Book Review

Review: The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban

by CMS Team on 29 August, 2023

We have been given an advance copy of the book ‘The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban’ by Larisa Brown – Defence Editor at The Times and a British Journalism Awards Campaign of the Year winner for her work highlighting the plight of Afghan interpreters.

Read the pre-publication book review penned by CMS Director Victoria Mackarness:

The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban

A slightly different addition to the Daily News Report for CMS Strategic subscribers this morning but something which we believe will be of interest and of value to you nonetheless.

On Thursday of this week (31 August), the book ‘The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban’ by Larisa Brown, will be released and we have been given an advance copy to review.

With so many of you having served in Afghanistan, the role that local interpreters played in supporting the Allied forces will come as no surprise. However, the book gives a valuable and harrowing insight not just into the role they played, but the risks they took and the British bureaucracy that so often let them down.

Following the Gul family, and those around them, the book gives a stark view of the role that whole families played in supporting Operation Herrick and others, across Afghanistan. Much of the Gul family were employed by the British, from the patriarch Shaista, who looked after the gardens at the Main Operating Base (MOB) in Lashkar Gah, his brother working in the kitchens, and shortly, afterwards, his son, Jamal, becoming an interpreter.

Jamal joined at just 17 having lied about his age, and without any formal training was sent to join British troops on the front line at Musa Qala, in northern Helmand, arriving on Christmas Day. Within weeks he was shot at on patrol, specifically targeted for being an interpreter. Later while on patrol he was shot twice by Taliban forces but after his recovery returned to working for the British forces.

Despite near constant threats and intimidation Jamal and his father continued to work for the British until their withdrawal in 2014. After this the threats, intimidation and violence continued to escalate, with Jamal relocating under the initial ARAP scheme in 2015.

His father and wider family, including his fiancée did not yet qualify and Jamal spent years liaising with his family by phone. From thousands of miles away, Jamal had had to hear about the abduction of his young nephew (who has never been found) from his school in retaliation for Jamal’s work, his younger brother being shot 14 times and left disabled, and the murder of his older brother. Another younger brother, Esmatullah, a young teenager at the time was abducted off the street by the son of his Imam and tortured in a local police station by Talibs demanding to know where Jamal was.

And still, the British Government did not offer them refuge. With Shaista not having served in a ‘front line’ role, there was no recourse for them to get to the UK and pleas of the danger they were in by staying falling on deaf ears.

It was only with the fall of Kabul in 2021, following a huge campaign from Jamal, former British Officers, journalists like Larisa, and the full support of Defence Secretary Ben Wallace that Shaista and other members of Jamal’s family were able to join him in the UK.

Unable to access the airstrip in Kabul among the crowds fleeing Taliban rule, they went into hiding until they could navigate an illegal crossing into Pakistan, and make contact with the British High Commission there, finally arriving in the UK in October 2021.

There are many lessons to be learned from this book, not least in remembering the huge numbers of lives changed by the war in Afghanistan but also the impact that individuals can have. From Shaista’s garden in MOB providing much needed respite for those on the front line, to the individuals (some named, some not) who went against all the rules and regulations to help those in desperate need when Kabul fell back in the Summer of 2021.

The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban by Larisa Brown is published by Bloomsbury Continuum on 31st August priced £25. Pre-order available now.