LONDON (AP) – The defense minister in Britain’s new coalition government visited Afghanistan with other senior officials Saturday, after saying he hopes to speed the withdrawal of British troops from the country.
Defense Secretary Liam Fox, Foreign Secretary William Hague and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, who took office after this month’s national election, held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the American commander of international forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Fox told The Times newspaper that he “would like the forces to come back as soon as possible.”
Fox was quoted in Saturday’s edition as saying that he wanted to see if it was possible to speed the training of Afghan troops, allowing foreign troops to leave sooner than forecast. McChrystal has said Afghanistan should be able to take care of its own security by 2014.
In a signal that Britain may be limiting its ambitions, Fox was quoted as saying “we have to reset ambitions and timelines.”
“National security is the focus now,” he said. “We are not a global policeman. We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy of a broken 13th-century country. We are there to see the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.”
Years of mounting insurgency and rising casualties have seen British politicians, from both the previous Labour government and its Conservative-Liberal Democrat successor, downplay talk of building a prosperous, stable Afghanistan.
Hague said, however, that Britain remained committed to Afghanistan. “The question is how to support the efforts of the Afghan government and our NATO partners, not whether to support them,” he told reporters on the trip. “We are taking stock as a new government, we want to see how things are working, we want to hear the military advice, we want to talk to the Afghan government themselves, we want to discuss the detail with the United States,” he said, according to Britain’s Press Association news agency.
Fox later said at a news conference in Kabul that while national security was Britain’s chief aim, the mission in Afghanistan was not purely a military one.
“Clearly if we are to make the long-term gains that will provide the stability to maintain the momentum when our armed forces eventually hand over to the forces of the Afghans, we will require a long period of development in concert with the international authorities, the NGOs and our and other countries’ aid programs,” he said.
Britain has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, most based in the Taliban heartland of Helmand in the south. Almost 300 British personnel have died in the country since 2001.
British troops were being visited Saturday by soccer star David Beckham. The 35-year-old former England national captain took part in a question-and-answer session, and kicked a ball around with soldiers at the main British base in Helmand.
“To see the morale of the troops is really incredible,” Beckham told the British Forces Broadcasting Service. “It just really is scary work. These guys are the bravest people that I’ve ever met, and it really is, it truly is, an honor to be here.”