Larisa Brown in conversation with Sophie Ibbotson
Larisa Brown is defence editor at The Times. Larisa has reported from multiple conflict zones and is a British Journalism Awards Campaign of the Year winner for her work highlighting the plight of Afghan interpreters. Her new book The Gardener of Lashkar Gah tells the powerful true story of the Afghans left behind as the Taliban retook Afghanistan.
What first took you to Afghanistan, and what impressions did the country make on you?
I had just started covering Defence for the Daily Mail and I was told that British combat troops would be withdrawing from Helmand Province in the October of 2014. The Ministry of Defence was able to take a small number of journalists and I was one of them. I flew into Camp Bastion as it was about to be handed over to Afghan troops. I could see it was a beautiful country and yet security was so tight there was no way I was going to be allowed outside the confines of the military base.
What prompted you to write The Gardener of Lashkar Gah, and what lessons do you hope readers will take away?
I’ve read a lot of books about war written by soldiers, and I wanted to write a book from the perspective of the Afghan locals who worked alongside UK forces. I knew that many had suffered over the years because of their service and had continued to suffer after the West departed. I wanted their efforts and sacrifices to be known and never forgotten.
Please tell us a little about Shaista and Jamal Gul, two central figures in the book. How important were men like them to the work of British forces in Afghanistan?
Shaista is a lovely man who was employed as the gardener at the British military’s Main Operating Base (MOB) in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province. He created a tranquil oasis where soldiers with troubled minds could escape from the harsh reality of the battlefield. His son, Jamal, lied about his age to get a job as an interpreter with the British army. Over the years the family suffered greatly. Jamal was shot, Shaista threatened, and family members killed and kidnapped. They still suffer the consequences of their work with the British forces to this day.
Kabul collapsed much faster than most commentators expected. Why was there such a gulf between expectations and reality?
There was a belief that the Taliban had no plans to take Kabul before British and American troops fully withdrew. In fact, the intelligence team working inside the Ministry of Defence in London had assessed it was “likely or probable” — 50 to 75 per cent — that Kabul would not fall in 2021.
In addition, lawmakers didn’t expect the Afghan army to collapse as quickly as it did. The loss of Western air power had a dramatic impact on the ability of the soldiers to fend off Taliban attacks.
Two years on from the collapse of Kabul, what lessons have you learned about Afghanistan and the UK’s relationship?
I think what has happened over the last couple of years has shown how reliant the UK is on the US. Our policy has been whatever the US administration decides, which is unfortunate but that is the reality. America has the money and the people and the weapons. When it came to withdrawing as quickly as the UK did, I know ministers and officials were desperate to stay longer to evacuate more people, but they couldn’t without US support.
How likely do you think it is that the UK and its allies will recognise the Taliban in the short- to mid-term? Should the UK establish diplomatic relations?
They’ll probably have to at some point. It is a really difficult one – on the one hand there should be sustained pressure on the Taliban to give equal rights to women and allow girls back to school and yet there is a danger of Afghanistan becoming a melting pot for extremist groups if the country is economically isolated.
You are actively involved in campaigning for support for Afghan interpreters. Why has the UK Government been so slow in fulfilling its promises to interpreters? Is there anything RSAA members can do to help?
For years there was no political appetite to allow more Afghans into the UK. The issue surfaced at a time when the Conservatives were trying to clampdown on immigration. Some inside the MoD also refused to believe that the interpreters were being threatened by the Taliban and that their lives were in danger. Many Afghans now in the UK are struggling to find work – if you know of any opportunities then help in any way you can. And if you read and highlight The Gardener of Lashkar Gah you are, I hope, highlighting the struggle of the Afghans and the remarkable sacrifices they made.