By Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent
KABUL, Afghanistan — If the Obama administration was hoping for a quiet and smooth roll out of a highly technical, 25-page document with major implications for America’s future role in Afghanistan, it didn’t get it.
The White House and State Department have pushed back on reports by NBC News about a prolonged American presence, saying a proposed bilateral security agreement doesn’t specifically call for U.S. troops to be deployed or say how long they would stay.
But Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai put both a number and a duration on that presence, telling a grand council of tribal elders and political leaders that the United States and NATO will leave 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Afghanistan for at least another decade if Kabul and Washington agree.
Karzai said 10,000 of those troops would be American, operating from at least nine bases across Afghanistan. Their primary mission would be training and equipping Afghan forces, a commitment that currently costs billions of dollars a year that the Afghan government cannot afford.
Karzai said Thursday that after 10 years, the thousands of foreign troops would “gradually” draw down, suggesting American troops -- armed and in uniform -- could remain on bases in Afghanistan for more than a decade.
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A White House official Thursday told NBC News the question of U.S. troop levels staying on after the former end of combat operations in 2014 remains undecided.
“The BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) does not address the number of U.S. forces that may be present in Afghanistan after 2014, nor does it commit to any specified number of forces,” the official said. “The President is still reviewing options from his national security team and has not made a decision about the size, scope and duration of a possible U.S. presence after 2014.
"We are continuing discussions with the Afghan government about how we can carry out two narrow missions beyond 2014: training, advising and equipping Afghan forces, and continued counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.”
Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed that stance Thursday, telling NBC News, "Let me just push back very clearly, we are not talking about years and years. That is not what is contemplated.
"It is way shorter than any kind of years and years. It is to help the Afghan military train, equip, we will advise, it's a period of time. But, it, I have no contemplation that I've heard from the President or otherwise, that it is about some years and years."
The contradictions also extend to U.S. bases. A U.S. official emphatically told NBC News earlier this week that there will be no American bases in Afghanistan. Thursday, Karzai said the American bases would be located at Bagram, and in Kabul, Mazar, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Shindon, Gardez and Helmand Province.
Karzai made his comments Thursday while addressing the Loya Jirga, more than 2,000 Afghan leaders gathered amid tight security in Kabul. Karzai was trying to convince the gathering to approve the US-Afghan security agreement, arguing that the extended U.S. troop presence would be good for Afghanistan as is necessary for the country’s future stability.
To make his case, Karzai referenced a new letter from President Barack Obama guaranteeing that American troops in Afghanistan would not enter Afghan homes or carry out counter-terrorism operations, except on rare and extreme occasions.
“For example if a U.S. national is kidnapped, or if their life is in danger, then, the U.S. is asking, what does it do in that situation?” Karzai said.
A woman in the crowd heckled Karzai, standing and shouting that the Americans would use this as a pretext to continue military raids.
Karzai said U.S. forces would be restrained under the agreement.
“We want them to stop the killing of innocent peoples of Afghanistan,” he said. “I've always told the U.S. that terrorism is not in the villages and homes of the people of Afghanistan.”
Some Afghan officials had demanded Obama issue a written apology for alleged U.S. abuses of civilians in Afghanistan. Obama’s letter was not an apology, but it was empathetic in tone, stressing the need for cooperation and a respect of Afghan sovereignty.
“Over time, and especially in the recent past, we have redoubled our efforts to ensure that Afghan homes are respected by our forces and that our operations are conducted consistent with your law. We will continue to make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our own citizens.”
In his speech, Karzai both praised the United States for its contributions to Afghanistan and expressed frustration, saying he considered asking U.S. forces to leave.
“In the past 12 years, we have had, both good and bad times with the U.S., sometimes our relations are good and sometimes the relations are terrible,” he said. “At some points, I thought about telling the U.S. to just leave Afghanistan and we will deal with our own situation. But I was always very patient and thinking about our country.”
Karzai also said he was disappointed at some of the equipment the U.S. has provided Afghan security forces.
“I'm always asking for good equipment and armed force from the U.S. For example, I asked for jet aircrafts but they sent me military transport aircraft. I ask for tanks but they send us pickup trucks, which we can easily purchase from Japan ourselves,” he said.
The joint security agreement still needs to be formally approved by the Afghan government and Washington.
NBC News' Andrea Mitchell, Kristen Welker and Chuck Todd contributed to this report.