
Crocker has served as ambassador to Pakistan, and across the Middle East.
He served in Iraq during the military surge alongside incoming U.S. top commander in Afghanistan General John Allen, as well as Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.'s representative to Afghanistan.
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