updated 5/31/2007 2:42:45 PM ET 2007-05-31T18:42:45

The retiring U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, in a farewell assessment, said Thursday he did not know how long U.S. troops ought to remain in the South Asian country.

But on his last day in the foreign service, and after two years in a post his father also once held in Kabul, Ronald Neumann said helping Afghanistan to develop its first democratic government was “a long-term process.”

“There is corruption of society at all levels,” he said, but there are several positive developments, including growth of the Afghan army and the judicial system and the building of roads.

“It is a weak state and not a strong Taliban that is causing us problems,” he said.

A U.S.-led NATO coalition remains in the country, grappling with insurgents, more than five years after U.S. forces helped overthrow the Taliban.

Five U.S. soldiers were among the victims Thursday in the downing of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in southern Helmand province, raising the U.S. death toll for U.S. forces in the country to about 400.

“I am sorry for the loss of life,” Neumann said, after a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“But I don’t consider it significant from a strategic point of view,” he said of the attack, noting that they have become less frequent.

Neumann said he did not know who shot down the helicopter, and urged the United States to keep troops in Afghanistan.

“We cannot afford the destruction of Afghanistan and the rebirth of radicalism,” he said.

“It is a very long-term process and we have to dedicate ourselves to that,” he said.

Neumann said he did not know how long U.S. troops would be needed. But, he said, “I hope the country will recognize that the price we are paying in blood and treasure is justified.”

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