It was nearly 1 p.m. Thursday before Secretary Clinton got to her 757 airplane at Andrews AFB, looking remarkably unbattered after a day-and-a-half of being grilled by Senate and House members doubtful about the wisdom of the surge-and-withdraw course President Obama has set for Afghanistan. But her aides had made clear she was going to make quick work of her usual, often extended chit-chat with her traveling press cadre.
A recent Vogue Magazine profile described Clinton as a “champion sleeper,” and — as the only person on this airplane with a private office-turned-bedroom – on this 6-hour leg she planned to put that talent to use.
She needs to, because she knows she’ll have her hands full when she leaves her Brussels hotel – after a scant 4 hours sleep – for an intense day of meetings with her counterparts in NATO and the other countries who are part of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission in Afghanistan. President Obama said in his speech Tuesday night he was confident the NATO allies would contribute additional troops “to end this war successfully,” and it’s Secretary Clinton’s job to get them to start delivering.
In a brief visit to the correspondents’ aft section of the plane, Clinton conceded there had been some “misunderstanding” over what President Obama meant by setting a July 2011 date to begin handing off the security burden to Afghan forces. The deadline has been read as a pull-out date in some parts of the world – particularly in suspicious Pakistan – and some quarters of the Democratic and Republican caucuses on the Hill. But she insisted the president had been crystal clear in his speech. “Starting in 2011, we will be prepared for a responsible transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan security forces based on the conditions as we evaluate them at that time,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to get to 2011 and jump off a cliff.” She hoped she and Defense Secretary Gates had cleared up the matter in their extended Hill testimony, but added, “I’ll be more than happy to discuss (this) with any of our partners in Brussels.” Special representative for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, deputy secretary Jim Steinberg and U.S. NATO ambassador Ivo Daadler have been in Brussels for a couple of days, painstakingly doing just that with many of NATO and ISAF partners. And NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been going from capital to capital, quietly collecting commitments. So Clinton won’t be going into NATO headquarters tomorrow completely cold. Aboard the plane, Clinton confirmed what Secretary Gates predicted — that she expects to get some previously unannounced commitments for extra NATO forces tomorrow, to supplement the roughly 34,000 non-US foreign troops in Afghanistan. Publicly, NATO and Obama officials have talked about other ISAF members ponying up another 5,000-10,000 troops, to complement the 30,000 additional U.S. forces President Obama is sending. Privately White House aides say they expect the number to be on the low end of that. But while describing the response from ISAF allies as “positive,” Clinton also hinted at the hurdles each of them faces to respond to the president’s request. “There is a desire to be able to explain to the publics of various countries, and to make sure that in coalition governments the political stars are in alignment to be able to announce additional commitments.” That’s an understatement. French president Nicholas Sarkozy, while praising the Obama speech, said France wasn’t planning to beef up its current force of 3,750. And it’s no wonder. Last year, even before things had gone from bad to worse in Afghanistan, a poll found more than two-thirds of French opposed sending any more troops. But privately, Clinton aides insist, “Sarkozy is saying, ‘just give me a little time.'” A few countries have come through so far. Britain announced an additional 500 troops above its current 9,000 – but that was before the President’s speech. Italy today announced [an additional 1,000](http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/1203/p06s07-woeu.html). Germany, with the third largest force in Afghanistan, won parliamentary approval today to extend its current mission through 2010. But German leaders have said publicly that they won’t ask Parliament to raise the current ceiling of 4,500 German troops until after an international Afghan conference in London in late January. They want to get a read on whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is serious about stepping up to better governance and a cracking down on corruption. Still, said one State Department official, “three weeks ago the White House was warning everyone not to mention any troop figures at all. The fact that Rasmussen is now saying 5-10,000 publicly must mean he’s pretty confident we’ll get that.” Administration officials say we should look at Friday’s Brussels meeting as just the opening act in their push to get NATO members to do more. But given President Obama’s accelerated time-line, the NATO drama doesn’t have much time to produce results. Watch Friday’s NewsHour for Margaret Warner’s first report from Europe.