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Top U.S. envoy to Pakistan plans to step down this summer

May 8, 2012 |  4:22 am

Top U.S. envoy in Pakistan plans to step down this summer
ISLAMABAD -- U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, who has had to help navigate Washington’s uneasy alliance with Islamabad through one of its lowest points since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, plans to step down sometime this summer, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Munter told his staff in Islamabad of his decision Monday, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. It is not known who his replacement might be, but one name that has surfaced in diplomatic circles is Richard Olson, who currently heads up U.S. economic and development efforts in Afghanistan.

Munter became Washington’s top envoy in Islamabad in October 2010, replacing Anne Patterson, who had been at the post for more than three years. During his tenure, Munter has struggled to walk the line between building stronger diplomatic ties with Islamabad through billions of dollars in economic aid and infrastructure projects, and pushing a U.S. security agenda that demands Pakistan’s cooperation in pursuing Al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Not long after his arrival, Munter faced his first major crisis in January 2011, when a CIA contractor shot to death two Pakistani men at a busy intersection in the eastern city of Lahore. The contractor, Raymond Davis, insisted that the men were trying to rob him, but Pakistanis viewed the incident as a blatant example of American arrogance and confirmation that U.S. intelligence operatives were secretly roaming the country. Davis was released from custody several weeks later and returned to the U.S., but the episode dealt a severe blow to U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Ties between Washington and Islamabad grew even more strained with the secret U.S. commando raid last May that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his compound in the city of Abbottabad. Bin Laden’s five-year presence in a military city -- in a house not far from the Pakistani army’s version of West Point -- raised serious questions in the U.S. about whether Pakistan’s security establishment knew of the Al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts and kept quiet. Pakistanis, meanwhile, were deeply angered by Washington’s decision to carry out the raid without first informing Islamabad.

The latest crisis, U.S. air strikes that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November, further derailed the troubled alliance and prompted Islamabad to bar NATO convoys carrying supplies to troops in Afghanistan from using Pakistan as a transit country. Pakistan has yet to reopen the supply routes.

News of Munter’s planned departure comes at a crucial time, as both the U.S. and Pakistan continue talks on new ground rules for future relations in the wake of the border incident. During a visit to Islamabad April 27, Marc Grossman, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, failed to produce any progress on the reopening of NATO supply routes.

Munter could have stayed for a third year but opted not to do so. Embassies in places such as Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan are considered hardship postings, U.S. officials said, and a two-year stint in those locations is considered the norm.

During an interview with Bloomberg Radio in New Delhi on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Munter’s performance and said she understood his decision to leave the post early.

"I’m going full-out for two years and then I’m going to need to step off this fast track," Clinton said. "It was totally his request, and we’re going to honor that."

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-- Alex Rodriguez

Photo: U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter during a meeting with Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in Islamabad on April 4. Credit: Aamir Qureshi / Getty Images

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