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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 16:09 GMT
Up close with UK's Afghan mission
By Alastair Leithead
BBC Kabul Correspondent

Tony Blair and troops
Blair told troops they were fighting for the international community

"So what do you do?" Tony Blair asked one of the snipers, lined up to represent the garrison for a 90-minute trip to Camp Bastion.

He looked down at his long-barrelled rifle, shrugged as if to say "what do you think?" and was quiet.

Next in line for questioning, a Marine from 42 Commando standing in front of a very big rocket: "Tell me, what have you been using it against?" the prime minister asked.

"Er, a lot of houses at the moment," came a nervous reply, and with it a reminder that a mission to rebuild and redevelop is still very much based around fighting the Taleban.

The stage had been set for his first trip in nearly five years - 800 servicemen and women, three sniffer dogs and an awful lot of hardware had been arranged at the end of the runway, so Mr Blair didn't even need to visit the lines of tents that are home to around 2,000 of the British forces.

Not everyone was in attendance - the bearded wild-looking men of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force had not been selected for this one, and little controversial was said, apart from the odd Marine or two daring to ask for a pay rise.

Photographs

Attack helicopters, Chinooks, armoured vehicles, cranes and a fire engine encircled the group photo in-waiting.

The Hercules transporter plane which flew straight here from the first round of the trip in Pakistan, touched down and it was just a brisk 100m stroll to the handshakes.

The word in the galley food queues is that we could do with more men, and the kit does keep wearing out, but that's due to the conditions here
Corporal Martin Page

The trip was about doing what he hasn't done for what many troops feel has been too long - visiting the thousands of servicemen and women fighting a war in southern Afghanistan.

The words were about morale boosting and thanks - "you are not just doing this for Afghanistan or for Britain, but for the whole international community," the prime minister said in part of his address.

"What happens here is the future of the world's security in the 21st century," he added, reaffirming the UK's commitment to Afghanistan - something he repeated in a meeting with President Hamid Karzai a couple of hours later.

Conditions

Corporal Martin Page of the Commando Logistics Regiment, Royal Marines, said he felt the speech was sincere and welcomed the visit, short as it was.

"The word in the galley food queues is that we could do with more men, and the kit does keep wearing out, but that's due to the conditions here," he added.

Blair and troops
Some of the servicemen and women asked for pay rises

The fine sand that haunted the heat of the desert in summer was turned to a thick mud this week by a spate of thunder storms.

But the winter weather hasn't stopped the fighting just yet - there are still daily clashes between Marine Commandos and Taleban militia across Helmand province.

The calls for more pay were laughed off, but the tax payment announced a couple of months ago was mentioned and lauded as a popular move.

"We would just like more support from home," one Marine said, and when pushed as to what exactly he just repeated, "...just more support."

Acknowledgement

There's still the feeling among some of the British troops that the intensity of the fighting over the summer has not really been properly represented.

But Tony Blair acknowledged the difficult job the joint forces are facing.

"That's all we politicians are good for... photographs," the prime minister repeated a couple of times.

And there were plenty of those to be had from the dozen or so journalists, photographers and cameramen who had arrived with him.

Five years after the fall of the Taleban, Afghanistan may be a different place to the one Mr Blair visited in January 2002, but the battles go on, and the solution may seem as far away now as ever.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Prime Minister Tony Blair in Afghanistan



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