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Top US diplomat Crocker to retire

Ryan Crocker, the unflappable diplomat who became the civilian face of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over two administrations, is stepping down as ambassador to Afghanistan and retiring from the US foreign service after a career in some of the world's deadliest hotspots.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the 62-year-old veteran envoy would leave his post in Kabul this summer for undisclosed health reasons.

His departure comes a year earlier than planned after Mr Crocker came out of retirement in 2011 to take the helm of the embassy at President Barack Obama's personal request. Mr Crocker will leave after international donor conferences for Afghanistan are held in Tokyo and Kabul, Ms Nuland said.

His resignation was announced as the US and its Nato allies forged ahead with plans to close the largely-stalemated conflict by the end of 2014 but keep their troops fighting there in the meantime.

With that timetable on track, Mr Crocker's departure from Kabul is not likely to herald any new US approach to the conflict. But the loss of his presence as a troubleshooter since the 1980s will be felt as the administration struggles to prevent Afghanistan from descending again into the cauldron of extremism that gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and leaders of his al Qaida network.

The US embassy in Kabul confirmed Mr Crocker's departure "with regret" while officials in Washington said he made his plans known to Mr Obama during this weekend's Nato summit in Chicago at which the allies discussed the way forward in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan for his second tour as America's top US envoy in Kabul - he reopened the US embassy in 2002 after the ousting of the Taliban regime - Mr Crocker was called on to lead increased civilian operations similar to one he supervised in Iraq.

In nominating Mr Crocker for the Kabul post, Mr Obama hailed him as "one of our nation's most respected diplomats" who "is no stranger to tough assignments".

Indeed, Mr Crocker was a six-time ambassador, running embassies not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria. An Arabic speaker, he held diplomatic posts in Qatar, Iran, Egypt and Lebanon earlier in his career.

It is not immediately clear who will replace him, although officials said the most likely candidate was James Cunningham, a former ambassador to Israel and deputy United Nations envoy who is now one of the ex-ambassadors serving under Mr Crocker in Kabul.

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