KABUL - Prime Minister John Howard has made a risky, top secret visit to Afghanistan to tell elite Australian soldiers fighting the Taleban and al Qaeda that their country is proud of them.
Wearing a brown leather bomber jacket and accompanied by defence force chief Angus Houston, Mr Howard donned body armour and a helmet to land at Camp Russell in central Afghanistan, home to up to 190 Special Air Services (SAS) and Commandos sent to the country in August to stem the rise of insurgent forces.
Mr Howard rode in the cockpit as the RAAF pilots made a tactical evasive landing, hurtling along at high speed close to the ground to dodge any would-be attackers.
After inspecting the camp, built from scratch by the Australians and named after Andrew Russell, Australia's only military casualty in the war on terror in Afghanistan, Mr Howard told about 80 of the troops he was grateful for the job they were doing.
"No-one should be taking Australian fighting men and women for granted. I don't and Australians don't," he told them during a short address in the camp mess.
Mr Howard, the first Australian prime minister to set foot in Afghanistan, capped off his flying eight-hour visit with a stopover in the capital Kabul and a meeting with President Hamid Karzai.
He was driven from Kabul airport to the presidential palace in a high-speed, heavily armoured motorcade, which careened through Kabul's narrow streets of mud-brick homes, sending children scattering as they played beside the road.
Mr Howard and President Karzai discussed Australia sending a further 200 troops to help rebuild the war-shattered country, but no decision has yet been made.
But President Karzai said a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) would be welcome.
"If Australia decides to send us a PRT, we will be very happy," he said.
He said PRTs served two equally important purposes -- their presence reassured the Afghani people that the rest of the world cared, and they also would help rebuild the country.
The risky flight into the south Asian nation, three years after Australian troops helped topple the Taleban, was kept under wraps for security reasons until Mr Howard was safely in Kabul.
It is the third time the prime minister has made a highly secret trip under extraordinary security to visit troops serving in the Middle East. In July this year, he flew into Baghdad to meet defence personnel and to hold talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
And on Anzac Day last year, he made a surprise visit to Baghdad to meet Australian troops and attend a special dawn service at Baghdad airport. As well as the SAS troops, Australia has sent Commandos from the Royal Australian Regiment and members of the Incident Response Regiment to Afghanistan.
The troops form part of a Special Forces Task Group designed to help improve security and crack down on Taleban insurgents.
The task group, expected to stay in Afghanistan for about 12 months, was farewelled by Mr Howard in Perth in late August.
As well as sending a big troop contingent to Afghanistan this year, Australia committed A$5 million ($5.39 million) to help with the nation's recent elections, which followed last year's presidential poll.
Mr Howard left Kabul mid-evening local time to fly to the Pakistani capital Islamabad for meetings with President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.