Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Trees of Kabul

This is a guest post by a long-time friend, Philip Clark who is based in Kabul -  I will be in Uganda for a week - so no posting.

Kabul, 27 March – On 7 March I watched Gen. Petraeus – whom I had just met and to whom I’d immediately made a joke – and Ambassador Eikenberry plant trees in a Kabul park during a snow storm. The show was heavy and very welcomed but it apparently was the last of the Kabul season, and, almost at once, the weather changed.

Day by day, we could see the snow diminish from nearby Television Hill, a former Taliban holdout where the local stations now have their towers. The grass – that which hadn’t been crushed to straw underfoot – turned immediately green. The scattered rose bushes sprouted leaves. Within two weeks, I spotted two dandelions and a daffodil in full bloom. From our car, we could see a cluster of cherry trees, safely sheltered behind a wall, in riotous pink flower. During the tree planting, municipal workers had shivered in their tunics – green for park workers, orange for sanitation crews -- but now we were in shirtsleeves as we dashed between the AID and State compounds.

The farther, higher peaks still are resplendent in their white coatings, glowing in the sun, and that’s good. Late-melting snow will provide water for irrigation over a longer stretch of the growing season than rain, not all at once, when much would be wasted or, even worse, cause flooding. Now the concern is the sudden switch from winter to spring will foment early thunderstorms. Thunderstorms can bring hail, which could destroy just-sprouted crops, when they are most vulnerable. Like farmers everywhere, Afghans have plenty to worry about, even without deliberate Taliban bombings and accidental NATO strikes.
The tree planting was a joint effort of USAID and the International Security Assistance Force the military coalition here. USAID is doing the bigger part but both the general and the ambassador made speeches, as did the mayor of Kabul and several Afghan government ministers.

My joke came when Gen. Petraeus arrived at his seat in the front row. We were in the second. He introduced himself first to the deputy director of the Office of Democracy and Governance – my bailiwick – Maria Barron, then to the chief and deputy of our implementing partner behind the tree project. (Implementing partners are the firms that actually do our work. We publish “request for proposals” for projects, then let contracts to implement them.) All three had identified themselves with the project, and Maria specifically said she was from AID but when Petraeus came to me, and I did the same, besides greeting me, as he had the others, he thanked me for buying the trees. Maybe he realized the implementers were hired guns, but why not thank Maria? Unconscious sexism, perhaps? I didn’t know, of course, but when he spoke to me, I replied, “General, I did it only because Maria told me to.” Petraeus was unfazed.

From the hill-top park, we had a nearly magnificent view of Kabul and the surrounding mountains. The panorama was diminished by cloud cover and mist but was still impressive. Unlike so much of our work, the tree-planting project provided instant gratification. We could see thousands of saplings ready to plant. The result of our investment was obvious. What will become of Afghan democracy, of women’s education and civil rights, of the Taliban and war lords remains to be seen but right now we could see a park full of trees because of us.

The dignitaries had been expected to plant a tree or two each but they threw themselves into the task with gusto. Perhaps they, too, enjoyed seeing an unambiguous, concrete result. As traditional musicians wandered from sapling to sapling, serenading each one, the ambassador, the general, the mayor and Afghan ministers planted tree after tree, while photographers – amateur and professional paparazzi -- swarmed around them, stampeding from each tree to get shots of the big shots wielding shovels. We had an official embassy photographer and television crews. The assistant mayor for technology recorded the event on his iPad, and dozens of embassy and city employees snapped pictures with their cell phones. It was fun, and that’s probably something neither the ambassador nor the general gets to say here very often.

No comments: