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Clinton Upbeat NATO Will Support U.S. Afghan Plan

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan this week.
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she’s confident NATO allies will support U.S. calls for more troops in Afghanistan, but acknowledged that some may not yet be ready politically to go public.

"The response has been positive," Clinton told reporters on her plane to Brussels, where she was expected to explain to NATO foreign ministers President Barack Obama's plan to ramp up the U.S.-led campaign against Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency.

Obama will send another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, boosting the total U.S. troop commitment to nearly 100,000, to try to stem a resurgent Taliban and prepare Afghan security forces to begin assuming security responsibility in mid-2011, allowing the start of a U.S. withdrawal.

Washington hopes NATO and other allies, which already have about 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, will contribute up to 7,000 more, giving Obama political cover as his fellow Democrats enter a mid-term election year in 2010 with U.S. voters shaken by economic problems and divided over the costly Afghan war plan.

Clinton and other officials spent Wednesday and Thursday defending the plan to U.S. lawmakers. Clinton's NATO trip marked the public start of a campaign to woo overseas leaders.

Clinton said she had engaged in "intensive outreach" with allied foreign ministers and expected a number of public announcements in the coming days of new troops and aid for Afghanistan.

"There's an understanding about the importance of the mission that the president has described, there is a desire to be able to explain it to the publics of various countries," Clinton said of her discussions with U.S. allies.

She acknowledged that in some cases the "political stars" may not yet be aligned to allow for public statements of additional support, but overall she was upbeat about bringing U.S. allies on board. "We feel good about it," she said.

European leaders have welcomed Obama's Afghanistan strategy, but many have been in less of a hurry to commit new forces to an 8-year military campaign marked by rising casualties.

NATO officials said on Thursday so far more than 20 countries planned to send more troops to Afghanistan but cautioned that the expected deployments could still fall short of U.S. expectations.

Italy said it would send up to 1,000 more troops. Britain, which has the second largest contingent, plans to boost its troops by 500 to 10,000. Among others who have announced additional deployments are Georgia, Poland, Slovakia, Portugal and Albania.

The Netherlands and Canada plan to withdraw combat forces of 2,100 and 2,800 in 2010 and 2011 respectively, reflecting public unease with the war. Key allies France and Germany appear to be leaning more toward providing trainers for Afghan forces.

Clinton said the United States was seeking a range of help, including civilian assistance and military training, to prepare Afghanistan to take charge of its own destiny. "We've got to bring the Afghan security forces into the fight," she said.

Clinton said she could discuss with NATO allies questions surrounding the timeline for Afghanistan, with U.S. officials scrambling back from suggestions that mid-2011 was a firm date for the start of a troop withdrawal.

Republicans in particular have criticized the notion of "arbitrary" deadlines, saying they could encourage U.S. enemies to wait out the troop "surge" strategy.

Clinton repeated that Washington hoped to begin transferring responsibility to Afghan forces within about 18 months, but that this was not a cut-off point for U.S. support.