Page last updated at 17:03 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 18:03 UK

Brown's flying visit to British troops

By Jo Coburn
BBC political correspondent, travelling with the prime minister

Mr Brown meets troops at Camp Bastion
The troops seemed pleased to see the PM in person

8.30am local time and touch down in Camp Bastion.

Sweltering under the weight of our flak jackets and helmets, we stood up only to be dazzled by the sunlight as the back of the Hercules aircraft opened up.

We jumped out into what looked like a lunar landscape, miles of desert as far as the eye could se, my first impression of Afghanistan fitting in with all the well trodden cliches.

Hot and dusty, temperatures hitting 39 degrees, we were lucky, a week earlier it had been 10 degrees hotter.

Then the prime minister appeared (he had been sat up at the front of the aircraft with the crew), looking relaxed after his summer break and now here he was on the frontline meeting British troops.

Political fightback

Earlier, on the plane from London, Gordon Brown had talked about taking on the Tories and winning the next general election.

This was from a man facing dreadful polling figures and dissent within his own party. Either way it was viewed by the journalists travelling with him as the start of his political fightback. But today it was all about his message to the troops.

He spent a decent amount of time talking to British soldiers at the base and members of the Afghan National Army.

There was no applause at the end but speaking to some of the troops afterwards, they were obviously pleased and proud that their prime minister had come here in person.

Then he addressed the 300 or so troops waiting patiently to hear what he had to say. Among them members of the 2nd Battalion parachute regiment, the 3rd battalion parachute regiment, the 5th battalion Royal Regiment and the Royal Irish.

The prime minister gave an impassioned speech of thanks - saying that the nation owed these soldiers a huge debt of gratitude as they continue to battle against the Taleban.

Just two days previously 10 French troops had lost their lives at the hands of the Taleban's guerrilla style warfare as did a British soldier in Helmand.

High spirits

Mr Brown told them they were heroes of Olympic standing, every day of the week and every week of the year.

There was no applause at the end but speaking to some of the troops afterwards, they were obviously pleased and proud that their prime minister had come here in person.

I asked a few of them how worried they were about the change in tactics by the Taleban, who are resorting to suicide bombings, and head-on confrontations - they were amazingly sanguine about the whole thing saying they could change their tactics too.

In fact they seemed in reasonably high spirits. We broadcasters then did our interviews and headed back to the plane - from landing to takeoff the whole visit had lasted 90 minutes.

Next stop Kabul and the Presidential Palace.

Security was understandably incredibly tight. As we travelled across the city in armoured vehicles the city was far more militarised than I expected, but just as poor as I imagined.

There were a number of security checks to go through before finally we emerged outside the palace for the press conference.

The two men appeared before a packed room of journalists, mainly Afghan and there were warm words of friendship for the prime minister from President Hamid Karzai.

Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai
President Karzai had his own words of advice on cabinet plots

But if Gordon Brown had thought he would be asked about the future cooperation between the two countries then he was sorely disappointed.

All of us wanted to press him on the future of his leadership. Did he accept his strategy up until now had been wrong? What were his relations like with his foreign secretary, David Miliband, amid tales of political plotting?

All of this was dismissed by the prime minister although he could not have predicted President Karzai's mischievous intervention when he said that internal plotting was nothing new or unique to Britain.

Gordon Brown looked distinctly uncomfortable.

I felt guilty about my huge sense of relief as we boarded the plane again to leave Kabul (although repeated travelling on the Hercules was making some of us feel decidedly queasy) but was also pleased to have made it to a country so few people in the West will ever get to see.


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