Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Saturday, 22 May 2010 17:17 UK

Ministers 'united' on Afghanistan


The BBC's Mark Dummett says Britain's plan for Afghanistan is likely to receive a mixed response

UK ministers have put on a united front after Defence Secretary Liam Fox suggested the focus in Afghanistan should move away from reconstruction.

He had said troops were there for UK security not for "the education policy in a broken 13th-century country".

But after talks with Afghan leaders in Kabul he and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell both stressed their commitment to redevelopment.

Foreign Secretary William Hague refused to set a date for UK troop withdrawal.

Before the talks, which took place on an unprecedented trip to Afghanistan by the three Cabinet ministers, Dr Fox argued in the Times newspaper that British troops were not in the country to fix Afghan society.

'Strong words'

"We have to reset expectations and timelines," he said. "National security is the focus now. We are not a global policeman. 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 BBC's Mark Dummett in Kabul said these were "strong words" from Dr Fox that signalled the new administration was considering a different approach to the war from its Labour predecessors.

But in a separate interview, Mr Mitchell said creating a stable society in Afghanistan was "absolutely crucial".

Liam Fox does demonstrate that you can't get a cigarette paper between his views and mine on the importance of joining together better and more effectively defence, diplomacy and development
Andrew Mitchell

"We need to ensure that we help the Afghan people to build a functioning state," he said.

"That's about providing basic education and healthcare facilities but it's also about ensuring there are opportunities for promoting livelihoods so that people have jobs."

Dr Fox and Mr Mitchell later put on a united front when they appeared at a press conference at the British Embassy after the talks.

Dr Fox said Mr Karzai himself had used the phrase "a country that looked like a 13th or 14th century state" to refer to the Afghanistan left behind by the Taliban.

He added: "Of course, what I was pointing out, and I welcome the opportunity to amplify it, is that the primary reason for sending our armed forces to Afghanistan was one of national security.

"But 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 programmes."

'No end date'

Mr Mitchell added: "Liam Fox does demonstrate that you can't get a cigarette paper between his views and mine on the importance of joining together better and more effectively defence, diplomacy and development."

Mr Hague refused to set any time frame for Britain's military involvement in Afghanistan.

He told reporters: "Our commitment to success in Afghanistan is one of the things that will help to bring about success.

"And therefore setting end dates for any part of our activity doesn't help actually bring it to a successful conclusion."

Earlier, Col Richard Kemp, former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there seemed to be a "change of approach" from the government but that ministers needed to "get their act together on the message".

Fighting the insurgents that threatened the security of Britain and creating a functioning Afghan state and were both valid objectives, he said.

William Hague and Hamid Karzai
William Hague and Hamid Karzai took part in discussions

"The priority, as Liam Fox says, is to deal with the security situation in Afghanistan and to ensure the streets of the UK and the rest of the world are safer than they are at present.

"But in order for them to do that, we must rebuild and repair the society in Afghanistan - and that does include things like education policy, the economy, governance etc."

Mr Hague earlier said the three ministers were travelling together to ensure they had "a properly coherent British approach to Afghanistan".

The three Conservative ministers met senior Afghan politicians, including President Hamid Karzai, and General McChrystal.

The talks came after a Sea King helicopter carrying British troops was hit by enemy fire while landing in Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan.

An Army spokesman said the aircraft was arriving at a checkpoint in the Nad-e Ali on Friday when it was hit.

The Ministry of Defence has also announced that about 8,000 British troops based in Helmand province are to come under the operational command of the US.

The move is part of a restructuring of Nato forces, with command and control in southern Afghanistan split into two.

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