WASHINGTON - Seasoned diplomat Ryan Crocker has emerged as the top candidate to become the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, part of a far-reaching revamping of the nation's top leadership in the conflict there, now in its 10th year.
Crocker is the only person being considered currently to replace Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former Army general whose two-year tenure has been marred by cool relationships with major players in the Afghanistan war, including the White House, U.S. military leaders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, administration and other sources said. The sources emphasized that 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.
Sending Crocker to Afghanistan would reunite him with Gen. David Petraeus, re-creating the diplomatic and military "dream team" credited with rescuing the flagging American mission in Iraq, though that reunion may be short-lived.
Administration sources also said Wednesday that President Barack Obama plans this week to name CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Gen. David Petraeus, now running the war in Afghanistan, would take the CIA chief's job.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because the changes are not final. The changes would probably take effect this summer. Gates has already said he will leave this year.
The officials say Obama is expected to also announce that Lt. Gen. John Allen would replace Petraeus as Afghanistan commander.
The changes are expected to be announced Thursday at the White House.
Officials said Tuesday 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 prolonged war 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.
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, now at Texas A&M University, didn't respond to emails from the AP seeking comment. His assistant, 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.
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.
The nearly wholesale changes at the top of Obama's Afghanistan military and diplomatic lineup will leave fewer military and civilian leaders who have Obama's ear and who also have Afghanistan experience.
The top candidate to replace Mullen, a Navy admiral, as Joint Chiefs chairman is Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who has never has served there. The same is true for the leading candidate to replace Petraeus whenever he goes, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen. Petraeus' top deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who also is leaving, has one of the longest Afghanistan 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 as encouraging 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 ability to lead itself. He would also 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 was severely strained after a leaked 2009 diplomatic memo quoted him 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 two men have remained close.
Since January 2010, Crocker has been the dean of Texas A&M's George Bush School of Government and 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.