Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
“The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The True Story of the Afghans Who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban” by Larisa Brown is available from Bloomsbury.
A 20% discount is available when purchasing online from Bloomsbury using the code: WAVELL20
There are volumes of books written about fighting in Afghanistan. Many focus on the ‘loss of innocence’ of soldiers on tour or the political decision-making around it. Most note the respect with which the Afghan people who stepped up to work with the US led coalition are held. Larisa Brown’s The Gardener of Lashkar Gah is one of the first books to tell their story from a new angle – that of a family who risked their lives to work with the British and the consequences they faced.
The Gardener of Lashkar Gah tells the horrifying story of Shaista Gul and his family (focusing on his son Jamal) and their work with British forces. British military readers will likely know Shaista from his time as the gardener in a British base, which contained the garden, giving the book its name. The text focuses on their work in the garden and on the battlefield; Their troubles with the UK Civil Service; and their eventual relocation to Scotland.
Upfront, the book is both an inspiring story of heroism and hope. But it is also a damning critique of the British state and the seeming indifference to human suffering. As the story develops Shaista and Jamal face violence and repression from the Taliban. Near the end, Shaista is involved in Op Pitting, the final withdrawal from Kabul, but it isn’t successful and he escapes through a third country. Brown’s text leaves a reader with the impression of a dysfunctional system relying on patronage over planning and organisation. The horrifying human consequences of military defeat.
Did we believe it?
Several themes come through The Gardener of Lashkar Gah. Did (the collective) ‘we’ realise the risk we were putting people in? From covering their faces and where we employed people to the life and death decisions about their relocation, the treatment of Afghan people working for the British comes across as a spreadsheet over a realistic assessment of risk. The book is littered with stories of night letters and threats as the Taliban hunt down those who worked with the coalition. Brown forces us to question why they weren’t believed. And that’s before some of the details about the Pen Farthing animal rescue are added.
The Gardener of Lashkar Gah is full with the family’s tale of perceived injustices. Sons and daughters denied entry to the UK; the time taken to process; the impossible demands for evidence; the contradictory emails and phone calls. At times, the UK rules seem arbitrary and in dire need of review. A political theme that many would now accept should have been reviewed long before it was.
Of course, reviews of policy happened. Politicians changed rules. They announced new schemes. Brown finds much to praise in Ministers and former officers from 2019 onwards. For example, Secretary of State Ben Wallace is highlighted for personally deciding on contentious cases. Though you may question if it was too little too late, and why it happened when it did and not before. A genuine attempt to make life better for the people who worked with us or something else?
Brown brings out the tension between the role of individuals and a system that seems more indifferent. That such a high level of ministerial involvement was needed to make what appeared to be very simple – life or death – decisions will anger most war veterans. I suspect many readers will be those with direct experience of trying to fix these problems themselves. But The Gardener of Lashkar Gah should find a wider readership as a first hand account of how people were treated.
It’s just a rant?
Perhaps the most significant criticism of The Gardener of Lashkar Gah is likely to be the style and tone. Some will read it and think the text reflects the Twitter (sorry, X) debate around re-housing Afghan people and safe routes into the country. Larisa Brown, a former Daily Mail journalist, didn’t strike us as the type to make unfounded claims about asylum and immigration systems.
The book has a lack of checkable sources. The Gardener of Lashkar Gah is based on Brown’s interviews with the family whose story she tells. But anecdotes will ring true with veterans of the conflict or those who have even the most casual interest. The Taliban are cruel. The Gardener of Lashkar Gah brings the human cost of failure in Afghanistan to life.
But is this enough to challenge her credibility? No. It’s not. Should we not believe the story she tells? We found it convincing and compelling. Brown’s history of reporting on this topic is extensive, detailed, and deep. You can read it as a call to arms to do more for the Afghan people who served with us or a story of hardship and heroism. Or both.
Was it worth it?
Perhaps the most harrowing part of the book is how the Afghan people she writes about view the war today. The Gardener of Lashkar Gah is full of hope for a better future. The Afghan people who worked with the coalition trusted the force to remain and fight for the country. They respected the sacrifice of the coalition. Even after the withdrawal from Helmand in 2014, this respect remained. By 2023, however, many of them question the commitment and if it was worth it. The final page concludes that, perhaps, it wasn’t. This will hit veterans and their families hard.
Should I read this?
Yes. It’s excellent. The Gardener of Lashkar Gah is compelling story of heroism and hardship. It is a story of a failed mission and its human cost. You may finish the book angry at the UK state for failing to work harder or faster. These conclusions are probably not accurate to the human effort put into fixing complex problems. Because of this it will split opinions, likely on political grounds, but readers can decide right and wrong for themselves.
The Gardener of Lashkar Gah leaves a reader with a different – and far more difficult – view of the war. Away from the medals and stories of combat this is about people. The people Larisa Brown believes we routinely forget. It is a story about a family, their work and their escape. It’s highly recommended.
The Wavell Room Team
The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects. The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.