Obama spokesman praises departing ambassador to Afghanistan

Veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker's decision to step down as the United States ambassador to Afghanistan will not derail President Barack Obama's strategy there, White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday.

"That strategy will continue, obviously. The leadership team is strong and the president looks forward to the further implementation of his strategy," Carney told reporters.

Obama's strategy -- endorsed by NATO -- calls for training and equipping Afghanistan's army and police, giving them the lead in combat operations by mid-2013. NATO's combat troops will withdraw by the end of 2014, though the alliance is expected to play a role advising and training Afghan security forces beyond that point.

Carney stressed that Obama was "enormously grateful" for Crocker's decision to come out of retirement in 2011 to accept the post. He also praised the "extraordinary job" the envoy had done in Kabul and the "hugely valuable" work of a long career in places like Beirut, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Crocker's decision to leave came shortly after the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, announced that he would step down. This changing of the diplomatic guard comes at a time when NATO has ratified plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, and when relations between Washington and Islamabad are sorely strained.

The American embassy in Kabul said earlier on its official Twitter feed that Crocker had announced his plans "with regret."

The soft-spoken but steely diplomat, 62, cited health reasons for his departure. "This is something that he has been working through. But I'm going to, in the interest of his privacy, let him speak to that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

"We simply wanted -- and 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," she said.

Crocker is expected to leave his post after a July conference in Tokyo aimed at raising billions from the international community to help Afghanistan. Nuland said that deputy ambassador James Cunningham "is going to steer the ship in the interim" until Obama picks a successor, who would need to be confirmed by the Senate.

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