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X-factor strikes surreal note in Taliban heartland

December 13, 2009

Gordon BrownAdrian Croft reports on a trip to southern Afghanistan with the British prime minister.

 In a dusty lounge at Kandahar airbase, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were in the middle of a sombre news conference on how to turn around the situation in Afghanistan, where British forces face mounting casualties in their fight against Taliban insurgents. Brown and Karzai offered heartfelt sympathies to the families of the 100 British soldiers killed this year but then a TV reporter chipped in with the burning issue of the day. “Who did the prime minister think would win the X-Factor final,” the hit talent show on British TV.

Unperturbed, Brown interrupted the flow of talk about the need for Afghan forces to take greater responsibility for security. Showing perfect familiarity with the show, despite having being airborne or in Afghanistan for the last 24 hours, he said he was sorry that Stacey had been knocked out and wished Olly and Joe well in the final.

It introduced a jarring and surreal note into Brown’s stay. In a change from the usual practice followed by Brown and predecessor Tony Blair of flying in and out of Afghanistan the same day because of security concerns, Brown stayed the night at the sprawling Kandahar airbase in southern Afghanistan. This was despite the fact that the base comes under attack once or twice a week from rockets fired from 5-20 kilometres away. Journalists travelling with Brown were told the drill in case of a rocket attack on the base which houses troops from 20 other nations as well as Britain. If you hear a warbling siren and a loud voice over the tannoy warning of an imminent rocket attack, dive to the floor with your hands over your eyes, journalists were advised. Fortunately the situation did not arise.

Brown said he had stayed overnight because he had wanted to see what it was like working with the troops. He assured journalists he had slept “very well indeed”. Brown stayed in “basic, but comfortable” dormitory-style accommodation using a communal toilet and shower, an aide said. But he did better than the average soldier because he slept in a double bed in his own room. There wasn’t much luxury in the block where the journalists slept, a sign in the toilets said: “Ship showers were in force.” This consists of running the water for 30 seconds, applying soap and then rinsing for 30 seconds. Outside there was plenty of water following heavy rain in the cold Afghan winter.
Soldiers seemed cheerful enough as they tucked into a hearty breakfast at the canteen. The main concern there seemed to be fighting the flab rather than fighting the Taliban as posters displayed how many calories each food item contained.  A few Christmas decorations and small Christmas trees showed the time of the year but otherwise there is little to break up the monotony of the dusty desert camp and concrete anti-blast walls. The camp is a hive of activity and a lot of new buildings are being put up presumably to house some of the 30,000 new troops being sent by U.S. President Barack Obama.

There were also stark reminders of the conflict outside. The in memoriam section of the briefing room notice board bears a eulogy for one of the latest soldiers killed : Lance Corporal Adam Paul Drane of the First Battalion Royal Anglian regiment. He was killed in action on December 7.  It was a far cry from the X-Factor.

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