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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 July 2007, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
UK foreign secretary's baptism of fire
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

A silent, dignified crowd had already assembled when we arrived in the palace gardens for the lying in state of the former king of Afghanistan. Shaded from the fierce sun by huge plane trees, rows of dining room chairs had been placed in curved rows on a carpet of red Afghan rugs.

Funeral cortege for Zahir Khan, former king of Afghanistan
The former king's funeral provided a moment of unity
Dozens of tribal leaders and other VIPs sat impassively, a sea of turbans, bushy beards and seasoned craggy faces that watched impassively as this clumsy foreign female correspondent sweatily adjusted her slipping veil.

A friendly Kabul journalist pointed out the former warlords who had come from all over the country to pay their respects. "In the civil war, these were the men who tore the country apart," he whispered. But this extraordinary day was a moment of unity, to mark the passing of an era - the first and last royal funeral in Kabul since 1933.

The honour guard arrived and with almost farcical solemnity shouldered the coffin into position, trying but failing to goosestep in unison.

Under another tree a brass band in scarlet woollen uniform sat sweltering, waiting for their cue.

More guests arrived, this time foreign dignitaries. Palace servants hurriedly added more chairs.

And then there emerged the fresh face of the UK's new Foreign Secretary, 42-year-old David Miliband.

Looking nervous and absurdly young next to the white and grey beards around him, he filed past the coffin, turning to the foreign office mandarins who flanked him for a hint of what to do next, seeking out President Hamid Karzai to pay his respects.

'No quick fix'

Every first trip for a new foreign secretary is a baptism of sorts - a moment of dangerous exposure when it is easy to get the protocol and the political nuances wrong. But few new ministers can expect to plunge headfirst into a royal funeral in a country as complex and fragile, and as vital to Britain's security interests, as this one.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Mr Miliband (L) 'not in Afghanistan to announce a brainwave'
The band struck up an uncertain tune and the funeral cortege moved out on the empty streets. The city centre had been cleared for fear someone might take a pot shot at the procession.

Marksmen scanned the tops of buildings for snipers. The gunner on the armoured car ahead of the gun carriage bearing the coffin swivelled constantly, on the look out for trouble.

Through the muddy streets and past the evil-smelling sluggish river the crowd of dignitaries moved forward, David Miliband in the midst of them.

When three days of mourning for the king was announced, Mr Miliband's carefully planned schedule of official meetings had been torn up. But he appeared excited at the prospect of participating in this far more vivid, unscripted event. It was a chance to experience the real Afghanistan - and to signal loud and clear by his presence that Afghanistan mattered to Britain, and he was making it a top priority.

"I'm not here to announce a brainwave," he told those of us travelling with him. "You don't become an expert after three weeks as foreign secretary. I'm here to listen and learn."

And, to drive home the point that, never mind Iraq, battling the Taleban in Afghanistan was a task the UK could not duck.

"People need to know why we're here and that there's no quick fix," he said. "A resurgent Taleban providing cover for al-Qaeda is a threat for British security. That's why we're here."

Hearts and minds

The next day provided an opportunity to survey Britain's commitment close up - a visit to meet troops and civilian reconstruction teams at the headquarters in Helmand province. Not that Mr Miliband was able to go out and see any projects.

Even getting to the base by road was out of the question. His small delegation was flown in by air and never left the British compound. Apart from the view as we flew in, prefab housing, perimeter walls and sandbags was all he saw of Helmand province.

People judge you by your actions, but also by your motivation, and we've got to take the Taleban on and explain why we're doing what we do
David Miliband
UK Foreign Secretary
The briefing he got from military commanders left him upbeat.

He emerged to tell us that new terrorist tactics being used by the Taleban were not a sign of strength but of weakness. They had been forced to mutate and change how they operated because they were being repelled. And what was needed was an integrated approach - not just security operations, but economic development and building up local government that involved Afghans too.

All admirable in theory. And Mr Miliband seems remarkably comfortable with theoretical ideas, eager to debate abstractions, inclined to quote political theorists in a bookish brainy way.

It is turning the theory into practice that is the problem.

Others we spoke to in Helmand painted a more sombre picture. Taleban attacks, they said, were a daily and mounting hazard.

"The casualty rate among my men is 11%, most of them seriously wounded," one officer told us. One had been killed when a mine hit a patrol vehicle only a few minutes from the base.

And when operations to repel the Taleban caused destruction or civilian casualties, winning the trust of locals was inevitably difficult.

Then there was the problem of making sure areas did not slip back into Taleban control.

"For that we need to rely on the Afghan army and the police," said one diplomat involved in reconstruction.

And though the army was impressive, the police, he said, were another matter. Corruption and drug money and intimidation from the Taleban meant far too often the police were part of the problem, not the solution.

But Mr Miliband is also preoccupied by another battle.

"People judge you by your actions, but also by your motivation, and we've got to take the Taleban on and explain why we're doing what we do. Its about hearts and minds, not military solutions," he told us.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 28 July, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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