OSLO There will be no "precipitous drawdown" of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and U.S. troops could still be in the country for years to come, President Barack Obama said on Thursday.
Obama told Americans in a televised speech last week U.S. troops would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan on July 2011 as they transferred control to newly trained Afghan security forces.
Obama, in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, shied away from repeating the word "withdraw" and said July 2011 would signal a shift in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, when "we are beginning to transfer responsibility to the Afghan people."
There has been debate in Washington over Obama's commitment to the July 2011 withdrawal date after administration officials testifying before the U.S. Congress suggested it was flexible.
"I have been unambiguous about this, so there should not be a debate. Starting in July 2011 we will begin that transition, that transfer of responsibility," Obama said.
He said the pace of the transfer of authority and "the slope of the drawdown" of troops would depend on conditions.
"It is very important to understand we are not going to see some sharp cliff, some precipitous drawdown," Obama said at a news conference.
Obama is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to buy time to train Afghan security forces so they can take over control and pave the way for U.S. forces to withdraw.
"It is also important to understand that several years after U.S. combat troops have been drastically reduced in the region ... the Afghan government is still going to need support for those security forces.
"We are still going to have an interest in partnering with Afghans and Pakistanis and others in dealing with the remnants of terrorist activity," he said.
In an interview with the U.S. television program "60 Minutes," Obama said setting a deadline was necessary so the Afghan people understand the United States will not be responsible for their country's security forever.
"In the absence of a deadline, the message we are sending to the Afghans is, 'It's business as usual. This is an open-ended commitment,'" Obama said in an excerpt of the interview released on Thursday.
He said there were those in Afghanistan who would be happy with an arrangement "in which they carry no burden. In which we're paying for a military in Afghanistan that preserves their security and their prerogatives," he said.
"That's not what the American people signed up for when they went into Afghanistan in 2001. They signed up to go after al Qaeda."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Todd Eastham)