KABUL (Reuters) - Britain’s new coalition government will not set a deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan’s nine-year-war or lessen its commitment to aid, a team of ministers said after talks with Afghan leaders on Saturday.
Foreign Secretary William Hague, Defense Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell met with President Hamid Karzai after arriving in Kabul for talks on what is expected to be London’s top foreign policy issue.
Washington is sending more troops to Afghanistan to seize insurgent-held areas before a planned withdrawal starting in July 2011. Hague said that Britain will not set a deadline for drawing down its military contribution to the NATO-led effort.
“There isn’t going to be an arbitrary or artificial timetable, it isn’t going to be like that,” Hague told reporters.
“We are urgently taking stock of the situation but in the sense not of deciding whether to support that strategy but of how to support that strategy in the coming months and years,” he added.
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.
Some 285 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001, when the NATO mission there was launched and Britain has struggled to turn the tide on an insurgency in the restive southern Helmand province, where most of its troops are deployed.
Mitchell said it was “vitally important” to strengthen the Afghan government.
During Britain’s election campaign Conservative leader David Cameron said 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.
“13TH CENTURY COUNTRY”
Fox told the Times of London newspaper on Friday, however, that the government hoped to speed up the process of withdrawal and said that Britain was “not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country.”
On Saturday he emphasized it was not possible to put a deadline on troop deployments and that a “long period of development” was necessary for Afghanistan.
“I think it’s impossible again to put an end date on it but when you are looking at one of the poorest countries in the world, the help it will require in terms of reconstruction and development will be a very long period,” Fox said.
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. The ministers’ visit comes a week before Kabul hosts a peace jirga aimed at starting talks with the Taliban.
Hague said Britain strongly supported the jirga and emphasized it should be Afghan-led.
“We hope it will pave the way for much more progress in Afghanistan so we strongly endorse President Karzai’s holding of that jirga,” he said.
The visit follows a change in NATO’s command structure in southern Afghanistan announced on Friday. Almost all British troops fighting in Afghanistan will answer directly to a U.S. commander as part of the restructuring.
British soccer player David Beckham also was in Afghanistan on Saturday visiting British troops in Helmand province.
Writing by David Fox and Golnar Motevalli; Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Michael Roddy
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