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Did Biden commit the U.S. to a longer engagement in Afghanistan?

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden chat Tuesday during Biden's visit to Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden chat Tuesday during Biden's visit to Kabul.
  • Biden had been firm that the 2014 withdrawal deadline is not open-ended
  • His latest statement: "We are not leaving if you don't want us to leave"
  • U.S. officials say he was talking about an "enduring partnership"

Washington (CNN) -- During the Obama administration's review of its Afghan policy, Vice President Joseph Biden was a fierce advocate for a narrowly focused counterterrorism strategy.

He had long been skeptical of the more expansive counterinsurgency approach with 30,000 additional troops ultimately decided upon by the president, arguing that pursuing al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and on the Afghan border was a smarter way to go.

Like any good second-in-command who has been overruled, Biden got on board with the president's new direction. Still, he has been openly critical of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's lackluster efforts to tackle corruption and has questioned his credibility as a partner.

In November, after the bloodiest year of the nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan, NATO allies agreed in Lisbon that Afghan forces would start taking over parts of the country this year, with Afghanistan's entire territory coming under Afghan security control at the end of 2014. Biden was firm that the new deadline was not open-ended.

"We're starting this process, just like we did in Iraq," Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" last month. "We're starting it in July of 2011, and we're going to be totally out of there come hell or high water by 2014."

But now Biden seems to be singing a different tune. Standing next to Karzai in Kabul, Biden assured his Afghan host that United States would remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 handover deadline if the Afghans want them to stay.

"Hopefully, we will have totally turned over the ability ... to the Afghan security forces to maintain the security of the country," Biden said. "But we are not leaving if you don't want us to leave."

So did Biden, and the administration at large, change its tune?

Because of Biden's comments last month, it's easy to view the comments as a shift. But several senior U.S. officials explained that Biden was talking about the "enduring partnership" President Barack Obama has spoken of, promising to maintain ongoing cooperation with the Afghan military beyond 2014, not only on civilian issues such as governance and economic development, but also on security, including training of the Afghan army and policy and counterterrorism training and assistance.

Even during the NATO summit in Lisbon, U.S. officials were quick to say that the transition to the Afghan army was "conditions-based" and held out the possibly that some troops could remain past 2014. Iraq, for example, took full responsibility for its security last summer but U.S. troops remain, even though they are on schedule for a full withdrawal by the end of this year.

The truth is, it is much too early to know exactly what the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will look like next year, let alone 2014. Most Afghan experts and many U.S. and Afghan officials would concede it is highly unlikely the Afghan security forces will be ready for a complete takeover by 2014, or even that the country will be stable enough for a total drawdown.

Washington and its NATO allies are still in the midst of trying to stabilize the situation on the ground, which has been slowing unraveling for several years

One of the reasons it's impossible to tell where the United States will be in Afghanistan in three years is Pakistan's critical role to success. As long as the Pakistanis waver in their commitment to fighting the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership is in North Waziristan on its side of the border with Afghanistan, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan will be in jeopardy.

There is another simple reason U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in 2014 is unpredictable. Both presidents, Obama and Karzai, could be out of power. Karzai's term ends in 2014, unless he tries to dodge his term limit. And although the Obama administration and Democrats hope for a 2012 election victory, it is possible Republicans could reclaim the White House. That likely would spell new ideas for Afghanistan.

CNN's Kate Bolduan contributed to this analysis.