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Joe Biden backtracks on Afghanistan troop pullout date

Vice President Joe Biden says U.S. forces may stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014. But the U.S. remains committed to handing off responsibility for security to the Afghans, he says.

January 12, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Normally, the White House cleans up the occasional gaffe by Vice President Joe Biden. But in an appearance Tuesday with Afghanistan's president, Biden himself backed away from his recent statement that the U.S. would pull out of the country "come hell or high water" by 2014.

Biden, reading from notes in a soft monotone as Afghan President Hamid Karzai stood a few feet away, aligned himself with the Obama administration's more flexible plan for an Afghanistan troop drawdown, acknowledging that the U.S. might retain a presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Last month, he told a national television audience the U.S. would be "totally out of there" by that year.

The vice president has long supported a targeted U.S. mission that seeks to defeat insurgents and ensure that Afghanistan is not a sanctuary for terrorists. By contrast, others in the government and in the military have pushed for a larger troop buildup aimed at reaching broad swaths of the population and allowing the fractious country to evolve into a stronger nation.

President Obama in December 2009 ordered a 30,000-troop buildup to break the momentum of insurgents and laid out a timetable for winding down the war.

The U.S. plans to withdraw some of its forces in July, preparing for the day in 2014 when allied forces can entrust the Afghan government with the country's security. The 2014 deadline was codified at a November summit meeting in Lisbon.

Biden was on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan. He had lunch Tuesday with Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul, the capital, and spent an hour in a one-on-one session with the Afghan leader.

The tone of the visit was cordial, which hasn't always been the case. In 2008, then-Sen. Biden walked out of a dinner with Karzai because the Afghan leader denied there was any corruption in his government. Last week, Karzai complained that "foreign friends" are meddling in Afghanistan's business.

Wearing a brown bomber jacket and sunglasses, Biden also met with a provincial governor to talk about progress in beating back the Taliban insurgency. He visited a 22,000-acre military training center dotted with rusted tanks — relics of the ill-fated Soviet invasion of the last century — and watched an exercise in which a dozen Afghan soldiers practiced seizing a building. Later, he greeted the Afghans, who stood ramrod straight and shouted their names when Biden approached to say hello.

In his remarks at the presidential palace, Biden said the U.S. would not lose sight of one of its main objectives: handing off security responsibility to the Afghans.

"Let me say it plainly, Mr. President," Biden said. "It is not our intention to govern or to nation-build. As President Karzai often points out, this is the responsibility of the Afghan people, and they are fully capable of it."

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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