KABUL, Afghanistan – The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said Thursday that he thinks it's unlikely that the departure of most foreign troops by 2014 will plunge the country into another civil war or prompt a precipitous economic slide.
"I tend to consider those unlikely scenarios," said Ryan Crocker, a soft-spoken, gray-haired diplomat who became the civilian face of America's wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Crocker said the international community has pledged to support Afghanistan post-2014 and that minority ethnic political leaders seem more interested in positioning themselves in the future government than getting ready for civil war.
He cautioned that it's hard to gauge the validity of reports that ethnic factions are rearming in preparation for civil war — and that perhaps they never ever disarmed.
"Politics is breaking out all over," he said. "You don't see many signs of the people saying 'Well, it's time to start digging the trenches again.'"
Crocker is retiring from the U.S. foreign service after a storied tenure in some of the world's most dangerous hotspots. The U.S. State Department said health reasons have forced the 62-year-old envoy to leave Kabul a year earlier than expected.
Crocker came out of retirement in 2011 to take the helm of the embassy at President Barack Obama's personal request. He granted The Associated Press the first of several exit interviews he is scheduled to give to news organizations before leaving later this month.
Crocker also said that al-Qaida in Afghanistan had been "badly weakened." He said he believes Afghan President Hamid Karzai is more than ready to step down when his two-term presidency ends in 2014, and is looking for a successor who won't be his enemy.
Crocker also said that there are top-level members of the Taliban who are willing to negotiate peace, but that the U.S. has had no talks with Taliban figures since last fall.
He said that as the spigot of international military and civilian assistance slows, the nation's economy will be affected, but that Afghans do not need to brace for economic disaster because the country will have solid security and economic assistance well beyond 2014.
"They will take a dip, but the latest I heard in terms of estimates is that the gross domestic product growth may go from a current roughly 11 percent to something like 5 percent, which still isn't bad for a country like this," Crocker said in the interview at his living quarters in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Crocker said it's impossible to forecast the future in a volatile country like Afghanistan where a "long-range prediction is now a week from Tuesday." But he said he doesn't think the nation is headed for civil war like the one that followed the Soviet exit in 1989.
However, the ambassador said that there are a lot of militias in northern Afghanistan where minority factions are rooted. Some disguise themselves as members of the Afghan Local Police — even wearing the uniform of the village-level fighting forces overseen by the Ministry of Interior.
"I think their primary interest has been criminal activity, other than preparing for the next civil war, which I really don't see coming," he said.