KABUL (Reuters) - The United States has no interest in creating permanent military bases in Afghanistan and does not want to use the country as a platform to influence neighbouring countries, the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said on Monday.
Washington is negotiating with the Afghan government on a deal to define the long-term American role in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, when NATO-led combat troops are due to leave after handing security control to the Afghan army and police.
It remains unclear whether the "strategic partnership" agreement 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 can only be addressed once peace has been achieved.
"We have no interest in permanent bases in Afghanistan," said U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker shortly after he was sworn in at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, in an apparent nod to Afghanistan's powerful and wary neighbours.
"We will stay as long as we need to and not one day more."
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, while both China and Russia are wary of U.S. ambitions in the region.
However, despite billions being poured into building up the Afghan security forces, the problems they face -- from illiteracy to corruption -- means both Afghans and foreigners expect some kind of continued military support beyond 2014, even if foreign troops are no longer on the front lines.
The United States may also be keen to keep bases for attacks on targets in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas believed to pose a terrorist threat, such as the base that was used to launch the raid that killed al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden earlier this year, analysts say.
Crocker said the United States had no hidden agenda.
"We have no interest in using Afghanistan as a platform to project influence into neighbouring countries," he said.
"Our sole interest is in Afghanistan's security and sustainable stability and ensuring it will never again become a haven for international terrorism."
Crocker reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2001 after the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces for harbouring al Qaeda militants, including bin Laden who was killed in May at his hideout in neighbouring Pakistan.
Crocker has also 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 chose to be sworn in by a junior foreign service member in Kabul.
He said that as Afghanistan gradually took control of its own security, it was important to remind Afghans that there would be no "rush for the exits" by the international community.
"Beyond 2014, even when Afghans have transitioned to a full security lead, I'm confident we and the international community will be in the position to work with Afghanistan to prevent any forcible return of the Taliban to power," he said.