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.
The change 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.
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 said. "It is not unusual for countries at this level of development. They don't tend to have a tradition of good losers. 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 deal, both presidential candidates said they would honour 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.