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Kabul, Afghanistan • Moderate Taliban figures have expressed interest in the fragile peace process, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said Thursday, referring to a deal that appears even more elusive with this summer's rash of suicide attacks and bombings.
Ryan Crocker, who is retiring a year earlier than expected, also said 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," Crocker told The Associated Press in an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
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. And he said minority ethnic political leaders seem more interested in positioning themselves in the next Afghan administration than bracing for a civil war like the one that led to the rise of the Taliban after the Soviet exit in 1989.
"Politics is breaking out all over," he said of the uptick in political activity ahead of the Afghan presidential election in 2014. "You don't see many signs of the people saying 'Well, it's time to start digging the trenches again.'"
Afghanistan has a history of conflict between warring ethnic factions. Pashtuns, who predominantly make up the Taliban, are the majority ethnic group in the country and have strongholds in the south. Minority factions, including the Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks, are more firmly rooted in the north. Members of all the groups are part of the Afghan security forces, but some fear without the presence of international troops, the nation and its police force and army could split along ethnic lines, prompting another civil war.
The ambassador acknowledged that northern Afghanistan has a lot of militias, but said he didn't think they threatened national unity.
"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.
Crocker is retiring from the foreign service after a storied tenure in some of the world's most dangerous hotspots. Without giving specifics, the U.S. State Department said health reasons have forced the 62-year-old envoy to leave Kabul.
Crocker, an Arabic speaker and six-time ambassador who also ran embassies in Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria, came out of an earlier retirement in 2011 to take the helm of the embassy at President Barack Obama's request.
He granted the AP the first of several exit interviews he is scheduled to give to news organizations before leaving later this month.
The ambassador said that as the spigot of international military and civilian assistance slows, the Afghan economy will "take a dip." But he said the country will have solid security and economic assistance well beyond 2014.
"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.
On prospects for peace talks with the Taliban, Crocker said moderate Taliban figures like Agha Jan Motasim were "sending out feelers." Motasim, one of the most powerful men on the Taliban leadership council, told the AP in May that a majority of the Taliban want a peace settlement and that the movement has only a few hard-liners.
Asked if these Taliban leaders some of whom are based in Pakistan were worried about getting killed by the hard-liners, Crocker replied "Yep."
He said Pakistan is believed to have given some safe passage to attend reconciliation discussions.
"Let me just put it this way. 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.
While Afghanistan and the U.S. seek Islamabad's cooperation with the peace process, they are pushing the Pakistanis to stop allowing militants to hide out in their country something Pakistan has denied.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials say militants attack coalition and Afghan troops in Afghanistan and then flee across the border into Pakistan.
"These safe havens and the people who live in them are probably killing more Pakistanis than they are Afghans and other foreigners," he said. "I think we are getting to a point of real crisis. It is not getting better. It's not even staying the same. For them (Pakistan), it is getting worse. I sense a new seriousness on their part as to what this means to them and it isn't good."
"As I look at problems down the line, or you look at 2014 or post-2014, the problem with safe havens looms pretty large," he added.
On Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on the Taliban to relinquish their weapons and said the group and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, should join the political process. The Taliban says it is not interested in engaging with the government, but Karzai has said that the government has had discussions with Taliban figures.
"Mullah Mohammad Omar can come to any part of Afghanistan he wants to. He can open political office for himself but he should drop the gun," Karzai said at a nationally televised news conference held at the presidential palace.
The foreign troop withdrawal by the end of 2014 coincides with the end of Karzai's second and final term as president.
Some political analysts have speculated that Karzai is trying to figure out a 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, adding that Karzai, instead, was thinking about his successor.
Karzai doesn't want to follow in the footsteps of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, he said. Musharraf lives in self-exile outside his homeland because if he returns, he could face arrest in connection with the killing of an ex-prime minister in 2007.
Karzai "needs to be confident that whoever succeeds him is not going to trump up some capital charges and have him tried, imprisoned or worse," Crocker said. The ambassador did not elaborate on what offenses a successor might allege against Karzai after he leaves office.
Crocker stressed the importance of having a fair election following the fraud-marred presidential vote in 2009.
Asked what would stop neighboring Iran, for instance, from bankrolling a candidate to buy influence in the next Afghanistan administration, Crocker said that's exactly the sort of thing Iran allegedly did, unsuccessfully, during last year's loya jirga, or national meeting of Afghan elders.
The elders were asked to reach a consensus about the strategic partnership agreement Afghanistan was then still negotiating with the United States.
Crocker stopped short of accusing Iran of paying loya jirga delegates to vote against the pact, but said: "We heard that money was being lavishly distributed to delegates who pocketed it and voted the way they would have voted in the first place."
"It was said so often by so many different people that I think there was some truth to it."