KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — 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," Ryan Crocker told The Associated Press in an interview.
Crocker, a soft-spoken, gray-haired diplomat who became the civilian face of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the international community has pledged support for Afghanistan post-2014.
Minority ethnic political leaders also seem more interested in positioning themselves in the future government than getting ready for civil war, he said.
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 AP the first of several exit interviews he is scheduled to give to news organizations before leaving later this month.
Crocker said that al-Qaida in Afghanistan had been "badly weakened."
"They're not defeated. They remain dangerous, but they are under such tremendous pressure," Crocker said. "I think they spend almost all their time just worrying about staying alive. You have to keep the pressure on, too."
The troop withdrawal will coincide with the end of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's two-term presidency. Some political analysts have speculated that Karzai was trying to figure out a legal way to stay in power — perhaps in the way that Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev traded roles as president and prime minister in Russia.
Crocker said he didn't think so.
"He has been as clear as any person can possibly be in public and private and repeatedly has said he has no intention of hanging on, and I believe him," Crocker said.
Asked about what will happen after 2014, Crocker said that as the spigot of international military and civilian assistance slows, the nation's economy will be affected. But he was optimistic that Afghans do not face 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 issue forecasts for 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 led to the rise of the Taliban after the Soviet exit in 1989.
However, the ambassador said 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, he said.
"I think their primary interest has been criminal activity, rather than preparing for the next civil war, which I really don't see coming," he said.
On another issue, Crocker said top-level members of the Taliban are willing to negotiate peace.
Crocker said there are more moderate figures like Agha Jan Motasim — one of the most powerful men on the Taliban council. Motasim told the AP in May that a majority of the Taliban want a peace settlement and the movement has only a few hard-liners.
"There are others like him who are sending out feelers," Crocker said.
Asked if these Taliban leaders — some who are based in Pakistan — were worried about getting killed by the hard-liners, Crocker replied "Yep."
He said the U.S. was not providing protection for them, but Pakistan perhaps had given some safe passage.
"Let me just put it this way," he said. "We are certainly aware that senior Taliban figures have made their way to third countries. Exactly how they did that, I can't say, but I'd like to assume that they did so with Pakistanis not interfering."
Crocker said, however, that the U.S. has not had any direct contact with the Taliban since last fall.
"It has to be an Afghan process," he said. "If reconciliation is to move forward, the Pakistanis have to facilitate it."