Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has been seeking to ease concerns among Afghans -- as well as authorities in neighboring countries -- about Washington's long-term intentions in Afghanistan.
Speaking shortly after he was sworn in at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on July 25, Crocker told reporters that the United States wants its troops to leave Afghanistan as soon as Afghan security forces are able to defend the country themselves.
"We have no interest in permanent bases in Afghanistan," he said. "The president has said it, the secretaries of state and defense have said it and I repeat it here. We will stay as long as we need to and not one day more."
U.S. forces last week handed over security responsibilities to Afghan troops in seven parts of the country as Washington begins to draw down troop levels by pulling out its surge forces.
All 150,000 NATO-led combat troops are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 provided the security situation there allows for their withdrawal.
As Crocker takes on the job as Washington's top diplomat in Kabul, the United States is in the middle of negotiations with the Afghan government on a deal to define the long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
It remains unclear whether the so-called "strategic partnership" agreement between Kabul and Washington would explicitly refer to possible U.S. military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the possibility of long-term U.S. bases at places like the Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, can only be addressed once peace has been achieved.
In an apparent nod to Afghanistan's powerful and wary neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, Crocker also maintained that the United States has "no interest in using Afghanistan as a platform to project influence into neighboring countries."
"Our sole interest is in Afghanistan's security and sustainable stability, and ensuring it will never again become a haven for international terrorism that poses a threat to the international community," he said.
Some Continued Military Support Expected
Afghanistan has complex relationships with Pakistan and Iran, who see the country as vital to their own security and fear U.S. efforts to undermine their influence there. Both China and Russia also are wary of U.S. ambitions in the region.
But despite billions of dollars being spent to help build up the Afghan security forces, the problems they face -- from illiteracy to corruption -- mean both Afghans and foreigners expect some kind of continued military support beyond 2014, even if foreign troops are no longer in the country as combat troops.
Analysts say the United States also may want to keep smaller forward operations bases in Afghanistan for attacks on targets within Pakistan's lawless tribal areas which are thought to pose a terrorist threat. It was from such a base that U.S. Special Forces launched the raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year.
It was Crocker who reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2001 after the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces for harboring Al-Qaeda militants, including bin Laden.
Crocker also has served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. Ambassadors are normally sworn in by the Secretary of State in Washington, but Crocker instead chose to have the ceremony conducted in Kabul by a junior Foreign Service member.
compiled from news agency reports