KABUL, Afghanistan – The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said Monday that the United States is not rushing to leave the country and cautioned that what happens in the months ahead will have far-reaching effects across the globe.
Ryan Crocker takes over as America's top diplomat in Afghanistan as President Barack Obama begins withdrawing some of the 33,000 American reinforcements he sent in December 2009 as part of an effort to reverse the Taliban's momentum. Some Republican lawmakers called the withdrawal plan too risky, saying it did not leave enough coalition troops in the country to deal a decisive blow to the insurgency.
Speaking after being sworn in at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Crocker tried to allay Afghan fears about Obama's plan to bring 10,000 U.S. troops home by year's end, as many as 23,000 more by September 2012 and a formal end to the combat mission by the end of 2014.
"We must proceed carefully," he said. "There will be no rush for the exits. The way we do this in the months ahead will have consequences far beyond Afghanistan and far in the future."
He said the U.S. was wrong to withdraw support from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, but stressed the U.S. had no interest in having permanent bases in the nation.
Many Afghans felt abandoned by the U.S. after 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its army from Afghanistan and U.S. support to mujahedeen fighters battling the Soviets dried up. Afghanistan then sank into years of brutal civil war, which was followed by the rise of the Taliban, al-Qaida's use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary and the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The coming year will be critical in setting the right glide path," Crocker told hundreds of embassy employees, diplomats and military leaders gathered outdoors in a red tent where a light breeze tempered the morning heat.
Crocker, who has held top diplomatic postings in Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon, submitted his credentials to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a ceremony at the presidential palace later Monday.
He came out of retirement to replace Karl Eikenberry, who left Afghanistan earlier this month.
Crocker has served in Afghanistan before, reopening the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. He also helped bury a piece of the World Trade Center, which was toppled during the Sept. 11 attacks, at the base of a flagpole on the embassy grounds.
"We will never forget and 10 years on, I'm here to join all of you in doing our utmost to ensure that such an attack never happens again," said Crocker, who recalled being in New York on Sept. 11 and watching the twin towers collapse.
He acknowledged that many citizens of troop-contributing nations, including the United States, were weary of the war.
"My answer to that is to remind those who say 'We should be done' of the incalculable, long-term effects and costs of getting it wrong" in Afghanistan, he said. "We owe nothing less to the next generation of Afghans, Americans and others not to repeat the mistakes of 20 years ago."
He said it also was imperative to allay the fears of Afghans who believe that the gradual transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces means the international community is ready to make a hasty retreat. In recent days, Afghan security forces have taken the lead for securing seven areas of the nation. By 2014, they are to be in charge across the country, allowing foreign combat troops to either leave or take on supportive roles.
"Beyond 2014 -- even when Afghans have transitioned to a full security lead -- I'm confident that we and the international community will be in a position to work with Afghanistan to prevent any forcible return of the Taliban to power," he said. "Those days are gone."
The Taliban on Monday claimed they shot down a U.S.-led coalition helicopter that crashed in eastern Afghanistan. The coalition said it was investigating the cause of the crash.
NATO said rescue forces came under fire from insurgents but safely moved all crew and passengers to a nearby base by early morning.
Kunar provincial spokesman Safiullah Wasifullah Wasify said the helicopter went down before dawn in Kunar's remote mountainous Chapa Dara district. He said that his report showed it was shot down by a rocket.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that troops were dropping out of the helicopter for an assault on militant fighters when the helicopter was targeted.
In the west, meanwhile, an Italian paratrooper was killed in an insurgent attack and two wounded Monday, officials said. Forty-one Italian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the country first sent troops in 2004.
The latest death brings to 44 the number of international service members killed in Afghanistan this month.
Also Monday, Britain's Defense Ministry said five children were injured Saturday when an Apache helicopter opened fire on suspected insurgents in southern Helmand province.
Officials said insurgents had been positively identified, and the five children were in an adjoining field. The children were being treated at a coalition medical facility.
The British Defense Ministry said it was reviewing the incident and the provincial government was being kept informed.