British defence minister on Afghan visit calls for troop withdrawal
Senior British officials, including new Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in Afghanistan Saturday with a warning that Britain wants to withdraw its troops as soon as possible.
Hague, Defence Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell are set to meet President Hamid Karzai in their first visit to to the country since a new coalition government took power in London this month.
Hague described Afghanistan -- where around 10,000 British troops are helping fight a Taliban-led insurgency well into its ninth year -- as "our most urgent priority" in comments released from London as the party touched down.
In an interview with The Times newspaper before arriving in Kabul, Fox made clear the visit would focus on speeding up the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and that no new troops would be deployed.
"We need to accept we are at the limit of numbers now and I would like the forces to come back as soon as possible," he was quoted as saying.
"We have to reset expectations and timelines.
"National security is the focus now. We are not a global policeman. We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened," Fox said.
With Karzai having promised that Afghan forces will take on responsibility for the country's security by 2014, Fox said he would see if training could be accelerated to that end.
"I want to talk to people on the ground, our trainers, to see whether there is room to accelerate it without diminishing the quality," he said.
His frank comments came as Britain's defence ministry announced the death of a Royal Marine in southern Afghanistan on Friday, bringing to 286 the number of British soldiers killed in the country since 2001.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001, a total of 1,778 foreign troops have died in the Afghan war, 1,081 of them from the US.
Britain is the second biggest provider of troops and aid to Afghanistan, behind the United States.
Fox also said British troops, stationed in southern Helmand province, would not relocate to neighbouring Kandahar, where the US is leading international forces in what they hope will be a final fight to eradicate the Taliban.
NATO -- which with the US has 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, due to peak at 150,000 by August -- announced Friday that about 8,000 British troops in Helmand are to come under US operational control.
The move is part of a restructuring of NATO forces in the volatile south of the country, the Taliban heartland where fighting is fiercest.
Command of forces in the south is being divided into two, NATO said in a statement. Britain's Major General Nick Carter will oversee Kandahar, with US Major General Richard Mills taking over command of neighbouring Helmand.
US and NATO troops are building up operations against the Taliban in Kandahar, with military planners saying they hope to have pushed the insurgents out of the city, and the province of which it is capital, by the time the fasting month of Ramadan starts in August.
Hague said before his arrival in Kabul that the new counter-insurgency strategy of General Stanley McChrystal, head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, needs "time and support to succeed".
"We are here in Afghanistan to explore this at the earliest opportunity," he said, adding that as a foreign policy priority, Afghanistan "will consume a lot of our time, energy and effort and it is therefore vital that ministers have a strong understanding of the issues".
The importance of Afghanistan to the new British administration was underscored last Saturday when Karzai became the first foreign leader to meet Prime Minister David Cameron.
Britain's new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has said it wants to cut the defence budget by at least 25 percent but has pledged to support the country's armed forces in Afghanistan.
The trio of visiting ministers are expected to meet British troops -- along with English footballing star David Beckham, who arrived at Camp Bastion in Helmand late Friday on a "morale-boosting" visit, a military official said.
Beckham was expected to spend the weekend in Helmand, splitting his time between Bastion and the British base in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, which also serves as an outpost for British aid projects in the region.
© 2010 AFP