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New British ministers in Afghanistan on flying visit

KABUL (Reuters) - Ministers from Britain’s new coalition government were in Afghanistan on Saturday for talks with President Hamid Karzai and other officials on what is likely to be London’s biggest foreign policy issue for years to come.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague listens to a question during an interview at the EU-Latam summit in Madrid May 17, 2010. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

Foreign Secretary William Hague, Defense Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell will meet Karzai and some of his ministers, visit British troops and also see a British-funded development project, officials said.

The delegation arrived on Saturday morning amid heightened security in the capital, Kabul, and also included British football star David Beckham, who would meet troops at their camps.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government formed after Britain’s May 6 election says its top foreign policy priority is the strategy for Afghanistan, where Britain has 9,500 troops battling Taliban insurgents.

Conservative leader David Cameron said during the election campaign he would not set an artificial deadline for withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan but said they should start coming home in the next five years.

Fox told the Times newspaper in London, however, that the government hoped to speed up the process.

“I want to talk to people on the ground, our trainers, to see whether there is room to accelerate it without diminishing the quality,” Fox was quoted as saying.

There must be a distinction between military and humanitarian goals, he told the Times.

“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.”

The British contingent is part of a U.S.-dominated force that is expected to grow to around 140,000 at its height in a few weeks.

Washington is sending more troops to Afghanistan to seize insurgent-held areas before a planned withdrawal starting in July 2011.

“Our most urgent priority is to get to grips with the situation in Afghanistan. It will consume a lot of our time, energy and effort,” Hague said in the statement.

Fox said he wanted to see the military situation on the ground and meet senior military commanders and Afghan ministers, while Mitchell said he would be looking at ways to improve the quality and impact of British aid to Afghanistan.

Some 285 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001, when the NATO mission there was launched.

The ministers’ visit allows follows a change in NATO’s command structure in southern Afghanistan announced on Friday. Almost all British troops fighting in Afghanistan will now answer directly to a U.S. commander as part of the restructuring.

Writing by David Fox; Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Jeremy Laurence