Clinton Nears Decision on U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Hillary Clinton talks Afghan strategy, her role as secretary of state.

October 14, 2009, 10:07 AM

Oct. 14, 2009 — -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is close to formulating a U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, she said today in an exclusive interview with ABC News' "Nightline."

Although she refused to go public with what she believes is the best course of action for the United States in Afghanistan, a somber Clinton said she "will be prepared to offer the president my best advice when he asks for it."

In response to reports that she took a more hawkish position on the war than that of President Obama's other advisers, she said, "I'm not going to comment on where I'm leaning, where anybody else is leaning, I think I owe the president my best advice and I think I'll leave it at that."

Clinton also took pains to defend beleaguered Afghan President Hamid Karzai and took time to clarify his claim in an interview on "Good Morning America" Tuesday that al Qaeda has "no base in Afghanistan, the war against terrorism is not in Afghanistan villages, it is not in the Afghan countryside."

"There's no doubt," Clinton said, that the Taliban in Afghanistan "fund extremists." But, she added, what Karzai "was trying to get at, which is also our analysis, is there are people who are Taliban, who are fighting because they get paid to fight. They have no other way of making a living, you've got a very poor population in general, they get paid more to be in the Taliban than to be a police officer.

"Another is there are all kinds of internal conflicts in Afghanistan between certain tribal groups or ethnic groups who find it opportunistic to ally with the Taliban. They're very conservative, but they're not a direct threat to us."

Part of the problem, Clinton said, was "to sort out who is the real enemy. Our goal is to disrupt, dismantle, defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies. But not every Taliban is al Qaeda."

But she acknowledged that the irregularities in the Afghan elections had made the timing of any decision on sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan more challenging.

Her words diverged sharply from Karzai's take on the controversial elections, which he described as "good and fair and worthy of praise."

Clinton: I Was 'Resistant to the Idea' of Being Secretary of State

Earlier this week, Clinton surprised many people when she ruled out running for president again. She reiterated today her refusal to run, saying, "I gave it all I had," adding that she was looking forward to taking some time off after her stint as secretary of state.

Recalling the aftermath of the election, Clinton, for the first time, shared the details of how she was offered and later accepted the position of U.S. secretary of state.

"It was about five to six days after the election, and my husband and I were out for a walk, actually, in a sort of reserve near where we live in New York. And he had his cell phone in his pocket, [and] it started ringing in the middle of this big nature reserve. And, instead of turning it off, he answered it and it was President-elect Obama wanting to talk to him about some people he was considering for positions, and he said I'd like to also talk to Hillary at some point."

At the time, she thought Obama was calling to ask her for her opinion of other people he wished to hire, saying, "we know a lot of people, so obviously [he's] calling to say, 'Should I put this person there? What do you think about that person?'

"When I did talk to the president, he said he wanted me to come to Chicago because he wanted to talk to me."

"Even then," Clinton said, "I honestly did not believe it was about me. … I did not."

Obama immediately offered her the job, Clinton recalled. "He said, 'I want you to be my secretary of state.' And, I said, 'Oh, no you don't,'" she said, laughing.

"I said there are so many other people who could do this and do it really well. I had this image in my head, I'd be back in the Senate, I'd spend time at my house, I'd visit my friends in the city and upstate and go back and work on health care. ... So I was very taken aback and somewhat resistant to the idea because it just seemed so unexpected. I couldn't grasp it," she said.

"But we kept talking, [and] I'm pretty old-fashioned ... so, at the end of the day, when your president asks you to serve, you say yes if you can."

Since taking on the role, Clinton said, Obama "has been very supportive, very forthcoming.

"I feel not only incredibly involved but relied upon."