It's being reported that Ambassador Ryan Crocker is stepping down from his post in Afghanistan, which on top of the open post in Pakistan leaves a big gap in American foreign policy in South and Central Asia, because Ambassador Crocker was as good as they come, something worth remembering as to who's next.
Ryan Crocker certainly earned his appointment to the toughest job in the world: American ambassador to Afghanistan.
Ambassador Crocker holds the rare rank of Career Amabassador, equivalent to flag rank in the military services, e.g. General or Admiral.
To advance that far as a Career Foreign Service Officer has always been somewhat rare, as political appointees tend to get those posts, often because of donations, directly or indirectly, while the actual experts slog it out on the ground, usually starting from difficult posts.
It's very competitive to become a Foreign Service Officer in the first place, and the tradition is to make people prove they really, really want to make being a diplomat their life's work.
I knew a young woman at SAIS, where Secretary Geithner attended for graduate school, who had completed the very demanding Russian program, notoriously demanding actually.
She passed the Foreign Service Test, like all Foreign Service Officers, and was told that there was good news, and bad news.
The good news was that she had demonstrated a peculiar aptitude for languages in the process of passing the test.
The bad news was that this ability was so rare, it had to be used in the highest demand positions, places with languages that very few Americans can every master, and so, after having been semi-tortured in a good way by Natasha Simes at SAIS, she would now be learning Korean.
Korean, Japanese, and Chinese are the hardest languages for a native American speaker to learn to the level needed in such positions. If Spanish is a 1 on State Department level of difficulty, and French and German a 2, and Russian and Persian a 3-4, and Arabic is a hard 4, Chinese, Japanese, and her "target language" Korean is a 5. But she did it.
She also lived in a trailer in Turkmenistan, where at least she got to re-acquaint herself with Russian.
Ambassador Crocker is that kind of person, learning Perian first in Iran in 1972, then Arabic in Tunisia, all preparation for a lifetime of service to his country in Qatar, Kuwait, Syria, and then two really important postings at the end of his career: Iraq in the Civil War, and Afghanistan now.
Ambassador Crocker wrote a memo warning of the risks of invading Iraq in 2002, although such things are private by the nature of the Career Service Officer's work, and reasonable people can disagree about policy alternatives even in the face of risk.
Nonetheless, he went to Iraq in the middle of the Civil War to make the best of the situation, in which if many have found flaws with State Department programs there, it's also a really, really hard place to operate, beyond the 30,000 dead each year between 2004-07 prior to the Surge and shift in Counter-Insurgency strategy by Petraeus, because of cultural boundaries that are very hard to comprehend unless someone, like Ambassador Crocker, has devoted a lifetime to studying, like a practical scholar.
It's worth noting that to be the American Amabassador in Iraq in the time period he served there was to require a lot of bravery, because to kill that person would be among the highest priorities of the various groups in conflict, as a demonstration of power. The best security only goes so far, as if someone is motivated enough in terms of lack of fear of dying in the process, and has the right training and especially the right logistical support, it's really hard to prevent.
The same thing has been true of Ambassador Crocker's service in Afghanistan; if the Taliban want to make a statement, killing him is the one to make. You are always in physical danger in that position, like the American Ambassador killed in Afghanistan in 1979.
Beyond that, as in Iraq, Afghanistan is characterized by a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups that are very tricky to manuever among, especially because they so often seek aid from the countries surrounding Afghanistan.
Within Afghanistan, there are Pashtun Sunnis who often look across the border to Pakistan. Within Afghanistan, there are Hezzara Shia who sometimes have to look to Herat, historically Iranian, and beyond, because as Shia the mainly Pashtun and Sunni Taliban consider them apostate, at one point stuffing tens of thousands of them in boxcars in the desert to suffocate. If people want to know why we're there, preventing a humanitarian disaster if that state fails is one of them.
Within Afghanistan, there are Sunni Tajiks and Uzbeks as well, and in large numbers, who often look East and North and South of Pakistan for assistance in their contests for power, and there are a few other groups to keep in mind as well too.
Ambassador Crocker has to keep all that in his head, while having to have gone back and semi-re-learned another language, Dari or Eastern Persian, and in the middle of a war zone, and all in order to try to serve his country by creating a peace settlement that lets America leave Afghanistan honorably and successfully.
If Iraq is hardly perfect, the fact that we can use drones there to make a statement with Iran is a testament in part to Ambassador Crocker's work there at the height of their civil war.
If soldiers of course are the bravest of all our publci servants, our real elite, it's worth giving our Ambassadors their credit too.
Would you like to learn Pashto and Dari and play multi-dimensional chess in Kabul, where if you fail, hundreds of thousands of people die, all the while knowing one mistake with security, and a car bomb takes your life?
Dwight Eisenhower once responded to a complaint about diplomacy being "talk, talk, talk" by saying, "Well, talk, talk, talk beats war, war, war."
Whoever President Obama choses next for the open ambassadorships in Kabul and Islamabad in Pakistan will have big shoes to fill, because of all the career diplomats, Ryan Crocker has been as good as they get.