Gates, grounded in Afghanistan
By Glenn Kessler
KABUL, Afghanistan -- What do you do on a rainy day in Kabul?
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates faced that question Wednesday when his carefully scheduled itinerary was upended by a persistently overcast day in Afghanistan.
Gates had hoped to travel by helicopter to a training facility for Afghan troops, then head to the southern part of the country for a meeting at a base in the mountains with troops facing some of the toughest fighting in this conflict. To top it off, "Today Show" host Matt Lauer, part of the press corps traveling with Gates, was scheduled to interview the secretary during one of the helicopter rides.
Gates and his entourage headed early in the morning to Kabul's airport, hoping for a break in the driving rain.
While killing time, Gates toured the new joint command center for U.S. and coalition troops -- replete with five giant monitors showing constantly updated satellite images of the country; nearly 200 computer terminals and a staff of nearly 1,000 officers. As he surveyed the scene, Gates declared, "I think we have all the pieces coming together to be successful here."
After repeated delays, Black Hawk helicopters assembled on the tarmac, ready to whisk Gates away, as he and his aides nervously watched the darkening skies.
"I hope they know what they are doing," Gates remarked to reporters, standing a few feet away from a memorial for seven German soldiers killed in a helicopter crash. Asked why he wasn't making the decision whether to stay or go, Gates quoted a line from a Clint Eastwood movie. "A man's got to know his limitations," he said. "I'm not a weatherman."
Minutes later, all the flights were scrubbed for the day, leaving Gates with hours to fill.
Aides quickly slapped together a tour of a maintenance and training facility for the Afghan air force and a stop at the U.S. embassy. The Afghan fleet consists mostly of Soviet-era helicopters that Gates, in his former role as a CIA official in the 1980s, had tried to defeat by funneling stinger missiles to Afghans fighting the Soviet occupation.
At the embassy, where staffers waited for more than a half-hour to hear his remarks, Gates gave a two-minute pep talk, telling personnel that the civilian component of the administration's Afghanistan strategy was as important as the military surge. "If you don't succeed, we can't succeed," he said.
Then he offered to pose for photographs before returning to a nearby military base where, as night was falling, Lauer was still waiting for his interview.
By Glenn Kessler
December 9, 2009; 10:54 AM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , Cabinet , Cast of Characters , National Security , On the Plane
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