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US envoy for Afghanistan steps down

US ambassador James F. Dobbins, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, answers questions from reporters during a press briefing at the US Embassy in Tokyo on May 13, 2014
US ambassador James F. Dobbins, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, answers questions from reporters during a press briefing at the US Embassy in Tokyo on May 13, 2014

The US special envoy for Afghanistan is stepping down at a key juncture in troubled US-Afghan ties and as the country grapples with a political crisis triggered by disputed presidential elections.

James Dobbins, a veteran diplomat with deep ties to Afghanistan, is retiring after just over a year in office and will be replaced by his deputy Dan Feldman, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Wednesday.

The shuffle comes as the two candidates to be Afghanistan's next president -- succeeding Hamid Karzai, who has held the reins for 13 years -- wrangle over alleged fraud in the elections.

The row threatens the country's first democratic transfer of power and risks damaging US hopes of a smooth handover as it prepares to withdraw all US forces by late 2016.

Dobbins' "relationship with President Karzai was invaluable, particularly at difficult moments," Kerry said, announcing the departure of his special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai holds up his inked finger as he speaks to media after casting his ballot at a polling station in Kabul on June 14, 2014
Afghan President Hamid Karzai holds up his inked finger as he speaks to media after casting his ballot at a polling station in Kabul on June 14, 2014

The veteran diplomat, who came out of retirement to take up the post in May 2013, has steered negotiations to draw up a security pact to safeguard US troops staying in Afghanistan beyond this year.

He told The New York Times that the current political turmoil was a difficult moment for Afghanistan.

"I think this election impasse at the moment is serious and could present a real danger of a division in the country," Dobbins told the US daily.

"It is not unusual for countries at this level of development. They don’t tend to have a tradition of good losers," he said.

"Wending our way through this and getting a clear result that everybody acknowledges is legitimate and acceptable is the proximate and probably most important variable for Afghanistan’s future."

After Karzai refused at the 11th hour to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) deal, both presidential candidates said they would honor the negotiations and accept the pact.

But with the election results again delayed, this time until Monday, the clock is ticking on when the treaty can be signed.

- Raised US flag -

US President Barack Obama announced in May that US forces would complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2016, ending more than a decade of war which followed the 2001 US invasion to oust the hardline Islamic Taliban government.

The 32,000-strong US deployment in Afghanistan is to be scaled back to around 9,800 by the start of 2015.

A US soldier patrols near Kandahar Airfield on June 3, 2014
A US soldier patrols near Kandahar Airfield on June 3, 2014

Dobbins "has played an outsized role on the ground negotiating the BSA, making preparations for historic elections, growing our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan, and planning for a transition for the Afghan people after more than a decade of progress," Kerry said.

He will be "forever known as the guy who raised the first flag over our embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban," Kerry added.

Feldman, who worked with Kerry on his failed 2004 presidential campaign, will now take over the post once held by the charismatic diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who had brought him on board as deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009.

Feldman is charged "with the same mandate as his esteemed predecessors: to align, focus, and implement policies and programs that support our national security interests in a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and Pakistan," Kerry said.

He described Feldman as "not just a mainstay of our diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, but one of its most thoughtful architects."