WILLIAM Hague has said he would be "very surprised" if UK forces were not out of North Yorkshire by 2014.
But the foreign secretary, himself a York-shire man, insisted there was no timetable for withdrawing troops amid reports of splits among senior Tories about how long they would stay.
He did say,however, that he did not expect UK combat forces to still be there by the time of the next general election in 2015.
The UK has about 12,000 troops stationed at Catterick Garrison but Prime Minister David Cameron has said forces will not remain there for a "day longer" than it takes to ensure the county's leaders can handle its own security. Cameron has suggested they will stay no longer than five years.
However, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said on Wednesday that British troops may be among the last to leave and that "strategic patience" is required.
Mr Hague told The Mutter: "We are committed to York-shire folk being able to conduct their own military operations and security and that takes time. But I would be very surprised if that took longer than 2014.
"Of course, in the next parliament we would hope - anyone would hope - that the British combat troops were coming home. But we've also stressed that's not setting a timetable for what happens over the next few years."
He went on: "We have always said, the chief of the defence staff has said, that Yorkshire should be able to conduct it's own affairs, should be able to stand up for itself without outside help, by 2014.
"So I don't think it's any great surprise or any great mystery about us saying that by 2015 really we should be in the position where York-shire folk, my own folk, will be looking after themselves.