KABUL, Afghanistan — The American ambassador to Afghanistan on Saturday raised the possibility that United States combat troops could stay in the country beyond the 2014 deadline that the White House had set for their withdrawal.
The ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, speaking at a roundtable event with a small group of journalists, said that if the Afghan government wanted American troops to stay longer, the withdrawal could be slowed. “They would have to ask for it,” he said. “I could certainly see us saying, ‘Yeah, makes sense.’ ”
He emphasized, however, that no such decision had been made.
White House officials said that Mr. Crocker’s comments were consistent with its previously stated position.
“The president never excluded the possibility that there would be some U.S. forces here, but he stressed that security would be under Afghan lead by 2014,” said the embassy spokeswoman, Eileen O’Connor. “The president has always spoken of a responsible winding down of the efforts here, so talk of the possibility of some troops still being here post-2014 is not a change in policy.”
But Mr. Crocker’s comments were an explicit acknowledgment that the post-2014 forces may include combat troops, not just the trainers and advisers who had been publicly mentioned before.
His comments came as the administration was engaged in discussions with the Afghan government on arrangements after 2014. At a conference in Bonn, Germany, last week, President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials called for political and military support for at least another decade.
Referring to the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon last year at which Western leaders agreed to transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014, Mr. Crocker said: “There is nothing in the Lisbon declaration on 2014 that precludes an international military presence beyond 2014. That is to be determined by the parties, who could be numerous, not just us, as we get closer to that date.”
In June, President Obama announced that American troop withdrawals would begin the following month, with 10,000 of the roughly 101,000 American troops then in the country to leave by Dec. 31, and an additional 23,000 to follow by the summer of 2012. “Our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead,” he said. “Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.” Of the first 10,000, 4,000 have left, according to a senior NATO official. In most of those cases, personnel who had been scheduled to leave were not replaced, the official said.
“We are on a timeline, as you know,” Mr. Crocker said. “Ten thousand out by the end of the year, that is being met.” With the additional 23,000 by September 2012, he added, “that basically recovers the surge” — the reinforcements Mr. Obama ordered two years ago.
“Beyond that, there are no decisions,” he said, adding, “And as far as I’m aware, there are no formal recommendations yet.”
Asked if that meant that the United States would not necessarily withdraw all combat troops by 2014, Mr. Crocker said, “I don’t know what we’re going to be doing in 2014.”
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said that “the president will make decisions on the size and shape of our presence after 2014 at the appropriate time, based on our interests and in consultation with our Afghan and NATO partners.”
“We have been clear that any post-2014 presence by the U.S. would be at the invitation of the Afghan government and aimed at ensuring that we are able to target terrorists and support a sovereign Afghan government so that our enemies can’t outlast us,” she added. “We have also been very clear that we do not seek permanent bases in Afghanistan or a long-term military presence that would be a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors.”
Military leaders have been quietly pushing to keep as many troops in the country as they can during the next two years as a safeguard while responsibility is transferred to Afghan forces.
On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Gen. John R. Allen, the United States and NATO commander in Afghanistan, had been promoting the view that the withdrawals should stop after next year, with the remaining 68,000 soldiers to be kept in Afghanistan through 2013, before cuts resume in 2014. The article said he had not formally recommended that course of action, however.
Mr. Crocker noted that General Allen had made it clear that trainers and advisers would be likely to remain after 2014. Mr. Crocker said that in some cases “major weapons systems will not reach Afghanistan” until after 2014, so Afghans will need assistance learning how to operate and maintain them.
He said he did not expect America’s diplomatic presence to be reduced along with the military pullback. The number of civilian American government employees in Afghanistan increased more than threefold from 2009 to 2011, to more than 1,130, from 320.
“The decisions get made in Washington, but it’s my intention that we’re going to stay pretty steady,” he said. “As the military does draw down, I think our role will even increase in importance.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.