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Afghan Terrain, Weather Present Challenges

(CBS)
CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy recently accompanied the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gatespresides over the most powerful military force the world has ever seen. But for an entire day this week this same military was unable to get him from Kabul airport to a U.S. base outside Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan - because of bad weather.

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From the flight line at Kabul airport with helicopters ready to go, we watched as clouds rolled down the surrounding mountains leaving a ceiling of only a few hundred feet. Rain mixed with sleet, and snow settled at higher altitudes on the slopes.

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After several hours, we returned by road to Camp Eggers, the main U.S. base in Kabul, unable to go anywhere by air. Gates was frustrated as he had wanted to visit a Stryker unit in the south that has been taking heavy casualties clearing roadside bombs to make the roads safe for other traffic.

The impenetrable weather this past Wednesday in Afghanistan that grounded the Defense Secretary was a strong reminder of how hard it will be to get 30,000 extra U.S. troops into Afghanistan in just six months.

This is no flat desert with a nationwide network of well-maintained highways like Iraq, but a mountainous country with very few blacktop roads. Much of the military transport has to be by air, but the frequent treacherous weather makes even helicopter travel difficult at times.

Gates had long discussions with US commanders in Kabul about the logistical challenges of the surge into Afghanistan, particularly because President Obama wants the speeded-up timetable to get the extra troops there by June 2010.

But much about Afghanistan is intractable - the terrain, the weather, the low level of literacy, the endemic corruption, the lack of political accountability, the porous border with Pakistan which allows Taliban fighters easy passage.

Gates said he knows the surge will be "a heavy lift", but thinks it will work with "some creative thinking", notably from the US Air force. As his latest trip to Afghanistan unrolled, he saw for himself how heavy the lift will be, and how creative the solutions that will be required.