Britain will not set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the foreign minister said Saturday, after arriving in Kabul with a warning that the British government wanted to pull out as soon as possible.
William Hague, along with Defence Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell met President Hamid Karzai on their first visit to the country since the new coalition government took power in London this month.
They had made clear to Karzai that Britain expected to see his government make progress to match the international strategy for ending Afghanistan's long insurgency, he said.
"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 told reporters.
|British Foreign Secretary William Hague addresses a press conference at The British Embassy in Kabul. Senior British cabinet ministers arrived in Afghanistan Saturday with a warning that Britain wants to withdraw its troops as soon as possible|
"There isn't going to be an arbitrary or artificial timetable. We have to give the strategy that has been set out the time and support to succeed (and) that does need and require Britain's continued military involvement."
Britain has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second biggest commitment behind the US in a force of 130,000 fighting the Taliban insurgency under NATO command.
The number of foreign troops is set to rise to 150,000 by August as part of a US-led counter-insurgency strategy aimed at speeding the end of the war now well into its ninth year.
The ministerial visit coincided with 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.
It also came as The Times newspaper published an interview with Fox, in which he said the visit would focus on speeding up the withdrawal of British forces, 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.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Fox said the answer to the question of whether Britain needs to be in Afghanistan was "an unequivocal yes".
"We are here primarily for reasons of our own national security. We don't want to see instability in Afghanistan, which could again become a failed state, which is a safe haven for terror groups which could launch attacks internationally," he said.
"We have the resolve to see through this situation to ensure we get to a security position where the Afghan security forces can manage their own internal and external security
"We don't wish to be here any longer than we have to, to achieve that situation," he said.
Karzai has pledged that Afghan security forces will be able to take responsibility for the country's security by 2014, with the help of his Western backers in bankrolling and training the police and army.
Hague said bilateral discussions had focussed on ensuring this commitment is met.
London also supported Karzai's plans for a "peace jirga," or conference, set for May 29 on ending the war and possibly holding peace talks with the Taliban.
Hague said the jirga, along with an international conference slated for late July and parliamentary election due in September were milestones for gauging Afghanistan's commitment to standing alone.
"Our objective is to reach a situation where Afghans are able to look after their own security and their own affairs without any danger being presented to the rest of the world from this country," he said.
"It is not possible to say when we will reach that objective but it is possible to hope that we will see some serious political progress through the peace jirga, the Kabul conference and the parliamentary elections during the course of this year."
The importance of Afghanistan to Britain was underscored last Saturday when Karzai became the first foreign leader to meet Prime Minister David Cameron.
Britain's Conservative-Liberal Democrat government has said it wants to cut the defence budget by at least 25 percent but has pledged to support the forces in Afghanistan.
In the Times interview, Fox said British troops stationed in southern Helmand province would not relocate to neighbouring Kandahar, where the US is leading what they hope will be a final fight to eradicate the Taliban.
NATO announced Friday that about 8,000 British troops in Helmand are to come under US operational control, as part of a restructuring of NATO forces in the south, the Taliban heartland where fighting is fiercest.