WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is holding the door open to having combat troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, undercutting a promise made by the Vice President.
Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday to meet with President Hamid Karzai. He also met with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the conflict, and plans to visit U.S. troops and an Afghan Army training center.
En route to Kabul, a senior administration official told reporters aboard Air Force Two that the "goal" is still to have Afghan forces take the lead for security by 2014, but they refused to state that U.S. combat troops will be out of the country by that time:
Q: But 2014 is our goal to have all combat forces withdrawn?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: 2014 is our goal, I think, as the President said, to have Afghans in the lead throughout the country in Afghanistan. The Afghans will be taking lead responsibility in every district and province of Afghanistan. That's the goal.
Q: But we might -- we may have combat forces in Afghanistan in 2014?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to speculate on what we may or may not have in 2014 or beyond. What we do know and what's agreed is that the Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country.
The comments seem at odds with what Biden has said. In a December interview with "Meet the Press," Biden said of U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, "We're starting it in July 2011, and we're going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014."
Later in the briefing, a reporter followed up and pointed out that the agreement at Lisbon between Afghanistan, NATO, and the United States was that "the U.S. would pull out all its combat forces by 2014." They also pointed to Biden's comments.
"Right, but as I understand the agreement, where things stand is that there is an agreement that by 2014 Afghans will assume lead responsibility for security throughout the country in every district, in every province, et cetera," responded the senior administration official. "What ongoing role, if any, there will be for U.S. forces, for international security forces is to be determined."
Matthew Hoh is a former Marine captain in Iraq and foreign service officer in Afghanistan who resigned over concerns with the U.S. strategy in the war. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and director of the Afghanistan Study Group. He told The Huffington Post that the official's comments are a "reflection of how poorly things have gone for the administration's policy over the last two years in Afghanistan."
"The fact that his [Biden's] staffer -- whoever this is who was flying with him -- is not willing to say either way in an off-the-record or not-attributable fashion ... whether we're going to have troops there in 2014, just shows that there's confusion, that the administration does not know what it's going to do to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan," said Hoh.
The president has stated that the United States will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, although it's yet to be determined how many will come out at that time. "We clearly understand that in July of 2011, we begin to draw down our forces," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in July. "The pace with which we draw down and how many we draw down is going to be conditions-based."