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British Foreign Secy in landmark Afghanistan visit

Last Updated: Saturday, May 22, 2010 - 09:43

London: Britain`s Foreign Secretary William Hague and two senior colleagues arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday for their first visit since a new coalition government took power in London this month.

Hague plus Defence Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell are to meet President Hamid Karzai as well as ministers and officials, the Foreign Office said.

Hague said that getting to grips with the situation in Afghanistan was "our most urgent priority" in comments released from London as the party touched down.

"It will consume a lot of our time, energy and effort and it is therefore vital that ministers have a strong understanding of the issues," Hague said.

"We need to give the strategy time and support to succeed, and we are here in Afghanistan to explore this at the earliest opportunity".

Meanwhile, Fox told the Times newspaper that he wanted British forces to come home from Afghanistan "as soon as possible".

"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 said.

"We are not a global policeman... we are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened".

Britain has around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. There have been a total of 286 British casualties since international forces entered Afghanistan in 2001.

Karzai met David Cameron, Britain`s new prime minister, last Saturday. This was Cameron`s first meeting with a foreign leader as premier, underlining the importance his new administration is placing on Afghanistan.

Britain`s new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, which only took power last week, has pledged to support the country`s armed forces in Afghanistan.

It has also pledged to "safeguard the UK`s national security", which officials say is closely linked to the situation in Afghanistan.

But with Britain facing a public spending squeeze, Cameron`s government wants to cut costs in the Ministry of Defence by at least 25 percent, although has pledged to do more to support the armed forces.

The visiting ministers are also expected to meet British service personnel, while Mitchell said he would be "looking at ways to improve the quality and impact of our aid" to Afghanistan.

"There are few countries where the combination of our moral commitment to development and safeguarding our national interest is so enmeshed," he said.

"Building the capacity of the state to guarantee security and stability, deliver development and reduce poverty is central to defeating violent extremism and protecting British streets."

Fox also said he wanted to look at whether it would be possible to "accelerate" the training of Afghan forces "without diminishing the quality".

In addition to their visit, England footballer David Beckham was expected in Helmand in southern Afghanistan, the British military said.

Bureau Report

First Published: Saturday, May 22, 2010 - 09:43

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