Gillard visits Afghanistan in first overseas trip
Julia Gillard has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, making the war torn-nation her first overseas trip as Prime Minister, Sydney Morning Herald wrote.
In a trip shrouded by secrecy for security reasons, Ms Gillard arrived at the Australian-US base at Tarin Kowt yesterday afternoon, at the very moment the AFL Grand Final began at home.
She spent two hours being extensively briefed in private before milling with the troops, assuring them there would be no dilution of the war effort, and thanking them for their "guts and determination and bravery".
"As an Australian, we are very proud of our people and we are very proud of our people for good reason," she said.
"I did want to make sure that my first trip as Prime Minister was to here.'
Ms Gillard, who is en route to a summit in Brussels, then left the base for the Afghan capital, Kabul, where she met the overall allied commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.
Afterwards, Ms Gillard had an audience with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. She spent about 12 hours in total in the country.
Ms Gillard is the third Australian prime minister to visit Afghanistan since the war began nine years ago and her trip came against the backdrop of growing unrest at home about the war.
The federal Opposition has proposed boosting both personnel and equipment - including tanks, helicopters and artillery - in response to complaints from troops on the ground that they are being stretched too thin as their area of operations expands.
Australia troop numbers in Afghanistan are currently 1550.
At home, the Independent MP, Andrew Wilkie, is demanding Australia pull its troops out and Parliament is set to debate the war before Christmas.
Australia has lost 21 men in the war. Of these five have been killed in the period since the election was called.
Around the briefing table, Ms Gillard noted she was with some of the people she had first met at funerals back home for the slain.
"(It) reinforces it has been a really tough time," she said.
"But progress is being made."
She told the troops at a barbeque lunch that the nation appreciated the tough period they had been going through.
"I may not have been Prime Minister for a very long time but I have certainly attended a lot of funerals."
In Tarin Kowt, there was no enthusiasm for Opposition calls to send tanks. The most common complaint was that more helicopters would be handy.
Since the Dutch left in August, US forces have moved in to Tarin Kowt to supplant the Dutch.
Soldiers said the Dutch were not missed and they were extremely happy with the medivac support provided by the US.
However, more Australian supplied helicopters for operational assistance was the most common desire.
The US commander at Tarin Kowt, Colonel Jim Creighton, said there was little prospect of the war ending soon.
"It will be a long fight," he said.