Brown boosts credentials in flying visit to front line

Anthony Browne, Chief Political Correspondent Gordon Brown enhanced his image as a prime-minister-in-waiting by making an unannounced one-day visit to British troops in Afghanistan and telling them that they were fighting on one of the “front lines against international terrorism”.

The Chancellor made his first trip to the country accompanied by Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, and praised the troops for their “great courage and bravery”.

He visited Camp Bastion, in Helmand provice, to meet military commanders and local political leaders. He announced added investments in Merlin and Chinook helicopters, and in local regeneration programmes to help the country to recover after Taleban rule.

The visit is the latest in a series of international trips to boost Mr Brown’s status as a statesman. In December he made his first visit to Iraq and in January made his first visit to India.

Previously, his overseas trips had been largely limited to attending international finance meetings.

Mr Brown and Mr Browne had lunch with personnel in the canteen of Britain’s largest base in Afghanistan in the southern desert plains.

Mr Brown told them: “It’s good to see you. It’s much appreciated, what you are doing. We are here because this is one of the front lines against the Taleban and international terrorism.”

The words are a close echo of those made by Tony Blair when he visited the base in December. Mr Brown said that there was no doubt about Britain’s “long-term commitment” to help Afghanistan to become a democratic nation.

His officials confirmed plans to purchase six new Merlin helicopters from the Danish Government for £175 million and to refit eight Chinook helicopters at a total cost of about £230 million. He also announced £15 million in aid to Afghanistan to be spent on so-called quick-impact projects.

“Achieving security must be our first priority but, as we have learnt elsewhere, economic development will also be essential to long-term peace,” he said. “The UK will continue to support development and reconstruction projects and work with the Afghan Government to build a sustainable future.”

There are 6,300 British troops in Afghanistan but, last month, the Government announced that it would boost the numbers to 7,700 by summer to quell the growing insurgency from Taleban fighters.

During the Chancellor’s visit, the remote base was swept by a violent sand and rain storm. Mr Brown took refuge in a helicopter hangar, where he took the opportunity to clamber aboard an Apache attack helicopter.

Mr Browne said that the extra support helicopters will be welcomed by commanders on the ground who rely heavily on them for moving troops and equipment around. He said: “Battlefield support helicopters are one of the most crucial capabilities for military commanders. I am determined that we have enough if we need to send more to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere.”

–– Sir Michael Lyons, Gordon Brown’s adviser on the future council tax, has emerged as the surprise front-runner to become the first chairman of the BBC Trust. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is understood to be close to making an announcement, which may result in a former Labour council chief with almost no broadcast experience becoming the BBC’s regulator. An announcement is expected next month, and could be made before Easter.

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