Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Saturday, 6 March 2010

Brown faces long-haul political fight for Afghanistan

By James Landale
Deputy political editor, BBC News

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Gordon Brown: "I've planned this visit for some time"

Whatever you think of Gordon Brown, you have to admire the man's stamina.

After a long week, and an even longer Friday in front of the Iraq inquiry, the prime minister jumped straight onto a plane to Afghanistan.

Sometimes on these trips there is a brief stop-over in a nice hotel for a few hours sleep.

But no, not this time - he headed straight to Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand with one stop-over to change planes and very little sleep.

Then it was a flurry of Chinook flights to forward operating bases and police training centres before returning to Bastion to visit injured troops and hear briefings from military intelligence.

Hard work

So why was the prime minister here? He insists it was to take stock of Operation Moshtarak, the campaign that began last month to push the Taliban out of central Helmand and ensure enough security so that something approaching normal life can resume.

The senior military officers here have told the prime minister that the initial part of the campaign has been a success.

The Conservatives believe that the prime minister has deliberately timed his visit to Afghanistan for the day after his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry

But now the second phase begins - and this is where the hard work lies.

The reconstruction. The development. The training of Afghan police, army and politicians.

This, the military here make clear, is something that will not be achieved for many months, if not years. And it is on this that Operation Moshtarak will ultimately be judged.

But certainly, the military appear content. They feel happy with the strategy and their resources.

It was not always thus - and certainly not when I visited Afghanistan early last year with the prime minister.

But others are more sceptical. The Conservatives believe that the prime minister has deliberately timed his visit to Afghanistan for the day after his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry.

They say he is using the armed forces as props to divert attention from his evidence that is still being criticised by former Army chiefs.

Crowd out

This is something that the prime minister and his aides fiercely deny, insisting that the timing of his evidence and this trip were organised separately, and they reject any claim that either the prime minister was attempting to divert attention or achieve some kind of electoral gain.

The problem is that the prime minister has some form.

Would they really prefer that the prime minister of the United Kingdom did not travel out to a war zone to visit British troops?

In October 2007 he announced the reduction in the number of troops in Iraq during the middle of the Conservative party conference - something that was widely seen as an attempt to crowd out the Tories' policy announcements.

But this time, the prime ministers' aides insist that this is not what is taking place, and they ask the Conservatives a very straightforward question: would they really prefer that the prime minister of the United Kingdom did not travel out to a war zone to visit British troops who have recently been in action?

The danger for the Conservatives, of course, is that if the general election goes their way, then quite soon the boot could be on the other foot.



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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
TelegraphArmy faces Afghanistan gag for election - 40 mins ago
Observer Brown accused over Helmand visit - 20 hrs ago
ITN Brown accused of using troops as 'political prop' - 24 hrs ago
The Sun PM drops in on Afghan troops - 42 hrs ago
FOXNews.com British PM Visits Troops in Afghanistan After Iraq Inquiry - 44 hrs ago
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